Acing The TikTok Smell Test

While no one knows what you smell like on the internet, Gen Z could care less. People between 13 and 26 are spritzing up a storm, using fragrances differently than older people do. And this TikTok-inspired sniffathon is boosting sales, especially for D2C and digitally driven brands.

The latest fragrance data from Circana, the market research company, shows that Gen Z's use of fragrance has expanded significantly, rising 5% to 83%. This cohort ranks higher than any other age group in terms of heavy usage, which means wearing a fragrance at least three times a week. They are also more likely to buy themselves scent multiple times a year than other age groups.

TikTok, or #PerfumeTok, plays a major part, rising to the No. 2 spot for influencing fragrance purchase decisions.

Circana says prestige fragrance sales are growing as a result, with revenue up 13% from January through August 2023 versus the same period last year.

While classics like Chanel No. 5 and Dior aren’t going anywhere, Gen Z favorites include upstart digital indie brands, including Phlur, Vyrao, Juliette Has a Gun and Parfums de Marly, and D2C reliables like Glossier’s You.

Reid Litman, global consulting director at Ogilvy and an expert in Gen Z behavior, says fragrance is increasingly what younger consumers are talking about on social media. One reason for the growing popularity is the way scent can boost mood and help with wellness, since self-care is a priority for these younger shoppers.

And while that’s true for other beauty and self-care trends, “fragrance also offers instant gratification,” he tells D2C Insider. “It doesn’t require all these steps, like skincare, and you feel the results right away.”

Circana says 80% of fragrance users agree that “fragrance helps lift or enhance my mood.”

Litman says the trend goes beyond the U.S. “I checked with some friends in London, who describe it as a symbol of status -- not to show, but as a status of creativity. They talk about how they’re combining fragrance and how they are getting better at recognizing certain scents when others wear them.”

Three kids in Paris -- all male -- recently told him they think of cologne as the new watch: “It expresses who they are, but without the chance of theft.”

The popularity of the digital expression of fragrances fits into this generation’s interest in products that spark ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, that tingling feel-good sensation.

“People’s descriptions are about connections between memory and place and scent,” he says.  “They talk about what they did as kids and how that relates to what they’re wearing.”

But perhaps the biggest shift, he says, is how little conversation focuses on sex appeal. Effective marketing now focuses on “a hyper-fragmented collection of stories based on digital first-world-building. Upstart brands are moving toward movies, music, art, nature and poetry to spark the storytelling behind new scents. For Gen Z, fragrance is about creativity, wellness and self -- rather than attracting a partner.”

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