When longtime friends Brian Jeong and Philip Wong came up with the idea to start their own men’s fragrance company, they knew that one of the most effective ways of appealing to the modern millennial consumer was simple: customization. But naturally, what was simple to pinpoint from a marketing perspective – namely, offering up a personalized scent experience catered to each individual customer – would take a bit more work to execute in practice. Nevertheless, Jeong and Wong, armed with their joint expertise in business and design, have managed to do just that: create a one-of-a-kind men’s fragrance that tailors itself to the interests, personality, and biometric qualities of each unique customer. Here, Jeong shares the story (and the science) behind how that customized fragrance, Hawthorne, came to be.
How did you and your partner, Phil, come to meet and start working together?
Phil and I have actually been friends since we were 12 years old. I guess you can kind of say that Hawthorne as a concept began back then. We became best friends really quickly because we were always really interested in skateboarding and fashion, like streetwear, and sneakers – things like that. When we graduated high school, we took the gift money that we got from like our parents and our relatives and we started a clothing brand together. We made t-shirts and then we started making sweaters, hats, crewnecks – a bunch of different things. And we had an online store but we were mostly selling through the same boutiques that we had shopped at together as kids, like Supreme, which was really cool.
That’s awesome! So you guys have always been a bit entrepreneurial. How did you eventually switch over into the world of men’s fragrances?
It was around the time that I was in my first year of business school at Wharton, and I had received the fragrance called Bamboo Harmony by Kilian from my girlfriend as a present. Phil and I had this mutual – I don’t even know what to call it – I guess it was like a mutual enamoration with the fragrance. But the problem was that it was just so expensive. I think it was like $300. Like, it was just something that we would never be able to afford. So we started thinking about how we could make these beautiful fragrances that use more raw materials and focus on the qualities of niche ingredients, but make that accessible to people like us; to young, working, male millennials.
How is that process different, though, than creating female-based fragrances?
Well guys, for the most part, aren’t shopping at Sephora; they’re not in department stores on the beauty floor. And they don’t want to be, whether that’s because of a preference or just because they just don’t know where to start. I mean, when you look at the numbers, 43 percent of men receive their fragrance or cologne as a gift from someone, and over 50 percent of fragrances are purchased by women. So we realized early on that the experience was fundamentally broken for working male millennials, and we wanted to create an experience to make it really simple and easy to access, which is why we went digital.
So that kind of explains the digital component of Hawthorne. What about the customized component? What made you guys decide to do a customized fragrance for men?
We tried a lot of different ways to go about it. Like, we looked at the Warby Parker model of trying it at home, where we could send people samples and they could see what they like. And then we looked at a wine club-type example, where you could get a different scent every month or every couple of months. And I think the realization as we betaed all of these different experiences is that what we needed to deliver for today’s consumer is something that’s not only high quality and accessible from a price point, but that’s also curated. That can mean personalized, or selected for you – anything to really just filter out the noise to deliver something that’s just right for you. That’s when we started thinking about creating a tailored fragrance based on biometric aspects in addition to lifestyle traits.
How did you go about coming up with the tailored experience?
So, there have already been dozens of studies done by professors at research universities, as well as that have been commissioned by beauty companies like L’Oreal and Estée Lauder, that have looked into what drives scent preference. So we started with those studies – which looked at things like personality, skin oil levels, and taste preference – as a foundation. But then we took things a step further by using those findings to come up with our own tailoring algorithm. We did our own fragrance testing by taking a bunch of fragrances and doing a roadshow where we talked to several hundred different people from different backgrounds and communities. For each person, we asked them to self-identify through a series of 30-40 questions, and then we had them smell the scents and rate them. Then we took all of that information and we correlated it with the scent categories of the different fragrances, as well as the specific scent notes that were in each. So it was basically a statistical correlation where we were able to use all these different aspects to see what the most important questions in the set were and to use those to build this algorithm that, after some tweaking, eventually allowed us to identify scent preference at over 88 percent accuracy. So for us, it was really exciting.
