Are Consumers Finally Fed Up With Celebrity Scents?

Bieber and Swift sales stink in latest Elizabeth Arden report

The fourth-quarter sales announced by Elizabeth Arden earlier this month weren’t just alarming to analysts. They point to something that some people in the fragrance business have long suspected: Celebrity name-slapping on perfumes and colognes has its limits.

Put another way, the performance of Justin Bieber’s and Taylor Swift’s perfume brands pretty much stunk. “While the company had expected weaker sales comparisons due to the lower level of fragrance launch activity in fiscal 2014 versus fiscal 2013,” the company disclosed, “the decline in sales of celebrity fragrances, particularly the Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift fragrances, was steeper than anticipated.”

Arden posted a big drop in quarterly sales of nearly 30 percent—partly due to the dismal performance of the duo of celebrity brands. Investors smelled blood and punished the cosmetics and perfume maker with a 24 percent sell-off—a gut punch, considering that Arden relies on fragrance sales for three quarters of its business.

Elizabeth Arden is an old hand in the movie-star fragrance segment, having sold sweet-smelling concoctions bearing the names of Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Elizabeth Taylor. Why, then, did the brand get into trouble with the likes of Bieber and Swift? Is it poor marketing, or a sign of a more troubling trend—like, say, celebrity saturation?

Some worry it might be the latter. After all, another celeb in the Arden stable is Britney Spears, whose various fragrances sold an estimated 500 million bottles in 2011, ringing up $30 million in sales. But while Spears’ fragrances have traditionally enjoyed success, in July she launched her 16th one. This month, One Direction unveiled a scent, as did Cheryl Cole and Nicki Minaj (again.) As Jezebel’s Kelly Faircloth penned recently: “People are finally tired of reeking like random celebrities.”

In some cases, the slackening of interest might be related to the news. For example, it can’t help that Justin Bieber—who invariably uses his sweet-little-boy face in publicity shots with his fragrances—has had several well-publicized scrapes with law enforcement. Media outlets have taken to using “pop brat” as shorthand for the 20-year-old star.

Then there’s the questionable connection between celebrity and product. When Tiger Woods began endorsing Buick in the late 1990s, more than a few wary consumers questioned just how likely it was that the uber-wealthy athlete actually tooled around town in a Buick. Similar suspicions might have prompted Paris Hilton’s disclosure last year that, yes, she does indeed spritz on the scents that bear her name. (“I wear them all,” the heiress said. “I’m wearing one now. Smell me.”)

In fact, Hilton—who reportedly sold $1.5 billion worth of her branded fragrances between 2004 and 2014—might constitute a valuable lesson in the crowded segment of celebrity smells. Sure, Hilton slaps her name on a lot of bottles, but she’s also (by her own account) heavily involved in the creation and promotion of her brands.

“I’m not just putting my name to any old product,” she told the Daily Mail last year. “I’m hands-on. I sleep with a notepad next to my bed and design everything from the bags and sunglasses right down to choosing the smell of my perfumes.”

So is ongoing celebrity support and involvement key to reviving the sluggish sales of star perfumes? Maybe. A website run by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania reported on the shopping whims of high school freshman Shannon Gribbins, who spends plenty of time and money thinking about celebrities. But when it comes to her enthusiasm for Taylor Swift’s perfume Wonderstruck, the article stated, the New Jersey teen “admits to not really thinking about the big businesses out there that rely upon celebrity products and endorsements.” Mainly, Gribbins said, she bought the juice because “it smells really, really good.”

So much for the marketing.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.