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Lessons from a Drawer of Fragrances

Whilst getting ready one morning and putting on my eau de toilette, I had an epiphany of how this routine can also explain some key principles of the Laws of Growth. For those who are unfamiliar with the Laws of Growth – they are a set of law-like patterns that govern how brands grow in the market. The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has conducted significant research into brand growth based on the two pillars of mental availability (how easy brands are thought of in buying occasions) and physical availability (how easy brands are found when consumers are ready to buy).

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a heavy category buyers of fragrances. I have over 40 bottles that I revolve around, depending on the season, mood, and occasion. My purchases started with the bigger, better known brands before I ventured toward niche fragrances. In the world of fragrances, niche fragrances are those produced in smaller quantities and only sold through specialty boutiques or online retailers. It’s similar to boutique wineries that you would visit or purchase from, if you’re in the know. So, let’s draw a parallel between my opening the draw to pick a fragrance, to a purchase decision when a buyer comes to the category section in store.

Before I start, I thought I’d cover the concepts of heavy buyers first. You should distinguish between heavy brand buyers and heavy category buyers. Heavy brand buyers are shoppers who purchase a particular brand at a more frequent rotation. On the other hand, heavy category buyers are those who purchase the category more often. Heavy category buyers are not necessarily heavy buyer of particular brands, as they are likely to know and have a bigger range of brands (‘repertoire’) that they buy from.

There are five points that I’ll cover in this post.

If I ain’t got you, I’ll pick from the ones around. I know about many fragrance houses and brands, through articles and online reviews of those who are far more knowledgeable than me. As I’m getting ready in the morning, I can think of how I want to smell like and the eau de toilette brand that comes to mind — however, if I don’t have it in my collection, tough luck, I’ll pick from the ones I have.
In parallel: Let’s consider each fragrance usage as a purchase occasion. The same with brands, you may craft your brand image through endorsements and influencers, but if you’re not there to be bought by those who can, your investments cannot reach their full potential. Even when you do wide-reaching advertising, if your buyers have to jump through the hoops to buy you, you are at a disadvantage to your competitors who are more readily available. It has less to do with brand image and exclusivity. The wider availability of brands such as Bottega Veneta, Chanel, or Hermès at duty free stores at major airports does not diminish the luxury image of the some fragrance brands, for example. Wider presence as part of physical availability is important for brand growth.

It’s not keeping those in the know, but reaching those in need. I do have several fragrances from the same brand, like Guerlain, Goldfield & Banks, or Commodity – so you may say that I’m also a heavy brand buyers of the three. If you don’t know about Commodity, it’s also because they are one of the niche fragrances. Although they are available in Sephora in the US, elsewhere you can only buy them online. After a purchase, you will likely to be contacted regularly for their specials and promotions. It’s a similar case with Goldfield & Banks – it’s another niche fragrance that you can only purchase online.
In parallel: Yes, there are those who ‘love’ your brand, but relying on these few would only give short-term uplifts. It’s much more effective to reach the millions of others who are unaware of your existence and can then buy you. At least, they should consider you when they purchase next. This is what building mental availability is all about. It’s regrettable when I see certain niche perfumeries who chase me with offers and discounts in my mailbox – and yet, not sold in department stores or chains like Sephora or Douglas, or at duty-free stores. It’s futile relying on heavy buyers to sustain the brand for the longer term. Many smaller brands also fall into the traps of introducing more options to entice existing buyers to keep on buying. This is dangerous, as the bigger the assortment, the more complex and demanding your operations will be … and if you don’t have the necessary capital to sustain these activities and you’re not reaching more buyers, you’re steadily burning your candle from both ends.

Every category usage has its ceiling. Apparently, eight sprays of fragrance roughly equate to 1mL. So, if for the sake of argument, I use four sprays daily in the morning, to use up a 100mL it would take 200 days for me to finish the bottle. That is, if I stick with that one fragrance. Continuously. Remember, that as a heavy category buyer, I have many more products in my repertoire/consideration. So, with my over 40 fragrances, technically I have enough juice to keep me smelling good until I kick the bucket.
In parallel: Related to the previous point, relying on current buyers to buy more of you is not sustainable. To make me buy more fragrances may mean that I would keep on spritzing myself multiple times a day and scaring my colleagues away. The same logic with chocolate, toothpaste, coffee, blender, or banking cross-selling. Existing buyers cannot be expected to drink 10 cups of coffee, brush their teeth every hour, or buy every vacuum cleaner upgrade. There’s a ceiling to each category purchase. Unless you only want weird buyers.

It’s not an equal opportunity world. It would only be fair if I rotate through all of my fragrances fairly – keeping tab of what I used yesterday and what I should pick today. However, the decisions are often fleeting – it’s sometimes driven by the weather forecast or seasonality. Like, for a hot day, I would pick something that is lighter and citrusy and in winter, I would use something that is more brooding or heavy. Often, they are just driven by having to get dressed quickly and picking the one at the front of the drawer. A quick, thoughtless, this-will-do decision. Certain fragrances have specific use in mind, like formal night-outs or special occasions.
In parallel: Bigger brands are probabilistically more likely to be picked by shoppers. They are likely to be distributed more across the market, and have more favourable placements in store. These factors are more convenient for consumers who don’t buy the category that often. They are also more likely to be associated with more Category Entry Points (CEPs): the thoughts that consumers have about the category, when they are in the space to purchase. The challenge for brands is also to be connected to and be remembered for more CEPs – this can be achieved through wide-reaching advertising as briefly discussed above. If your brand is linked to a narrow set of CEPs, then the chance for buyers to pick you would also be smaller.

Flaunt it if you can. The last point is related to the one above. When I open the drawer to pick the fragrance in the morning, those placed at the front of the drawer would have a bigger chance to be used than those at the back. Especially when I’m in a rush. At other times, I would pause and take a couple of seconds to decide – and in those circumstances, sometimes I see a particular bottle shape or something on the bottle top that would pique my interest which then compels me to pick that particular fragrance.
In parallel: It’s not just wide presence across the market, but favourable placements on shelf and in store are important. When brands are presented on a good stage, the next best thing is to present itself to shoppers with the Distinctive Brand Assets that potential buyers would recognise – from ads or previous purchases. It’s a mistake if brands continuously re-create itself with rebranding and brand refresh. When this is done without valid and strategic reasoning, all it does is diminishing and destroying the mental shortcuts that potential shoppers have with the brand.

There are many more analogies that I can think of, but I think I’ll stop here before they are too far-fetched. Obviously, behind each point I raise (and many more other), there are serious studies that have been done at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and beyond. These are not based on intuitions, mere theoretising, and gut-feel – but through careful analysis of large sets of data across categories, markets, and periods. Hopefully you are more convinced that the better path to grow your brands is to build your mental availability and physical availability – by getting reaching anybody who needs the category, rather than only keeping and appeasing the chosen ones. When I share these points, I still receive a pushback of those who say that distributing and advertising the brands widely would only damage a brand’s exclusive or premium image. I’m not saying that widening presence should be done thoughtlessly. However, companies should re-think every restriction or exclusion, if it prohibits growth. I would feel sorrier when I learn the demise of ‘exclusive brands’ due to declining demands.

PS: Like a nerd, I continue to update the fragrance notes of the juices I have. This is an update to the one I did in December 2022.

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