For "Generation Selfie", beauty is not skin-deep but as deep as a multitude of digital surfaces. When consumers are comfortable adopting multiple digital personas, the notion that "beauty is only skin deep" is being challenged by Molton Brown. The luxury brand, which makes 35% of its sales during the Christmas period, is offering this generation a unique blend of sensory-driven escapism.
As Molton Brown’s global vice-president of marketing, Beatrice Descorps is at the forefront of the reimagining of aspirational beauty in the digital age. The beauty market in recent years has focused on people’s need to be, as she calls it, "selfie-ready". But there is now a shift, with beauty no longer existing within the confines of the screen. She says: "In a few years’ time, beauty will not be about how you look – it will be much more about well-being; it will be more sensorial. Beauty will not be about how perfect the canvas is – it will be more about how you feel.
"Millennials are so smart and savvy, they know what is real and what is fake."
In response to this, brands must take a renewed focus on sensory experiences and authenticity. "It means we have to start from the fragrances, the emotion and the real creativity," Descorps explains.
She is well-placed to stay ahead in the beauty market. As a former category and innovation director at The Body Shop and with stints as international marketing director at Coty and L’Oréal brands, Descorps has a unique view of the global trends impacting the industry. Molton Brown, which was acquired by Japan’s Kao for £170m in 2005, has significantly increased its focus on digital channels, which now account for 23.5% of its sales. In fact, Descorps says the brand now sees itself as a content publisher as much as a product developer.
The sensory challenge
However, this focus on content is not at the expense of the creative process; the brand aims to connect everything to the senses as opposed to an algorithm. Descorps says: "It all starts with your sensorial experience – not your rational brain but your senses transporting you to new places."
It is a strategy that is paying dividends in an era when consumers feel overloaded with images and information. Victoria Buchanan, trends analyst at The Future Laboratory, says we are living in an age of dulled senses. She says: "Constantly bombarded with images on screens and the hub of never-ending information that is the internet, people are beginning to forget how to feel. In our quest to reconnect with our senses and our bodies – to be our optimal selves – we are also seeking blissful altered states, with consumers yearning for heightened sensory environments."
This search for sensory stimulation is providing a boon for the global fragrance industry. In 2016, it is estimated to be worth a heady $40.1bn, according to Statista, and is expected to grow 7-8% annually until 2020, when it will reach $43bn.
Sensory stimulation is clearly top of the agenda at Molton Brown’s heavily scented Regent Street store, which has all the hallmarks of a retailer in the key pre-Christmas sales period. The signs are everywhere: from the wash-basin centrepiece where consumers can try products to the background music, from visual merchandising to luxurious packaging. The shop’s window display is designed to transport visitors to Laponia – where Molton Brown’s new festive Fabled Juniper Berries & Lapp Pine range and the store’s scent originate from.
Translating this sense of occasion and theatre, and the myriad of rituals that have built the brand in-store, into online spaces is a significant focus for Molton Brown. "Three years ago when I first joined the brand, we had a very transactional site. Now we are focused on not only having a very seamless customer experience but ensuring that the human experience is right," Descorps says.
In practical terms, this has included introducing 24/7 online customer service (manned by real people as opposed to a chatbot) and revolutionising the online delivery process. The changes have even extended to teaching the online delivery team how to tie the Molton Brown knot on its signature brown bags. It’s an investment that reflects an attention to detail: packaging that signifies luxury and indulgence is often neglected in the online delivery.
Meanwhile, the challenge of selling scents in the online space is tackled by listing ingredients and provenance of the products and showing immersive pictures of the different elements.
Looking ahead, Buchanan believes brands that succeed will be those that combine the best aspects of physical retail – scent, touch and experience – with the best of digital technology to create experiences that feel more personal and intuitive. Pointing to the rise of aroma cartridges in printers, she predicts: "In the future, ecommerce sites will connect with devices in the home to allow us to preview scents." And scents will also become more individual. "From a fragrance perspective, the 1980s was about unisex. Today is all about gender-neutral fragrances. Gender-neutral starts with what is right for you as an individual," Descorps says.
At a time when heritage and authenticity are top of the marketing agenda, Descorps is playing to the brand’s strengths. Molton Brown, which first opened its doors on London’s South Molton Street in 1973 as a hair salon, has decided to place the royal warrant on its packaging for the first time.
Much of Molton Brown’s marketing is created in-house. "We are completely evolving how we do films online – what interests our consumers is what is happening behind the scenes, the provenance and the journey," Descorps points out. This involves not only focusing on the origins of its products but the stories behind them. Rather than rely on data, Molton Brown has a very clear personality type in mind when scents are being developed. "We brief the perfumer with adjectives around her personality: is she passionate or powerful?" Descorps explains.
Having started her career at Guerlain, Descorps is steeped in the history of the fragrance industry. In a surprise move, the Guerlain family sold the company to LVMH in 1994. She still remembers the tremors across the organisation when famed perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain stormed out of a meeting, reportedly because the marketing team was planning to test the fragrance with consumers. According to Descorps, the market has now gone full circle, with master perfumers empowered by brands to create without limitations. For her, though, it was a love of advertising that has kept her enthralled by the industry. "I remember, as a teenager, when the Jean Paul Gautier perfume was launched," Descorp recalls. "I reacted to it and I was intrigued by that. I wanted to create, to impress something on an audience."
Molton Brown is in the midst of a marketing technology evolution that seeks to develop one unified customer experience across online and offline, which will be completed next year. It will be supported by new customer segmentations. Yet, for Descorps, technology in isolation is not enough: "It starts with the creator. If we move away from creative freedom, we lose."
The fragrance factor
Scent inspires more vivid memories than any other sense, affecting how we perceive experiences in-store – an appropriately pleasant smell can encourage shoppers to stay longer and spend up to 20% more. A favourable scent can even improve a customer’s perception of product quality, in turn increasing their likeliness to purchase and their willingness to pay more.
Abercrombie & Fitch has been using scent marketing for more than a decade, spraying its signature scent Fierce around stores.
Using a specific fragrance is particularly effective for solidifying brand identity. Smells do not carry meaning before being associated with an experience but, after that, the connection remains.
With logo fatigue setting in, scent is a luxury signifier that only those in the know can recognise. "New car" smell is sprayed in car dealerships around the world but the odour of a new Rolls-Royce is special. Since 2000, the brand has been scenting its car interiors to smell like a model from 1965. Similarly, Cadillac uses a custom fragrance – Nuance – to distinguish itself. These scents are indelibly marked in the minds of customers, instantly recognisable when encountered again.