The New Fragrance Experience: Q&A with Hawthorne for Men

Choosing the right fragrance is tricky. Simply finding one that you like and can afford proves to be a challenge in intimidating department or beauty stores—not to mention that many perfumes and colognes smell either too subtle or absolutely overpowering once you actually wear them. Sure, we all want that effortless, put-together air of someone with a signature scent, but the actual process of finding and buying it often leads to confusion, frustration, and poor decision making.

Seeing a need to change the process of buying a men’s cologne, Brian Jeong and Phillip Wong founded Hawthorne—a cologne experience for the man who craves something curated yet simple. There’s no need to pop into a store for it; instead, a customer completes an online survey that provides his biometrics and lifestyle data. Going beyond mere personal preferences for a scent, it also takes into account what a client eats and the type of work environment he has. The result is actually two fragrances, Work and Play, which are specially crafted for every customer by award-winning perfumers.

Jeong and Wong, who have been friends since they were both twelve years old, both consider themselves fans of niche fragrances like Le Labo, Frederic Malle, By Kilian, and Bamboo Harmony. But even on a decent young professional income, dropping $200-$300 for cologne isn’t always an option.

“We started thinking about how we could create an experience that makes accessible to millennials these exceptional fragrances that use more niche ingredients and focus on the qualities of beautiful raw materials,” Jeong stated. “We quickly realized that fragrance-discovery was out of tune with the shopping rhythms of our generation, so we created an experience for our digital-first generation who demand quality and curation at an affordable price point.”

Considering that shoppers make over 50% of their purchases online and that the perfume and cologne market is saturated with options, Hawthorne solves the frustrating fragrance dilemma for men, the partners who buy for them, and women. “Our overarching goal is to create ‘the classic scents of our generation’—these extremely high quality fragrances that highlight the major fragrance categories—regardless of your gender.” The process itself is simple and straightforward, giving clients a streamlined direct-to-consumer tailored experience.

We got the chance to chat with Brian Jeong about designing Hawthorne (both the product and the experience behind it), updating something traditional for our digital world, and why every person should have two fragrances.

Theresa: How do you feel that your professional backgrounds (Brian in algorithm/biometrics and Phil working at Hood by Air) have helped you develop Hawthorne?

Brian Jeong: We’ve been friends since we were 12 years old, and our friendship first formed over mutual passion for fashion, accessories, and style. For Hawthorne, we are both big picture thinkers and, thus, truly built every part of the experience together.

Phil has always had an eye for clean, impactful aesthetic to go along with his incredible technical abilities. (He even edited our lifestyle video—a 1-man creative powerhouse!) Having been involved firsthand with a truly experiential brand in HBA, Phil understood that the Hawthorne experience begins when the customer first encounters Hawthorne—via social media, press, in-person, etc.—not when they finally make it to our site. And it doesn’t end when the customer places an order or when he receives his package. To this extent, the aesthetic has been designed to remain consistent across all touch points. It’s one holistic experience, and everything he designs from the site to the packaging to the Instagram content is tightly crafted.

My experience is in product development and user experience design as a Product Manager at BCG Digital Ventures, so I am hyper-focused on making sure every part of our experience is a step towards our goal of creating the simplest, and thus best, experience for busy young professionals to discover high quality fragrances that are right for you. A guiding principle of mine and one we adopted for Hawthorne is that anything that we build or add into the experience has to provide more benefit than any pain that it causes. Anything that didn’t fit this requirement got scrapped—samples, gone; detailed ingredient lists, gone; gold-plated packaging, gone. Also, years of statistical analysis in my previous life as a management consultant and paying attention in my statistics classes at Wharton made developing the algorithm a cakewalk (not really :P). I ended up leaving Wharton to pursue Hawthorne full-time, but I am really glad I paid attention in my stats class and sat in on the other stats class I wasn’t enrolled in.

Theresa: Explain to us what the process for determining scents is like.

Brian Jeong: Once a customer completes the survey and provides his biometric and lifestyle data via our online survey, our algorithm identifies which specific fragrances notes and categories he is most likely to enjoy. Some questions are relevant for both your WORK and your PLAY scent (e..g, body temperature, dietary intake) and others are more important for one of your scents (e.g., where you spend your Saturday nights). From there, the algorithm determines which scents in our palette best fits those identified preferences and then presents the tailored two scents to the customer. Before we pack and ship an order, we “sanity check” every order to make sure the algorithm did it’s job. Every once in awhile, we’ll make a last minute tweak to one of the bottles before sending the tailored package out.

Theresa: I think it’s safe to say that people don’t always know what they really want—what people like to smell isn’t necessarily what they like to wear. So how do you balance the client’s personal preferences of fragrance against the natural factors of their life, such as diet or workplace?

