Will ‘smellmaxxing’ take off in China?

    The phenomenon of ‘smellmaxxing,’ where teenagers invest in high-end designer fragrances, has captivated Western markets, but this trend may face unique challenges in China.
    L’Artisan Parfumeur is proving popular among young Chinese men. Image: L’Artisan Parfumeur
      Published   in Beauty

    In recent months, the phenomenon of “smellmaxxing” — where young male consumers rapidly build and show off collections of high-end designer fragrances — has captivated Western markets.

    Fueled by TikTok trends, these young fragrance lovers are spending heavily on brands like Tom Ford and Valentino to enhance personal appeal and signal maturity. But could this trend take root in China?

    China has a centuries-long history with personal fragrances, presenting an increasingly irresistible opportunity for both global and domestic brands today.

    Dao Nguyen, founder of Essenzia ByDao — a boutique strategic marketing agency dedicated to fragrances and beauty — notes that smellmaxxing has a unique character in China. While the trend isn’t identical, there are key insights for brands to glean from its similarities and differences.

    “Price sensitivity and distinct consumption patterns play a role, alongside different olfactive tastes,” Nguyen says.

    In the West, TikTok influencers like Jeremy Fragrance and Jatin Arora have popularized smellmaxxing, introducing young audiences to various scents and recommending fragrances for different occasions. In China, platforms like Douyin (the local version of TikTok) and Xiaohongshu are similarly fostering the trend among Chinese Gen Zers.

    A fertile market for smellmaxxing?#

    China’s personal fragrance market has grown rapidly, driven by an expanding middle class and increasing disposable incomes. Valued at 10.9 billion RMB ($1.6 billion) in 2020, the market is expected to reach 30 billion RMB ($4.3 billion) by 2025, propelled primarily by strong demand from millennial and Gen Z consumers.

    Research by iMedia Consulting found that 45% of Chinese Gen Zers acquire their first perfume between the ages of 10 and 17, with 6% exposed to fragrances before age 10. These young consumers not only start early but also develop sophisticated tastes, preferring refined and personalized fragrances that express their style and personality.

    Fresh scents are generally favored over heavy ones, with neutral woody notes gaining popularity among both male and female consumers, dispelling the myth that woody scents are primarily for men. Floral and citrus fragrances are also highly favored.

    Brands need to adapt to these trends. Nguyen highlights that the olfactive tastes of young male Chinese consumers are distinct from their American counterparts.

    “While Kilian and Jean Paul Gaultier are hot with US youngsters, Creed, Tom Ford, or L’Artisan Parfumeur are preferred by Chinese male youngsters,” she says, adding that societal and cultural factors play a significant role.

    Creed collaborated with Chinese hip-hop artist Benzo in 2023. Image: Creed
    Creed collaborated with Chinese hip-hop artist Benzo in 2023. Image: Creed

    Evolving masculinity#

    One societal factor that sets China apart from Western fragrance markets is the phenomenon of “smelling rich,” which Nguyen notes is more female-led, fueled by women who want to smell like heiresses (富家千金).

    Young Chinese men, however, are much more price-sensitive. “There doesn't seem to be a significant rising appeal of young males for highly expensive fragrances,” Nguyen says.

    While serious fragrance lovers in their 30s or older readily purchase expensive fragrances, the price sensitivity of young Chinese men gives smellmaxxing a distinct scent in China. These consumers are very vocal about value for money, often opting for samples or “dupes” — products that closely resemble more expensive counterparts.

    This contrasts with many of their Western counterparts, who freely spend their or their parents’ money and eagerly show off their collections on TikTok.

    Nguyen notes two similarities with the smellmaxxing trend in the US. First, Chinese teens and young men have increased their consumption of beauty and fragrance products to be “decent boyfriends,” indicating evolving standards of masculinity and seduction.

    Second, Chinese social platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu are amplifying the spread of information, making young Chinese males highly knowledgeable about key niche fragrances and private collections they want to try.

    This presents significant potential for personal fragrance brands. According to Nguyen, brands have a good opportunity to reach and influence novices who are already building their fragrance collections, particularly if they engage with these consumers “accordingly and locally,” understanding their preferences and sensitivities.

    • China’s personal fragrance market is projected to grow from 10.9 billion RMB ($1.6 billion) in 2020 to 30 billion RMB ($4.3 billion) by 2025, driven by millennial and Gen Z consumers.
    • Research shows 45% of Chinese Gen Zers acquire their first perfume between ages 10 and 17, developing sophisticated and personalized fragrance preferences early.
    • Brands should note the distinct olfactive tastes of Chinese male consumers, who prefer Creed, Tom Ford, and L’Artisan Parfumeur over Western favorites like Kilian and Jean Paul Gaultier.
    • Platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu can effectively amplify fragrance trends among Chinese youth, similar to the role TikTok plays in Western markets.
    • Understanding the price sensitivity of young Chinese men is crucial; offering samples and affordable dupes can attract this demographic, who are vocal about value for money.
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