Most American men aren’t buying fragrances, but women are driving the $327 million market through gift-giving. “There’s a lack of knowledge and even a sense of fear with men when it comes to cologne and self-care products,” Hawthorne co-founder Brian Jeong says from his Tribeca office. Jeong “wanted to get men to buy cologne for themselves.” Since launching the data-driven fragrance label Hawthorne in 2016, Jeong (a former product manager responsible for creating e-commerce experiences for tech companies including Microsoft) and his childhood friend turned business partner Phillip Wong (a Hood by Air design team alum) have done just that. Their simple, yet effective quiz has paired thousands of men with scents based on their dietary habits, profession, skin type and more.
This month, with a redesigned site and rejiggered questionnaire, the duo unveils Hawthorne’s first foray into body wash, soap and deodorant. While they’re banking on the success of their customer-centric model—one focused on education and personalization instead of sexy, aspirational advertising—quality is still front of mind. Jeong and Wong have enlisted premier skincare labs including Aware Products in Los Angeles and Fall River, Massachusetts-based firm Commonwealth Soap Lab (suppliers to Malin + Goetz) to create a range of products made with natural oils and vegetable-derived glycerine. Steering clear of potentially harmful ingredients, witch-hazel takes the place of aluminum in their deodorants, while sulfates (sudding agents that unnecessarily strip oils from one’s skin) and parabens (preservatives that extend a product’s shelf-life and disrupt one’s hormonal balance) have been eliminated.
Jeong and Wong are demystifying men’s skincare products like they did fragrances. 80% of their clientele are blue- and white-collar men in middle America, not the city-dwelling creatives that minimalist, direct-to-consumer brands typically attract. By bringing high-quality skincare to a group that’s spent years buying body-wash in bulk at the supermarket, Hawthorne not only inspires questions about low-quality products, but also high-end ones. Made with the best ingredients by industry experts and priced at just $15 a pop, Hawthorne’s skincare line is a fit rival those of Aesop and Acqua di Parma.
While selling something as nuanced as skincare products and fragrances online may seem tricky, Hawthorne’s 18-question survey has ensured a return and exchange rate below 3%. “The process was arduous,” Wong says of landing on the simplified quiz. “We initially tested three ways of discovery. One was a try-and-buy program in which you get a couple of products, decide which ones you want and then upgrade. The other was an interactive game that simulated a lab, but this quiz seemed to resonate the most.”
Getting here wasn’t a sexy process
Over the course of two years, they pared down a list of 50 traits while keeping the algorithm dynamic. “Each question that you answer impacts the final outcome. Just because a group of people work in creative industries and prefer wine doesn’t mean they’ll all be paired with the same products, some of them will have dry skin, others more or less body odor changing the results,” Jeong explains. “Getting here wasn’t a sexy process.”
Neither is keeping up with the brand’s digital infrastructure. Each change to the algorithm—made every two to three weeks per shifts in consumer trends, seasonality and the introduction of new products—requires a team of four to test and review on a staging site before deploying updates to the public. By the time they reach Hawthorne.co, the changes have been reviewed nearly 200 times. “We’re a data driven brand,” Jeong asserts. While that may be true, it’s one-on-one conversations that have made Hawthorne’s quiz, algorithm and products most effective. “We went out there and talked to thousands of guys ourselves,” he adds, noting that he and Wong continue to speak with everyone from fashion insiders and skincare heavyweights to college students, family and friends. “Ultimately this about understanding what people want,” Wong says, “You can’t do that with just numbers.”
Images courtesy of Hawthorne, portrait by James Cole