Hidden in Shanghai's M50 art district, a carved staircase leads visitors to Minorité, a space to try rare perfumes in an old Parisian salon setting. Ms. Jiang is a 27-year-old designer who visited the store on a Saturday. “Some perfume brands are so niche that you can only find them here,” she said. Jiang belongs to a growing number of perfume lovers in China. While their parents' perfume purchases reflect a need to fit in, they seek unique perfumes to express their moods and personalities.
Just as they prefer tea to coffee, Chinese consumers favor lighter, fresher scents. In research conducted by Shanghai-based Labbrand, over 50 percent of survey respondents believed that lighter scents better convey elegance and cuteness. Only three percent ticked a box indicating a preference for “strong, intense fragrances”. A Chinese perfume reviewer once joked online that “Western women want to smell like powerful queens, but Chinese women prefer to smell like innocent princesses.”
As a supplier of lighter scents, Jo Malone London has done well in China. Its most popular scents are Wild Bluebell, English Pear & Freesia, and Wood Sage & Sea Salt.
The top-seller at Minorité, though, is APSU by Ulrich Lang New York. Inspired by a morning jog in the park, it smells like freshly-cut grass. In populous cities, strong and radical scent could be intrusive into others’ already limited personal space, especially on a morning subway ride or in a crowded elevator. A fresh grass smell is certainly more welcome. Unusual perfumes like Dom Rosa (pink champagne) and Ile Pourpre (black fig and ginger) are also increasingly appreciated in China.
A good Chinese name is as important as the smell to a perfume's success. On Zhihu, China’s largest online community of educated middle-class, there was a question “have you ever fallen in love with a perfume because of its name”. Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit was brought up several times in the answers. Translated into “flying through midnight” in Chinese, it creates a romantic fantasy for those who work in big cities. During the day, they may be trapped in the office cubicles. But at night, they are free to fly and overlook the city. Another success is Armani’s Acqua de Gio. While it literally means Thursday’s water in Italian, its Chinese name Ji Qing ("expressing my feelings through mountains and rivers") is much more poetic.
Passage d’Enfer by L'Artisan is also popular on the Chinese internet. While the original name pays homage to the road where the L’Artisan office was located in the 1970s, the translator chose a wicked play on words, calling it “passage to the underworld” in Chinese. Dark, mysterious and a bit unsettling, the name stands out from the usual sweet names, though the perfume itself is said to be very “tranquil and contemplative”.
From perfume ice cream to its “whispers of love” museum, the French label Diptyque has taken audacious steps to attract Chinese consumers. In late March 2018, it collaborated with Elle Decoration to create a 200 square meter “apartment store” in Shanghai’s Xintiandi. Visitors could stroll through the rooms and enjoy different Diptyque scents. Meanwhile, Jo Malone brought an English garden to downtown Shanghai. Consumers could try their hands at flower arrangement, make DIY lollipops that contained fresh flowers, and share their garden photos online to win product sample.
Brands may draw inspiration from Luzhoulaojiao to add more surprise and humor to their marketing. Producing the traditional liquor Baijiu for over 400 years, Luzhoulaojiao is an unlikely competitor for perfume brands. However, in early 2018, this old liquor brand stunned everyone with the launch of a peach perfume. Within four days, over 20,000 bottles were sold.
“Perfume made by Luzhoulaojiao” became the hottest topic on social media site Weibo, with quips like “will I get caught for drunk driving wearing this perfume?” As Luzhoulaojiao is perceived as an old, masculine brand, producing a peach perfume with pink tassels created an intriguing contrast and humor. While the brand was teased as an “old man acting coquettishly”, this bold marketing initiative has brought a century-old brand closer to the younger generation.
One thing interesting about Minorité is that it doesn’t sell perfumes on the spot. If visitors like a certain perfume, they could place the order on the Wechat store. “I feel more relaxed to smell the perfumes, because there is no salesperson,” said Ms. Jiang. Song Yuan, the founder of Minorité, believes that the key is to create an immersive, artistic environment for people to experience perfumes like artworks. She also launched lessons for those who are interested to learn more about the perfume culture.
But some want more than that. “No Man’s Land” is a Shanghai enthusiast who runs a perfume WeChat. For the past few years, he never missed the annual perfume exhibition, which brings over 2,000 perfumes to Shanghai, as well as the rare opportunities to interact with international experts such as the Dutch label Puredistance's founder Jan Ewoud Vos and independent perfumer Cécile Zarokian in seminars. He recalled, “I wish more perfumers could come to China and talk about their creations with us.”