Dior’s Sauvage fragrance is enjoying a moment in the spotlight, but not only for the reasons a casual tabloid reader might think.
Its frontman Johnny Depp’s defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard — which was decided in Depp’s favour — has put both the movie star and Sauvage in the headlines. Dior has been lauded by the actor’s fans and lambasted by critics for standing by Depp in the face of serious allegations.
Dior declined to comment on its strategy of keeping Depp as the face of Sauvage. But the brand may be betting that in today’s rapid-fire news cycle, consumers will quickly move on.
Indeed, the fragrance’s fame goes deeper than recent events: Dior has spent the last seven years building on the initial success Sauvage enjoyed when it was launched in 2015, investing in TV spots and big out-of-home ad campaigns featuring Depp as well as expanding its roster of ambassadors, rolling out new formulations, and building out dedicated displays in prime points-of-sale around the world.
In the past year, the Fragrance Foundation Awards named Sauvage Elixir (a new, more potent formulation of the scent) as its men’s luxury fragrance of the year; Dior signed a promising new ambassador for Sauvage in the form of Paris Saint Germain football star Kylian Mbappé and announced Sauvage had become the best-selling fragrance in the world, genders combined — nudging out women’s blockbusters like Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle and Lancôme’s La Vie Est Belle. The brand said one bottle was sold every three seconds in 2021.
First-half sales in parent company LVMH’s perfume and cosmetics division grew 13 percent on an organic basis to €3.61 billion, the company said Tuesday.
Sauvage’s surge comes amid a supportive market for perfume: according to NPD, fragrance sales in the UK, Italy, Spain, France and Germany grew 19 percent to $8.3 billion year-over-year in March 2022, while fragrance sales in the US grew 43 percent to $6.5 billion over the same period. Still, the prestige segment — which connotes big-budget, celebrity-fronted fragrances from luxury brands — has seen increased competition from niche players that are less reliant on department stores and travel retail.
By striking the right balance between luxury and mass-appeal in both the product and its marketing, Sauvage has become a bright spot in the category.
“The old version, the Eau Sauvage, had lost its appeal with contemporary consumers,” said Thomai Serdari, professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “[Dior] positioned this new Sauvage in a way that it signified luxury … while the creative really aligned with what the idea of contemporary culture is today.”
Dior rooted Sauvage’s new storytelling in the American west, with a goateed, jeweller-laden Depp rather than a more clean-cut European front-man, distinguishing it from the market. Dior declined to make a spokesperson available for interview, but in an e-mailed comment attributed Sauvage’s success in part to a positioning that’s “away from the stereotypical representation of masculinity, but very true to most men’s aspirations.”
“If you look at the visuals, it feels … forward-thinking and futuristic,” Serdari said of the Sauvage creative imagery. “[Dior] did a good job of strategically linking the tradition that they had in-house with what the contemporary taste is today.”
Luxury for the Masses
Before 2015, Dior’s men’s perfumes centred around the Dior Homme line, which had at least eight “flankers” while the original Eau Sauvage collection — which was first released in 1966 — had three flankers (a sister scent that shares similar notes and is often used as a way to grow a perfume brand), which were designed to help the brand reach a younger audience.
In building the new Sauvage, Dior, led by perfumer François Demachy, cranked up the fragrance’s intensity, including top notes of bergamot for pepper and bitterness, ambroxan for “marine and animalistic notes to create an untamed sensuality” and “masculine notes” of vetiver, geranium, Sichuan pepper, elemi and patchouli.
Ambroxan, in particular, is known to give scents “longevity and trail” and is frequently used in luxury fragrances, said Virginia Bonofiglio, head of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing program. Many considered the new Sauvage to be Dior’s answer to longtime hit Bleu de Chanel.
When it launched, the French house marked the occasion of its first new men’s fragrance since 2008 with a splashy campaign featuring Depp, who Dior called “an icon of contemporary virility.” That campaign also lived in installations across department stores.
“They really marketed it beautifully in the store itself,” said Linda Levy, president of the Fragrance Foundation who at the time worked as group vice president for fragrances at Macy’s. “I remember all the people selling it wearing the blue sunglasses Johnny Depp was wearing in the commercial … It was the biggest launch in the history of fragrance at Macy’s that season.”
