Russia’s working class fascinated with unlikely fragrances
|Your average Russian buyer wants bread and entertainment,
just like in ancient world. Source: ITAR-TASS.
To the left is Bolotnaya Square, and to the right – The Kremlin. Directly between these two iconic symbols of power and opposition is the main office of one of Russia’s largest perfume companies, ostentatiously named Parade of Stars. Neither the Kremlin nor the opposition is likely to be familiar with the company’s fragrances: Parade of Stars is the market leader for budget perfumes, where a bottle goes from between 70 and 200 rubles ($2-6).
Among the fragrances on the perfumery’s shelves is a scent called “Vladimir Central,” which is the name of a notorious prison for violent criminals and a legendary song of underground fame. The scent itself is surprisingly pleasant – the first impressions are of earth and moss. Maybe there are overtones of tobacco, wet wood, and something rotten. Parade of Stars manager Aleksandr Korotenko explains the market strategies behind the success of his unusual and gritty fragrances.
Moskovskie Novosti: In your opinion, is there a market for a fragrance based on an old, Russian prison? Or is it more that fans of the song are buying it?
Aleksandr Korotenko: If we feel that some concept or other will play well with our customers, then we naturally get it straight into production. Each year, we come up with around 40–50 new product lines. First we test-market them, and those that go down well move straight into commercial production.
With “Vladimir Central,” we were not only looking at fans of the Russian “chanson” genre (songs based on themes from the urban underclass and the criminal underworld), but also at consumers for whom the prison subject has some meaning. It actually doesn’t matter what that meaning might be. Our aim here is to find the trigger that makes a customer take the bottle off the shelf. Muscovites might buy this perfume for a laugh – perhaps they’ll infuse a political rally or a nightclub with the “scent of the cells?” But they’re not our main market. You won’t find a country anywhere else in the civilized world that has the same number of criminals on its TV screens as Russia. They just aren’t bothered with those kinds of characters over there; but, in Russia, people are fascinated by crime. What does it all tell us? People are naturally terrified of prisons. The terror is a barometer of their fascination. They’re trying to wrap their heads around it.
MN: So, if your market research guys are following the trends, can we expect to see new perfume lines like “Bolotnaya Square” in bottles tied with white protest ribbons? Or “Pussy Riot perfume?” Maybe you could release that one in multicolored, balaclavas-shaped bottles?
Aleksandr Korotenko is an author and businessman – or so he describes himself on LiveJournal. In his business life, Korotenko is the CEO of the Parade of Stars perfume company. As an author, he has written several books including Fragments – 12 Astounding Situations, and a psychological novel called Trepanation.
Korotenko started his career as a lawyer. His knowledge of English and French helped him secure a job as the Russian representative of a French fragrance company in the early 1990s. He brought their products to the Russian market, while picking up the tricks of the trade along the way. Once he understood why some brands fail and others succeed, he decided to open his own company. He fixed his hopes on those who lived from paycheck to paycheck – in other words, on 95 percent of the Russian population. The decision has been paying off for Korotenko ever since.
A.K.: Don’t hold your breath. Support for the opposition is critically weak. You can’t base a brand round it. Maybe 10,000 people on a public square make a newspaper story – but those numbers just don’t stack up for us. Okay, say we really released a “Pussy Riot” perfume and sold a thousand units? It’s chicken feed. We call a product successful if it grosses 200,000 units. We’ve got millions of bottles in our stockrooms. Your average Russian buyer wants bread and entertainment, just like in ancient world. They don’t care about a “Fragrance of Freedom.”
MN: That’s a pretty misanthropic view, isn’t it?
A.K.: Have you been out in the regions much lately? Most people in this country have nothing to fill their lives – no motivation, no serious plans. They just want to get by, from day to day. They made it through nursery and school, picked up some kind of diploma, got married, had kids – and now it’s just work, home, work, home. That’s why they only need bread and entertainment.
MN: On your company’s website, it says that your best-selling fragrances are “Boomer” and “Brigade” – both named after popular gangster TV series. Yet, mysteriously, buyers didn’t go for “Penitentiary.” So what’s wrong with “Penitentiary,” then?
A.K.: Perfume isn’t something you buy every day. It’s not like bread or vodka. Penitentiary just didn’t work out – but we’re pretty sure “Vladimir Central” will.
MN: Parade of Stars has a special product line of fragrances named after music groups and popular singers. But rock and pop fragrances, it seems, are a lot less popular than Russian chanson. Maybe it’s because of the price – they’re more expensive than the “criminal beat” brands?
A.K.: We pay the copyright holders of those brands a higher royalty fee.
MN: And what about the family of Mikhail Krug, the guy who sang “Vladimirsky Central?” Will they be seeing any royalties?
A.K.: Actually, we registered that brand name ourselves, as a type of perfume – no one else had registered it. So there were no issues with anyone claiming rights over the song title.
MN: You already have a fragrance called “VKontakte” – named after the hugely popular social networking site in Russia – and you’re preparing to launch “Twitter.” Why did you pass over Facebook – is it because you’d rather not have a faceoff with Mark Zuckerberg?
A.K.: Not really! The name VKontakte (which means “in touch” in English) instantly evokes the image of perfume, whereas Facebook and LiveJournal don’t suggest much connected with fragrances. People outside of the big cities don’t know them much either.
MN: But everyone in the entire country knows the Kremlin – if only because they show it on every TV channel, all day, in the gaps between the gangster series. Why haven’t you launched a perfume brand called Kremlin? You could have slogans like “the smell of power, now in your own home,” or “the scent of the corridors of power.”
A.K.: Actually we’ve already thought of it, but the presidential administration was against the idea. The whole thing is a slightly different story.
MN: That’s a pity. This means the people will never find out what the Kremlin smells like, right? They’ll just have to make do with “Vladimir Central.”
First published in Russian in Moskovskie Novosti.