Anyone who knows John Demsey—and isn’t that everyone?—would call him a visionary. As Estée Lauder Companies Executive Group President, Demsey is the man who built MAC from a cult makeup artist brand to the global colossus it is today, and who ushered a staggeringly successful roster of brands into the Lauder fold, including Tom Ford Beauty, By Kilian, Jo Malone, and Le Labo. We sat down with the legendary business bellwether in his bright, book-bestrewn office to see what’s in the air for fragrance in 2019.
How would you describe the state of fragrance today?
We have a resurgent fragrance business in the United States, with changing dynamics, new brands, new distribution, new challenges, new opportunities. We’re seeing a resurgence in designer fragrances. We’re seeing what started as niche perfumery becoming increasingly more important to the overall mix of business and actually to the point of tipping the market dynamics. The stakes are different these days. You don't see the frequency of the big media buy launches that you saw a few years ago. And a big launch today is a fraction of what a big launch was five or 10 years ago. There's more focus on methodical brand building, test and learn, and scaling up businesses once they get traction.
What do you think will keep the upswing going?
We have a lot of success in the fragrance business today treating brands as not just fragrances, but worlds or destinations. We're seeing a lot of brands that are based more on the craft or the luxury experiential components of the product, and less on the traditional promotion. Our fastest growing brand in North America is Le Labo, which has no visuals, no tester units, no advertising. We’re also going into our 11th year of Tom Ford, with unbelievable success. Unparalleled growth at very high price points with amazing juice and amazing digital storytelling and an amazing point of sale experience—and a decade’s worth of consistent Fifi awards. I like to think that we've had something to do with actually shaping the way that the industry is going. Because it feels to me that we’re returning to the most important things—the product, the package, and the emotional connection. I see a trading up, a focus on olfactive disruptions, and less a sea of sameness.
How has social media changed the way that fragrance is marketed and consumed?
It’s a bit of a pain point. The traditional fragrance business was about strategic sampling, getting the scent out, getting people in store, and telling a story. I'm not sure that the how-to-video influencer sensation that's been the big driver of a huge acceleration of the makeup business lends itself to the same sort of multiplier effect for fragrance. Social media is very good in terms of amplifying brand stories, distributing films or publicity or ingredient or harvesting stories. But I haven’t seen the tipping point where it can replace some of the other techniques that are used to market and launch fragrances.
What’s your personal Instagram strategy?
I do it as therapy for myself. I don't do it for anybody to follow me. People are always surprised that I actually have that subversive sense of humor, or that my impossible mashup of high low and culture even exists. They think I hire someone to fabricate it. But it’s truly authentic to me. I don't show my daughter. I don't go too far in. But I show what I like, which is part of who I am.
You’re a voracious consumer of pop culture and social media. How do you stay on top of everything?
I still try to buy every magazine on the newsstand, though there aren’t as many, which is sad. But the good news is, in the virtual world, there's always a YouTube post. There's always a new Instagram. And whenever I get together with friends, they always tell me about new people to follow. I find it incredibly exciting and fun. I like discovering, I'm curious. And I think my insurance policy for being in this business is I have a 10-year-old daughter and I'm experiencing the world through her eyes and her aspirations and her media habits.
The fragrance brands you’ve brought into Lauder aren’t just successful, or even merely cool, they have something more. What’s the secret sauce?
They're all subject matter experts, artistic and creative at the core, and have an olfactive arc and a concept. Frederic Malle is the publisher of the greatest perfumers in the world. By Kilian is the master of perfume as art and perfume as seduction. Le Labo is the ultimate artisanal fragrance. Tom Ford is the new luxury and the new aspiration. They're all rooted in something very authentic and very real. And they all have amazing products behind their successes, not just stories.
What qualities are you looking for in acquisitions now?
I'm looking for something that we'll be talking about 20 years from now. We're not in the business of just selling products, we're in the business of selling and creating brands for the long term. Something that has the germ of an idea that can live generations past that idea—that's what I ultimately look for.
What’s your biggest 2019 prediction?
What's successful at this moment will continue to be successful. And what will be successful in 2029 is already out there, we just don't know it yet. The world goes in buckets of 10 years.