Brian Jeong: Our algorithm identifies scent preference using a hybrid quantitative and qualitative approach. While we ask biometric questions like diet and body temperature, we also get to know who the customer is from a social and professional point-of-view. No one attribute decides a customer’s preferred scents; instead, they all work in unison, pushing and pulling until a scent preference is identified. We built the algorithm using research-backed studies about what drives scent preference and then did our own testing with hundreds of fragrance wearers to understand who they are and what scents they enjoy. In this testing, we purposefully collected self-reported data, because we wanted to mimic our site experience and its inputs as much as possible. For example, a lot of individuals will say their drink of choice is “whisky” when in fact they most often drink beer. Our algorithm factors in this variation in order to deliver the most accurate scent tailoring.

Theresa: Fragrances are divided simply by “WORK” and “PLAY.” Why is it important to have a different scent for each?

Brian Jeong: Someone once told me that everyone should have at least two fragrances. We agree, since one scent doesn’t work for all environments. Everyone has that coworker who wears way too much fragrance in the office. Like other parts of our experience, we didn’t want to tell our customers what to do; our mission was to create micro-experiences that naturally encourage positive behavior without our explicit direction. So, instead of telling individuals, “spray this only once during the day,” we designed a designated a bottle for work and made sure it was lighter and avoided stronger, more polarizing ingredients like tobacco and rum. That way, you can wear your work scent without worrying that you’ll announce yourself to the meeting before walking into the conference room.

Theresa: What were your big goals with the packaging for Hawthorne?

Brian Jeong: As stated above, we strived to create a product that naturally encouraged certain behaviors instead of dictating it to you via instruction. For example, a lot of folks keep their fragrance bottles in the bathroom or on the dresser, exposing them to harmful elements like light and heat. Instead of trying (and failing) to drastically change behaviors by telling people to keep their fragrances in the fridge, we decided that we’d make a package that made you want to keep the box and house your bottles in it. We sought inspiration from other items for which you keep the package: cigars, iPhones, watches, and even the jackets of beautiful hardcover books.

In addition, our WORK and PLAY packaging aims to make it clear when and where each should be used. In American culture, there is such a hesitancy to wear fragrances to events other than dates, nights out, etc. We want to say that it’s okay to wear fragrance regularly and even to work as long as it’s not a strong, Axe-like scent!

Theresa: Since Hawthorne is geared towards busy, professional men who value quality, custom items, what particular considerations did you make in this regards when curating the overall experience?

Brian Jeong: Our whole focus is to create an experience that is simple enough that all busy young professionals feel comfortable and confident discovering and using it. For the sophisticated fragrance wearer who is looking for a more unique, higher quality product and is paying over $300 to get that from a niche brand, Hawthorne provides an even more specialized product—tailored, in fact—that's also higher quality and made by the top perfumers in the world. And for the busy guy who doesn’t want to wear his dad’s Armani anymore but but doesn’t want to go to Sephora or a department store, Hawthorne gives him a simple, quick, and affordable way for him to get new fragrances that will fit his tastes and not break the bank.

Theresa: Hawthorne takes something traditional and adds in the modern digital element. What can other businesses or brands can learn from your experience and/or what advice would you have for them?

Brian Jeong: One thing I would recommend is, when building a digital experience, always think "digital-first” and design around the behaviors of your user/customer instead of around the experiences they’re already used to. When we built our digital fragrance experience, we didn't just take the in-store experience and translate it digitally. A lot of e-commerce direct-to-consumer brands expect that selling something online is as simple as making a product available via an online store and benefitting from the lower cost structures (and thus lower prices) and the try-in-the-comfort-of-your home experience.

However, the first version of Hawthorne that we designed and tested was a digital version of today’s in-store fragrance-buying experience (an interactive fragrance lab counter)—it did not resonate at all with our target customer, the busy young male professional. The reason is that some in-store and real-world experiences are so fundamentally sub-optimal that translating them online does nothing to improve the experience. We found the same issue with doing a try-at-home approach: our customers aren’t interested in trying a bunch of tiny sample vials. Instead, we needed to create an experience that gets them a product they demand—high quality and curated—but does so in a way that resonates with the online usage habits of today’s customer—simple, grounded, and quick, yet engaging, fun, and interactive. To this extent, I’d suggest thinking of your customers as users; don’t try to just sell them things, but give them an experience in which they can’t help but buy the product at the end of it.

I’ll also add that a lot of brands try to incorporate several different experiences into their digital storefront. Since the internet essentially gives us unlimited (digital) real estate, we have the space to do as much as we want, and sometimes we get carried away. There are a lot of sites that offer the user multiple different ways to find/buy the same thing: direct buy, survey, sample pack, etc. Most of the time, this complexity just confuses users and makes them default to the experience with which they are already familiar. And this default experience often doesn’t push the envelope.