Highsnobiety: Welcome to the state of fragrance. Highsnobiety’s new audience study sniffs out what discerning perfume shoppers really want — and what makes them turn their noses up. (Turns out, those celebrity endorsements aren’t working.)
Enigmatic and ephemeral, fragrance has consumers under a smelly spell. Once sprayed, perfume is indiscernible to the eye, yet it has the power to evoke memory, emotion, personality, and fantasy. The magic of scent isn’t lost on today’s shoppers, who consider their olfactory choices much more than a means to smell good.
To understand how consumers are discovering, purchasing, and ultimately wearing fragrance, Highsnobiety conducted its first-ever “State of Fragrance” survey. In August, we asked 291 participants about their relationship to perfume, their buying habits, and their hottest takes on the state of the fragrance industry today.
Dividing the fragrance experience into four segments — intention, discovery, purchase, and excitement — we gleaned overarching consumer trends and preferences, as well as key differences between fragrance newbies and connoisseurs. Here’s what we discovered.…
HIGHSNOBIETY / ELIZABETH RENSTROM
INTENTION: WHY WE PERFUME
Seventy-two percent of Highsnobiety’s survey respondents incorporate fragrance into their daily routines. “It’s a powerful form of personal expression,” says Noah Jackson, a 29-year-old brand strategist based in New York City. He believes consumers no longer regard perfume as a tool to attract a romantic partner, a perception brands have traditionally capitalized on via hyper-sexual advertising. Instead, he opts for fragrances that feel authentic to his own identity, an inclination shared by a majority of respondents: 75 percent said their fragrance collection functions as a means of self-expression.
“[Fragrance] is all about innate confidence. It’s about personal brand, or the way that you convey yourself to the outside world,” Jackson says. “[It’s] more about you than about others.” Ashlie Head, senior manager of digital content at Lancôme, echoes his sentiments: “Things are shifting. [Fragrance] is to appease yourself — like an internal satisfaction — versus wanting external validation.” Head also uses scent as a memory-jogger. “My grandmother smells a particular way — she wears Gucci Bloom. Growing up, my mom would wear a certain fragrance. I like the fact that it gets tied to a memory.”
For most respondents, choosing what scent to wear on any given day is like getting dressed. They consider their mood and the occasion (which we defined as their destination and activity) when selecting a scent. “If I’m feeling flirty and fresh or moody and sinister, I want that to come through in my fragrance choice,” says Trey Taylor, senior editorial director at Day One Agency. For others, the link between fragrance and outfit is more explicit (SOTD, or scent of the day, is how some fragrance enthusiasts put it, a play on OOTD, or outfit of the day). “If I’m wearing something classic, I will go for an edgier scent to contrast,” says Chloë Belotti-Sonnois, a headhunter based between Paris and New York City. “[Fragrance] is the glue — it connects my soul to my outfit.”
While 71 percent of respondents emphasized the importance of having a signature scent, sticking to a single standby is less of a concern for experts, defined here as those who own five or more fragrances. Experts are 3.2 times more likely than beginners — defined as those owning one to four fragrances — to use perfume as a way to experiment with new smells and olfactory experiences. They’re also 1.6 times more likely to layer multiple fragrances to create something totally unique. One anonymous respondent explores lesser-known brands and fragrances to “avoid someone else using the same perfume.” Jackson also touches on the cultural clout that comes with wearing an unrecognizable scent. “The number of times I’ve had someone be like, ‘Oh my god, you smell so good. What are you wearing?’ makes me feel good,” he says. “It also makes me feel like I’m in the know.”
DISCOVERY: WHAT’S THAT SMELL?
The Internet is a powerful tool for discovery, particularly for experts — they’re 2.1 times more likely than beginners to use social media platforms like TikTok (@professorperfume, @emma_vern, and @sircandleman are some of their favorite accounts) and fragrance-focused forums such as Fragrantica and r/Fragrance to research unfamiliar brands and perfumes. They’re also more likely to follow fragrance-specific content creators like the larger-than-life Jeremy Fragrance and podcasts like Perfume Room, Smell Ya Later, and Nose Candy for recommendations.
Jackson characterizes Fragrantica, a site that functions as a perfume encyclopedia, message board, and editorial platform, as the “Bible.” Taylor uses the Fragrantica comments section for first-person takes on perfumes and listens to fragrance podcasts while working out. “Hearing [Jane and Jeff Dashley, hosts of Fragraphilia] describe scents as I’m lifting weights is really fulfilling,” he says, adding that he also spends time on fragrance Discord channels like Scented Waters. These outlets all have a “massive” effect on his purchase decisions.
Sean Newton, a London-based photographer, enjoys roaming the fragrance section of London’s Selfridges, while Jackson frequents Scent Bar’s New York City outpost. Both appreciate the breadth of information on brands and perfumes available online but agree that virtual resources are only helpful to a point. “You can go down a Fragrantica hole, but sometimes it’s nice to have someone cut through the noise and be like, ‘No, these are the three fragrances you should try,’” Jackson says of Scent Bar and its staff. Fragrance is personal, evoking different emotions and memories depending on who smells it, and consuming odorless online content can fall flat compared to in-person discovery. Newton is drawn to the “mystery and impulsiveness” of browsing new, unfamiliar fragrances at Selfridges. “Every now and then, you’ll get a scent that you don’t intend to come across, but when you do, you’re like, ‘This is good. This is something I could definitely look into.’ I’m more of the off-the-cuff kind of person.”