In the years since, Dior has continued to invest in pole positions for Sauvage at multi-brand stores and duty-free hubs, often building out dedicated jet-black displays for the scent.
The line is a priority for parent company LVMH, which said in its 2021 annual report presentation it intends to “focus on developing Parfums Christian Dior in harmony with couture.” Under designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Kim Jones, Christian Dior Couture is bigger than ever, and the group is seeking to enhance marketing synergies between the two units.
LVMH’s operating investments in perfumes and cosmetics grew to €290 million in 2021, up from €280 million in 2020 but down from €378 million in 2019, according to the company’s annual report. Those millions in investment — in product, marketing and retail presence — have made Dior’s fragrances “much more integrated [into the brand],” Serdari said.
Millions Into the Marketing Machine
Although fragrance brands are seeing greater competition from niche players, smaller brands cannot outspend the likes of Dior.
Since the beginning of the year, Dior has spent an estimated $3.4 million on traditional television ads in the U.S., third in spend overall in the fragrance category compared to Chanel ($9.5 million) and Giorgio Armani Fragrances ($4.5 million), according to iSpot.tv, a firm that measures and analyses the value of advertisements. It also continues to spend on major out-of-home advertising campaigns for Sauvage in cities like New York and Paris.
The French maison hired Depp in 2015 to act as the face of the new Sauvage fragrance, a role he’s continued in, standard practice in luxury fragrance. Charlize Theron, for example, has appeared in J’Adore Dior fragrance campaigns since 2004, while Keira Knightley has starred in Chanel’s campaigns for Coco Mademoiselle since the mid-aughts.
“[Consumers are] buying these fragrances … because of the traction and getting behind the celebrity themselves,” said Penny Coy, vice president at Ulta.
Going all-in on a celebrity is a risky strategy, said Serdari, because consumers can interchange the fragrance with the celebrity in question. Examples abound of risk-averse brands feeling the need to drop a celebrity ambassador following a scandal — Christian Dior with Sharon Stone, Chanel with Kate Moss.
But in the advertising-driven perfume sector, where brands win market share by pounding the same message consistently for years, Dior seems to be betting that its ultra-recognisable partnership with Depp can withstand the current controversy (a previous outcry over a Sauvage ad campaign featuring a Native American dancer quickly faded after Dior pulled the spot).
Dior has expanded its roster of Sauvage ambassadors beyond Depp. They now include Paris Saint Germain’s Mbappé, fragrance blogger “Jeremy Fragrance” and actor Thomas Doherty, the latter of which are already significant drivers of earned media value for Sauvage according to CreatorIQ/Tribe Dynamics. Dior’s Sauvage ambassadors outperformed Chanel’s Bleu de Chanel and YSL’s Y Eau de Toilette on social media in the first-half, although the line trailed Armani’s Acqua di Gio, the firm found.
Although the fragrance business is still heavily dependent on its aspirational advertising, the best-selling scents over time are also those whose formulas have the widest appeal. “Marketing will bring the customer to the fragrance the first time,” said Bonofiglio. “The second time, it’s what’s in the bottle … that brings you back.”
Dior has progressively brought much of its perfuming processes in-house, and carefully controls both the distribution of its scents as well as their creation and manufacturing. That’s in contrast with many brands whose perfumes are distributed by licensees like L’Oréal and Coty, and whose formulas are owned by big fragrance producers like Switzerland’s Givaudan.
In 2021 the Dior released a new, more potent formulation of Sauvage, an $165 “Elixir”, “responding to client’s expectations for stronger and more powerful signature,” the brand said. Stronger, more luxurious formulas are seen as key for prestige brands to win back younger customers who have increasingly defected to niche brands in recent years.
The added bonus for brands is that these stronger formulas tend to be more expensive, too. In the current fragrance market, clients have been willing to pay: sales of private-label scents from luxury brands grew 85 percent last year, compared to a 49 percent surge in the broader market according to consultancy NPD.
“The guest is willing to invest in and see a tad more luxury,” Ulta’s Coy said.
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