For each customer, the tailoring experience results in two scents as opposed to one: a “work” fragrance, and a “play” fragrance. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
It goes back to this idea of “cologne made simple,” you know. That’s what we always refer to Hawthorne’s mission as. We really wanted to make it easy for guys to not only experience fragrance, but to use it, too. So it’s not only about selling it to them, but it’s also about getting them to use it regularly, and to use it in the right way. When you look at a lot of other cultures, like European cultures, fragrance is a lot more common in daily usage for men, and in American culture, it’s more like, “Oh, I’m going on a date, I’ll wear this bottle of Acqua di Gio that I stole from my dad that’s been on my dresser for ten years.” So we really want to show that, you know, it’s okay to wear fragrance at work, it’s okay to smell good all the time – but you probably don’t want to wear that heavy tobacco vanilla musk in the office because someone’s gonna be really pissed off at you. That’s why we created the work/play packaging, because it just makes it really clear where and when each one is supposed to be used, and it’s our responsibility then to get you the right scent. That’s why one of the questions we kept on the survey is about where you work, because something that might be right for someone who works as a bartender is not going to be the same thing as someone who works in a corporate office.
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I know that you guys work with three extremely talented and well-respected perfumers in the fragrance industry: Olivier Gillotin, Quentin Bisch, and Rodrigo Flores-Roux. How did they come to collaborate with you guys?
We’re really, really lucky. When we first started off, we went to the largest and most recognized fragrance house in the world, Givaudan, and we pitched them on the idea. When they agreed to partner with us on this, we were just really honest and told them we were willing to take any of their perfumers that had the time. We understood that we weren’t, you know, Polo or one of those big name brands. But they really pulled out all the stops for us and set us up with Olivier, Rodrigo, and Quentin, who are just these heavy hitters. And each of them is very skilled in a lot of different fragrances, but definitely brings different expertise to the table, too. Rodrigo, for example, is referred to in the industry as the king of citrus. So that was really valuable to us; to have a range of expertise across the board.
I’m sure it was really cool for them, too, to be doing something so different from anything they had done previously in all their time in the industry, right?
Oh yeah. I mean, they’ve been in the industry for 20-30 years, and I think for them, the level of quality and simplicity that we asked them to work around – that’s something that they told us they’ve been fighting to achieve. I mean we didn’t go to them with something too out there, you know. For us, it’s all about that simplicity.
So how collaborative was the scent-making process then? Did you guys go to them with a very clear idea of what you wanted, or did you kind of let them get in the driver’s seat?
We told them to run with what they thought. We told them that while other brands may limit the funds because they’re worried about margins, we were willing to spend as much as we needed on the ingredients they wanted to use. And I think they found that really liberating, because they’re artists and so being able to give them that creative ownership and license to create what they wanted was exciting. All we really asked was that they stay within the boundaries of the five major scent categories that men wear today – citrus scents, sweet wood, dry wood, aquatic, and fougère – and that they keep our main prompt in mind, which was to create the “classic scents of our generation” – kind of like the “modern classics.” So we worked with them over the course of a few months, and in the end, we were just really, really happy with what they created.
What would you say has been the toughest part of launching Hawthorne?
I think the biggest open question is still, just, “Can you sell fragrances exclusively online?” It’s not like clothes where you can picture yourself in it or really see it in your head.
Yeah, that’s definitely tough. Has the reception been positive so far, though?
Yeah, I mean we launched in the fall and it’s been going really well! It’s been really exciting to see the influx of interest and orders. I mean, we’re trying to prove that we can get it right for you just by asking a few questions. And the algorithm that we had identified in a vacuum had the 88 percent success rate which was great, but we’ve been really happy because our return rate has been under 3 percent. So it’s been so exciting and shocking for us to see that it’s working even better than we expected. At the end of the day, if we had ten times the number of orders we have now but our return rate was worse than what we had predicted, that would make us seriously question whether or not this was the right way to do it. But what we’re seeing now is that the experience is working, and we just need to get more people into it.
Where do you hope to see Hawthorne go down the road?
I mean, I think what we’re trying to accomplish here is that in five years or something, when a young male professional needs a new bottle of cologne, we don’t want him to think, “Oh, I’m going to get this bottle that my dad wore,” or, “I’m going to wait until Christmas when my aunt buys me some.” We want his first thought to be, “I’m going to get my Hawthorne.” And that won’t be a specific scent, you know. It’s not the Dior Sauvage that Johnny Depp is telling him to get. It’s going to be his work, and his play. I think that’s a bigger goal for us to accomplish. We want to be the fundamental way that men experience fragrance. It’s a tall task, but one we’re up for.