Can you sell scents without the sex?

By Kim Bhasin

Labels are betting a younger set of customers doesn't crave sexualized, gender-defined fragrances. Photo / Getty Images
Labels are betting a younger set of customers doesn't crave sexualized, gender-defined fragrances. Photo / Getty Images

Floating on a little raft in an idyllic cove off Capri, a muscular man in a skimpy swimsuit stands over a woman sunbathing in a white bikini. The camera zooms in and pans across his crotch. He jumps into the water. She eagerly follows. They climb back on the raft, water dripping from their sinewy bodies in slow motion. She wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him. He pulls the string on the bikini top.

Sex sells fragrances. Dolce & Gabbana ran that commercial in 2010 (and a similar ad three years later) for Light Blue, one of its cologne labels. But it could have been an ad for nearly any high-end fragrance over the past two decades. The message is simple: Spray this, get lucky.

Now some labels are bucking the trend, betting that a younger set of customers doesn't crave hyper-sexualized, gender-defined fragrances.

Phlur, a new fragrance startup in Austin, United States, sells unisex scents that shun lustful industry norms. Each fragrance is portrayed more like a luxe candle than a magical spray that will turn you into a sex magnet.

That isn't what the modern consumer wants, said Eric Korman, Phlur's founder and chief executive.

"The same gender stereotypes and generalizations that have applied over the past 25 years don't apply today," said Korman, 45. "They don't resonate."

He points to the great divide between manly colognes and feminine perfumes. There was a time when men didn't mind wearing florals.

Over the years, however, brands have hammered home the partition between musky male scents and flowery female ones. Korman, a former head of e-commerce for Ralph Lauren, wants to let shoppers decide for themselves.

Phlur sells its fragrances online, using images to explain the scents.

Each offering tries to evoke a feeling rather than a generic pledge to make you sexy. One scent attempts to inspire a moment of escape, to reconnect with the outdoors and recharge your batteries. Another is meant to instill an inner confidence and sense of purpose throughout your workday.

There are other upstarts taking a nonsexy approach to fragrances.

Pinrose, a San Francisco perfume seller, fancies itself "for clever devils" and uses a quiz to determine women's scent styles. New York's Le Labo pledges soulful craftsmanship in each bottle. Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab out of Los Angeles has adopted a Gothic tone with its esoteric potions.

These companies remain niche players in the perfume business, and few of the big luxury houses have changed their ways to adopt a different marketing approach.

For every man who wears Brut, there's a woman who loves what he smells like.

One notable exception is Prada, which recently revealed a line of unisex perfumes backed by artsy, surreal collages instead of provocative videos.

Little has changed in the past 75 years. In fact, the imagery has just gotten carnal.

Cologne and perfume ads from the 1940s and 1950s often promised romantic success. Television ads for Brut only amped up the sexuality. "For every man who wears Brut, there's a woman who loves what he smells like," proclaimed a 1985 ad for the cologne, a woman biting her lip as she answers the phone waiting for a man to come to her. Steamy Calvin Klein ads from the early 1990s looked like minimalist versions of that Dolce & Gabbana getaway off Capri.

Axe, the ubiquitous body spray made by Unliever that wafts through high school hallways, long targeted insecure teenage boys with the promise that it would help them get the girls. Douse yourself in it and see the results. It backed up this message with ads that showed regular guys chased by mobs of girls.

Some administrators sick of smelling the mist in their schools banned it. Axe toned things down in 2014, cutting sex-crazed women in favor of the everyman. The promise of manliness remains, but it's less blatant.

Korman knows sex got the industry to where it is today. But with a younger generation demanding sophistication and deeper relationships with brand-name products, he believes purely sexualized marketing doesn't hit like it used to.

"It's an easy message to tell," Korman said. "Just not a very clever one."

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