Semiotics of luxury beauty product refills - is luxury communism now the beauty trend?

Environmental Design
Packaging Design
New Product Development

Luxury Communist Refilling

Luxury cosmetics, fragrance and personal care brands have jumped into the refill game. It is received wisdom that Gen Z is the most environmentally conscious generation (Creative Brief) and consequently brands are falling over each other to appeal to them. Yet, the very symbol of environmental excess, ultra fast fashion is popular amongst the generation. Brands such as Shein, Pretty Little Thing, BooHoo, Missguided are most popular amongst Gen Z (Vox, Business of Fashion). We're not here to brush off Gen Z. It's more about recognizing that there's a pretty big difference between what most folks think and what the actual numbers are telling us. In the luxury beauty and fragrance space brands are chasing Gen Z with both aesthetics and sustainability. Rabanne (Financial Times) and Prada (Glamour Magazine) are targeting Gen Z and refills are a part of this play. Body Shop made a major pivot to millennials and Gen Z but it appears it was not good enough as they head to a sell off (Telegraph).


Prada has launched Paradoxe, a new perfume range with a refill bottle. Emma Watson, considered a Gen Z icon fronts the brand and is believed to have directed the video for the fragrance’s campaign (Youtube) and features in a tutorial helpfully explaining how to refill a perfume bottle (YouTube). In the instructional video, Emma Watson isn't really trying to convince her audience about the eco-friendly value of perfume refills; it's more like you’ve got to have a thing for those fancy bottles and shouldn’t let go of them because they look so good. Commodity fetish as its finest and a very subtle appeal to Gen Z - Fair play! Well, you see, Gen Z doesn’t appear to be in the market for keepsakes. Maybe this product isn't really targeting the shoppers who frequent places like Shein. Then again, maybe some of them do shop at Boohoo and Missguided and still like to switch up their perfume choices from time to time. Ultimately the kind of consumption some people think should be avoided is exactly what consumers engage in. It’s a very messy world consumer behaviour. A paradox indeed.


Some thoughts on Luxury and refilling

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Luxury goods draw heavily from symbolic codes of divinity such as salvation. Perfumes and fragrances are central to all religious rituals. They play an important part in the symbolic and literal purification of humans and convey life. Adverts for perfumes often code heavens, purity, otherworldliness, bliss, ecstasy. The signs and symbols often include bright light, water, the meeting point of earth and the sky, feathers, gardens and flowers. Astute cultural observers know that we understand the world through binaries and the obvious choice for product differentiation would be the opposition to heaven that is decadence, or the devil/hell. It is symbolised by various signs and symbols including black, red, serpents, fire, smoke. Without getting into a thesis about the semiotics of perfumes and luxury, it suffices to say that recycling or refilling acts as a bridge between death and new life. What we breathe life with and life into has deeper meanings, which refilling misses.


While sustainable consumerism is a laudable goal and refilling is one amongst the solutions to achieving this, it does not work in certain categories. Every act of consumption is social and has symbolic meaning. Luxury goods such as perfumes tap into a more complex matrix of emotions, affect and socio-cultural myths. The simplistic approach of providing refills to perfumes does little for the brand except being a box-ticking exercise in appealing to a demographic. Gen Z is not a hallowed generation and it is unfair to project the burden of transformation of consumer culture on to them. Refills in generic containers make sense when applied to every day consumption objects where our emotional investment may be lower - such as cleaning, home fragrance products or the non-premium consumer categories


This is an extract of an article published by Bryter's head of cultural insights Kishore Budha, access the full article at