dimanche 18 avril 2010

The Birth of Thierry Mugler's Angel: Vera Strubi's conference at the Société Française des Parfumeurs

Love it or hate it, Thierry Mugler’s Angel -- a best-seller for going two decades -- has become a classic, and its story is such a textbook example of success in spite of the odds that it is taught in the top business schools of France. No wonder last Thursday, the conference given by Angel’s “mother” Vera Strubi, along with consultant Yves de Chiris and Nelly Chenelat, Parfums Thierry Mugler’s international marketing director, to members of both the Société Française des Parfumeurs and of the Société Française de Cosmétologie was practically standing-room-only: the perfume industry has been trying to replicate Angel’s success for years.

If you own Michael Edwards’ must-read Perfume Legends, you already know the story of the birth of the first-ever gourmand. I’ll just transcribe bits from the notes I took during the conference (check out 1000fragrances for Octavian Coifan’s take).

When Vera Strubi was hired to launch Thierry Mugler’s first fragrance at a time when the couturier’s shows were such events that people literally fought to get in, her first concern was adapting to the culture of a company, Clarins, whose specialty was skincare, and of leveraging that company’s expertise and practices.

She asked the president of Clarins, Jacques Courtin, whether he wanted a three-year development plan: he replied “develop the product first. Then we’ll see.”

Her first meeting with Thierry Mugler was similarly disconcerting. The couturier came over with a rectangular bottle and a perfume sample. “You won’t have any work to do: this is the bottle I want, and this is the perfume that will go into it. It will be called Thierry Mugler.”

Vera Strubi first objected that Thierry Mugler wasn’t an easy name to pronounce: they would have to find something else, something that was more universal. Then she took the couturier over to see some fifty bottles of fragrances and asked him: “How do you decide which one to pick, if you’re in a perfume store?” He answered: the colour, the name, the shape of the bottle.

“There you go”, answered Vera Strubi. “Perfume is a story. You can’t test it like skincare products: there isn’t any result.”

Thierry Mugler gave her two months to come up with a better idea than his, and Vera Strubi set out to speak to everyone who knew him, to find out what the story was. Thierry Mugler may have had the wrong idea about the bottle and the scent, but he did know that his perfume wasn’t about fashion, which is too ephemeral: “My perfume must be eternal”, he said. And the turn of events showed he was right: Mugler no longer does fashion (though the clothing line was re-launched after his retirement), but his name still survives through his fragrances.

The idea for a star-shaped bottle came from a ring Mugler was wearing: the star was his fetish symbol which was imprinted on the buttons of his clothes. He even had it tattooed on his shoulder. It took one year and a half for a glassmaker to find a way of manufacturing the design drawn by Mugler, and the result was so expensive that the fragrance would have to be sold at twice the price of its competitors. But both Vera Strubi and Thierry Mugler were adamant: either that was going to be the bottle, or the project would be dropped. It was then that Strubi came up with an idea inspired by Caron’s urns: a high-tech fountain at which customers could fill up their bottles for a much lower price.

The fragrance itself, developed by Olivier Cresp along with Yves de Chiris on Thierry Mugler’s idea that it should smell of childhood treats – candied apple, chocolate and cotton candy – similarly drew horrified screams from the Clarins executives and from every perfumer who sampled it: “This stinks!” Again, Strubi, Mugler and their dream-team were steadfast: it was going to be this or nothing.

As for the name, it sprung from a thesaurus research on everything that had to do with the sky – and it was timely, since guardian angels were the rage at the time in America. It was purchased from a competitor, who had copyrighted it, for a hefty sum. Still, “it was a bit cheesy”, says Strubi, so again, there was a risk.

Launching such a unique product was, again, a problem, and this is where Clarins’ particular culture came in handy. Every Clarins product is sold with a card for the customer to fill out with her impressions: the company has an entire service dedicated to reading them and responding. Angel got its own card – at that price point, what did an extra franc mean?

Nevertheless, the launch was risky. At the time, there were no perfumery chain-stores and the sales rep ended convincing a mere 200 shops to stock the scent, and none in Paris because again, at the time, Parisian perfumeries were mainly discounters. The next year, 1993, Angel was launched in the US with only 40 points of sale.