PURCHASE: PULLING THE PERFUME TRIGGER
Taylor, who will spend as much as $330 on a fragrance, appreciates when a perfume bottle looks good on his shelf. “It’s as much an objet d’art as it is a thing to make you smell good,” he says. Nearly half of respondents agreed that packaging can make or break a purchase. Head, who is willing to spend up to $200, characterizes a well-designed bottle as a “decor piece.”
Seventy-one percent of respondents are willing to spend over $100 on a fragrance — and more impressively, a third of experts will drop up to $500 for the right scent. But they won’t buy just anything. While mulling a purchase, 87 percent of respondents consider a perfume’s notes and ingredients as deciding factors. Of course, everyone’s olfactive tastes differ, but 80 percent of respondents value the longevity of a scent, suggesting a preference for traditionally long-lasting base notes such as vanilla, amber, spices, and woods.
In interviews, respondents overwhelmingly agreed that fragrance marketing is out of touch. “The industry is still stuck in this naked-girl-riding-a-horse, strong-man-coming-half-naked-and-wet-out-of-the-water era,” Taylor says. “It’s cringe, to be honest,” Jackson adds. “[Brands] go about advertising fragrance in a way that makes it seem like, ‘You put this on, you’ve got instant sex appeal.’ That feels like a very outdated perception of what fragrance does.”
Celebrity endorsements are another sticking point for respondents. Just 2 percent gravitate toward celebrity-owned perfume brands, and 1 percent consider celebrity endorsements when shopping for fragrance. “It feels extremely inauthentic… But I appreciate the hustle,” Taylor says of celebrity-fronted perfumes. Belotti-Sonnois, who will spend up to $200 on the right perfume, is similarly disenchanted. “If I see [a brand] putting effort into paying a celebrity, it’s almost like they didn’t put the budget towards the ingredients. They put it into the PR, and I’d rather see the opposite.”
Instead of relying on celebrity and sex to sell perfume, Taylor wishes brands would focus their marketing strategy on world-building, using imagery and copy to immerse consumers in a cohesive universe. He cites Vacation, the sunscreen brand that also sells its own perfume, as a prime example of world-building done well — everything from the brand’s packaging to its ad campaigns feels straight out an ’80s beachside resort. Jackson also believes there’s more to fragrance advertising than a famous face. “I’m more intrigued when there’s abstract photography,” he says. “I feel like scent can be so interestingly referenced through texture or style of photography.”
EXCITEMENT: WHAT STICKS & WHAT STINKS
Niche fragrance is having a moment. Seventy-eight percent of respondents gravitate toward smaller (yet undeniably influential) brands like Le Labo, Byredo, and Diptyque, favored for their artisanal feel. Respondents also cited D.S. & Durga, Kilian Paris, Frédéric Malle, and 2023 Fragrance Foundation Award winner BDK Parfums among their favorite niche houses.
That said, designer fragrance brands — many of which have existed for decades, establishing a reputation for quality and prestige — still have cachet. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said labels like Chanel, Dior, and YSL remain appealing. Newer designer imprints, namely Loewe, Tom Ford, and Maison Margiela’s REPLICA line, are also popular among respondents.
Generally, there’s an appetite for greater transparency and education surrounding perfumery, regarded by many as a mysterious, alchemical art form. Forty-four percent of respondents indicated that they find fragrance notes and terminology confusing. One particularly perplexing topic is the use of natural and synthetic ingredients, something Taylor wishes brands would help demystify. While most perfumers agree that synthetics are crucial to formulating a balanced fragrance and are often more sustainable than naturals, which must be grown and harvested at high volumes, fear-mongering and false information regarding the safety of “unnatural” ingredients is rampant. “I wish that brands would explain why they used a synthetic material,” Taylor says. “It’s not sexy — it’s a really boring conversation, but people need to hear it.”
Greater awareness of ingredients also offers brands the opportunity to enrich their storytelling — and consequently, increase conversion. “If [a brand’s] social media is sharing how the product is made and where their inspiration is coming from, it tends to pull me in,” Belotti-Sonnois says. “It makes me more willing to get out there, maybe find a store that has what they’re selling, and try it out.”
Head sees social media content as fertile ground for fragrance — but it’s tricky. “With makeup tutorials, you get instant satisfaction from seeing the result. Even with skincare, you can see progression photos. With fragrance, it’s more difficult to express,” she says. Despite the challenges of communicating scent on TikTok and Instagram, Head likes seeing influencers create fragrance content, especially when she can see how they’re pairing a perfume with a particular outfit.
Social media content isn’t the only thing that can help consumers visualize how to incorporate a scent into their own life. Head wants to see brands create quizzes that pair consumers with scents they might like: “Something like, ‘If you like this type of scent’ or ‘If you’ve purchased X, Y, and Z before, you might like this.’”
Speaking to the confusion that often surrounds fragrance terminology, Jackson is more interested in seeing brands expound on perfumery’s many classes of scents. “I’ve Googled this a million times but eau de parfum, eau de toilette… It’s confusing,” he says, listing terms used to denote the concentration of perfume oil in a fragrance (parfums and extraits are the strongest, followed by eau de parfum, eau de toilette, eau de cologne, and eau fraîche). “Even sprays versus oil-based fragrances and roll-ons… It’d be good to know what the difference is and why you would opt for one or the other. Someone needs to write the guidebook. Maybe you.”