MSCHF's Disruptive Aroma: Smells Like WD-40

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  • Text Trey Taylor
  • Design Aodan Reddy

With notes of crude oil, nitrous oxide and a whiff of—deep inhale; is that… heliotrope?—one of MSCHF’s recent releases is a cologne aptly named “Smells Like WD-40.” The Brooklyn-based art collective, which employs a disruptive drop model to release an assembly line of viral spoof products every two weeks (you may have seen their Big Red Boots recently; more on that later), tapped into the power of scent for a unique, experimental cologne that mimics the smell of a common garage staple—the lubricating spray WD-40.

If you’ve ever greased a hinge or lubed a bike chain, you’re familiar. Allegedly scented with vanillin (the molecule that gives vanilla its distinctive odor) to mask the silicon oils, WD-40 has been described as smelling like “hot butterscotch candy.” The eagerness of consumers to use WD-40 for any sticky problem brought to bear a universal truth: everyone secretly enjoys huffing the stuff or spends a bit of extra time greasing their wheels simply to inhale the fumes. A cursory search online reveals similar admissions published on forums like Quora, Reddit and the official Facebook page of Bushwhacker, whose author suggested WD-40 “come out with a men's cologne - scent of the mechanic.” That confessional tension was all the fuel MSCHF needed to create their next potentially viral hit.

This type of friction is intrinsic to all of MSCHF’s ideas. Other releases have included such eye-wateringly good ideas as Birkinstocks (a line of Birkenstock sandals made out of chopped-up Hermès Birkin bag leather); a stack of blurred money to simulate “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” levels of wealth IRL; and the most recent release that perhaps embodies the collective’s thought process, the Big Red Boots. They carry a price tag of $350 and sold out in seven minutes. Shortly after their release, the boots were seen on the feet of celebrities like Diplo, Ciara, Lil Wayne and Janelle Monáe, in street style photos at New York Fashion Week, in the ring for a WWE match and even cropped up on the TikTok account of @Bratz dolls.

“I absolutely love the boots because they poke fun at fashion trends and do it successfully, given how quickly so many celebrities and street style stars jumped to buy it,” says Jeena Sharma, a luxury reporter at Retail Brew. “It’s so smart and it just goes to show that it doesn’t matter how ridiculous or impractical an item is, people will buy it because some other people buy it. Fashion loves a gimmick. And they were made to disrupt and create a kind of tension in a way.”

Frank Denbow, a technology consultant, told The New York Times that the secret to MSCHF’s success is that they compete with only themselves. “Everybody is able to get a one-off campaign that works, but to consistently find ways to create content that really sticks with people is different. It reminds me of Banksy and his ability to get a rise out of people.”

Product drops that tap into a shared cultural insight are failsafe marketing strategies for two key reasons. They reflect a truth about ourselves in a tangible way and allow fans of a brand to participate in something exclusive. When #client Chipotle released a limited “Water” Cup Lemonade Candle in 2022, it drove headlines because it drew upon a familiar tension—that many customers ask for a free water cup and inexorably fill it with lemonade. More recently, Panera Bread released a “BAGuette,” a bag “designed at the intersection of fashion and function” that can theoretically hold one of Panera’s Toasted Baguette sandwiches. It also created buzz online and was photographed at fashion week.

MSCHF isn’t in the game solely to create buzz, however. They take the kinds of risks that most brands are terrified to attempt at the risk of alienating any loyal consumers. Ironically for MSCHF “the brand,” these activities only further solidify the allegiance of their disciples. Made to provoke the companies they often parody, their offbeat products and experiential collaborations serve as a kind of spiritual activism (an ability to send up traditional marketing tactics) that speaks to their ever expanding core audience.

With the launch of “Smells Like WD-40,” MSCHF’s scent caught the attention of the legitimate WD-40. An image of the cologne was shared to the brand’s official Instagram page accompanied by a caption that read, “We are not affiliated with MSCHF (but incredibly impressed by their DIY skills!) and don’t condone the use of actual WD-40® products on the skin or body.” It was both a nod to MSCHF’s genius and another reminder that were big brands allowed the freedom to take big risks, they would likely see an increase in their fanbase. That post received higher engagement from the brand’s followers than any other recently populating its feed, proving that disruption doesn’t always need to be ground-breaking in order to be effective. All it takes is a bit of grease.