For the first five years of its existence, apart from road-shows, the entire promotional budget of Angel was sunk into those customer cards, with no advertising at all. And customers responded in droves, sending in drawings and stories of the emotions they felt when wearing Angel – oddly, while Europeans dwelt on tenderness and childhood, Americans insisted on the sexiness of the scent.

This contractual, emotional relationship with the consumer was what made Angel’s success, says Vera Strubi.

Questioned on whether a similar success would be possible today, she answered that it would be if brands weren’t blocked by a distribution circuit that imposes its conditions. “Women still want to be surprised”, she said, but where do you sell such a product today? “Everyone has evolved except the distributors. We’re bored to death in today’s perfumeries, they’re like supermarkets.”

Let’s hope she was heard. The mainstream market is in dire need of a groundbreaking launch – it’s all very well and good to dream of Angel’s success. You’ve got to have the guts and vision to go for it.

13 commentaires:

  1. This was an awesome history; thank you so much. I think it is really interesting that the Americans' impression of Angel was so divergent from their European counterparts'! I wonder if that is because our sexuality has become juvenilized, or because we just --erroneously-- assume anything French must be sexy. very thought-provoking indeed!

  2. La Bonne Vivante, I've heard Frenchmen say Angel is very sexy too... though I wonder if that isn't because they have pleasant associations with it, given its ubiquitousness here.

  3. I'm a bit ashamed to admit this, but I do own a bottle of Angel, although nowadays I don't wear it often. It is indeed interesting how Angel is perceived across the Atlantic. personally, I don't find it childish or comforting at all, but I also wouldn't call it particularly sexy. The choco-patchouli combo is definitely addictive, but it is also weirdly disturbing (or maybe it's just my reaction? I'm not sure). If I remember correctly, Luca Turin called Angel "a transsexual", and that's the most accurate description I've ever heard.:)

  4. From the point of view of a fellow auditor at this event, your article conveys the contents of Vera's inspiring message with impressive clarity and scope. Chapeau!

  5. Wow.

    This is a fantastic perspective on the history of this perfume. Coming from the business side of things, you are absolutely right -- the success of Angel is rooted in holding precious the customer's experience.

    What's amazing was Mugler and Strubi's insistence on ONE product, and no diversion from it. Yet making the finished product entirely about how the customer experiences it. What informed this dogged and stubbornness to go with one product? Was it the consumer or the creator?

    Amazing, amazing story.

    Thanks D.


  6. I remember so well my first sniff of Angel - I didn't know whether to be revolted or attracted by what I perceived as its sweetness. The pharmacy in Covent Garden were giving away samples in minature bottles and I still have mine. I sort of treasure it! The Michael Edwards essay is interesting but not half so much as yours and Octavian's, thank you. Whatever about the juice it is a phenomenon which has yet to be surpassed. Respect to Vera Strubi, Thierry Mugler and Clarins!

  7. I still remember my first experience with Angel. Editing through a rather humorous story, I ended up with a vial of it that I wore the heck out of. I was still a real newbie back then; I'd only ever had one bottle of perfume (Bond's Chinatown). Angel got so many different reactions from my friends that I didn't know what to think. I don't feel the need for a bottle but it's still a really fun scent. Thank you for the history; it was quite interesting! I also hope everyone was paying attention to Strubi's assessment of today's market.

  8. Fashionistaag, why should you be ashamed? It's a classic! It's very divisive and that's what great about it. On me it's a flayer (i.e. makes me want to flay my skin off) but I wouldn't begrudge anyone wearing it... in reasonable quantities.

  9. SC, thanks! Wish I'd taken more notes, I'm sure I missed out on some good quotes...

  10. Marcus, I think that Vera Strubi, Thierry Mugler, Yves de Chiris and Olivier Cresp just really, really believed in it, that the marketing was brilliantly suited to the audacity of the product, and that Clarins, with its focus on a personalized relationship with consumers, was the ideal company to make the project come true. A perfect storm, really...

  11. Nicola, the Michael Edwards essay focuses a lot more on the genesis of the scent itself, which is why I didn't go into it (neither did Ms Strubi). This was such a fascinating conference people would've stayed to ask questions for another hour, I think!

  12. Eric, I think some newbies found Angel and never looked further -- at least that's what my nose tells me in the Paris metro... Of course it's been copied so much since I might be smelling clones...

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