Q&A: Why Brands and Celebs Turn to Coty to Create Their Fragrances

Marketing chief Steve Mormoris on selling seduction

When a celebrity launches a fragrance, it is Coty to whom they turn. And when Coty sought to reinvigorate its fragrance division last year, it was to Steve Mormoris that it turned.

With net revenue of $4.6 billion and famous names like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga on board, Coty needs no help in the reputation department. But with Americans cutting back on little luxuries like perfume, Mormoris has plenty of work to do. A 13-year company veteran, Mormoris (who still looks very much like the rugby player he once was) knows how to start buzz. Last year, he showed up at the launch party of Katy Perry’s Killer Queen wearing a powdered wig. Hoping some of the magic marketing dust might rub off, we got Mormoris on the phone.

Department stores stock well over 1,000 fragrances these days, and so many of them smell alike. But is it really fragrance that you’re selling, or is it something else?

We sell seduction, sex, empowerment and we tap into people’s dreams. But fragrance brands also need a sense of culture. The biggest sellers are emblematic of their time. In the early ‘90s—an era known for Nirvana, grunge and androgyny—we launched ck One, Calvin Klein’s unisex scent. We packaged it in soda bottles and sold it in record stores. It became a record-breaking brand.

You launched the Playboy fragrance, too. That must have been about sex, right?

They were asking for a prestige fragrance that would sell at Bergdorf Goodman. We, on the other hand, saw Playboy as a cheesy, sleazy, has-been brand. Well, it turned out we were both wrong. The name resonated with cool, young, horny guys who want the good life. These guys thought the idea of bunnies living in a mansion was fun; the whole [Hugh] Hefner thing with lots of money and women was fun. We sold it as a $10-$12 mass brand, and within a week it was a top seller. 

What’s changed the most during your time in this business?

Customers are now buying prestige brands anywhere and everywhere. Years ago prestige shoppers would go to Macy’s and Nordstrom. Now they also shop for fragrances at places like Target and CVS. And more and more they buy them through online retailers.

Coty is such a massive company. How do you run your department without turning into a bureaucrat?

I operate as an orchestra leader, coordinating about 200 talented people. I create a culture where people can be free, off-the-wall and fearless. When we start on a new product, we act as poets, soul searching what the brand is. Then we all turn into carpenters, and we add more people to help make the product, design the packaging, the ads, do all the details. Toward the end we bring in the consumers.

What important thing do you do that other CMOs overlook?

Success hinges on apprising all parts of the company with what products are coming down the pipeline. A key task for me is to make sure legal, R&D, operations, procurement, all those people are excited about the latest effort. You’ve got to invite everyone to the party.