Interview: How A DTC Personal Care Brand Customizes The Future Of Men's Beauty
PSFK speaks to the founders of men's beauty retailer Hawthorne to understand the strategy behind a consumer-centric brand designing personal care experiences that appeal to male consumers
The beauty industry has been at the epicenter of change, spurred both by consumers’ eagerness for more inclusivity and retail titans, like Sephora, who are streamlining the purchase path with tech-first solutions. Hawthorne, a new DTC beauty brand, takes the ingredients central to this industry disruption and packs them in an inspired approach to beauty retail that places the customer first by using data-driven technologies.
Conceived as a way to help men get more excited about what they put on their bodies, Hawthorne not only emphasizes its products (made cruelty-free and without common additives like sulphates, silicone or aluminum), but also how they’re being sold. Online visitors take a short quiz on Hawthorne’s website and, after learning about their preferences, body types and lifestyles, customers receive a tailored list of products fit for their needs.
PSFK interviewed founders of Hawthorne Brian Jeong and Phil Wong about their modern, consumer-centric approach to men's’ beauty products.
PSFK: How would you describe what Hawthorne does as a brand? What are its goals?
Hawthorne: Our whole goal from the start was to create an acceptable digital‑first experience for modern consumers around the personal care/men's grooming section.
What we really wanted to create was a way to receive products that highlighted customers' individuality, that worked functionally and that made them feel aspirational. Hawthorne is about premium quality products delivered at the end of the experience, but also very much about the purchase experience itself.
Customers go through a quiz and answer questions about their skin type, body chemistry and lifestyle. We then use that information to make sure that we get the right product into their hands, that they know how to use it and that they're using it regularly.
Why did you decide to focus on a guided and personalized path to purchase?
The discovery part of it was very important for us. Phil and I have known each other since we were kids, and we grew up talking about sneakers, style, clothing and of course personal care products.
We realized four or five years ago when we started working on Hawthorne that these were the conversations around grooming, around even style that men weren't really having. Discovery for them was late-night Google searches, GQ ‘best-of' lists. We really wanted to put the power into the modern guy's hand in terms of discovering products in a way that was educational, but also productive and personalized.
Could you describe your process for creating the initial quiz? What kind of data did you collect to design it?
It was about creating a digital-first discovery experience that guys would engage with, and that guys would be comfortable using. We realized that a lot of the products out there on the market just weren't acceptable to guys.
Guys weren't going into Sephora, a department store or, as we said before, talking with their friends about it. We thought, “What is a digital-first way for these guys to buy these products?” We then tested a bunch of different types of discovery experiences, like sampling and an online immersive video game that lets customers create their own products.
We decided on this quiz‑based approach because it was very engaging and very quick in terms of getting the information that we needed to make sure that we made the right recommendations. Also, it was a way for these guys to tell us about themselves, and for us to build a relationship with them.
When we went around speaking with different folks about what mattered to them in terms of the product, in terms of their skin and scent preferences, and we mapped a list of maybe 40‑50 potential self‑reported traits that we could potentially use to make algorithm‑based recommendations.
We used that data and started to narrow it down to create questions. W considered, what are the questions that might be too sensitive to ask? What are the questions that might matter but that the customers might not see why?
The whole process encompassed mapping that information together, getting the algorithm‑based experience online, and gathering the data from our customers and from the hundreds and thousands of guys who were testing our products. It's an ongoing process. We started off with an 85% success rate, and now we're over 95%.
How about that last question—what kind of alcoholic beverage customers prefer. Was that to gauge preferences or just for fun?
There is a lifestyle component to that, but more importantly, 75% of taste is actually aroma. There's actually a direct correlation between taste preference and sense preference. We use that question to understand what things customers might be interested. A little example that we always like to talk about is whiskeys.
If you are a whiskey drinker, we can pretty confidently say that you are probably likely to enjoy certain types of wood scents. We actually can get more nuanced and say the difference between bourbon drinkers, scotch drinkers and even rye drinkers shows itself in their scent preference.
We touched upon the post-purchase element and also helping tailor recommendations over time. Is there a post purchase survey that customers get? How do you you build an ongoing relationship with your customer?
We follow up with all of our customers after they've received their product, and we ask them to use for at least three days. The reason behind that is that as you're switching products that you're using on your body, your body will take a little bit of time to adapt to it.
After that window, we follow up with all of our customers and ask how they liked their products. We connect with any customer who doesn't like the product or is maybe just not totally satisfied because we want to enable great experiences for each customer.
Also, that information is also valuable. We want to make sure our recommendations are spot-on and that customers really feel that these products are perfect for their skin type and preference.
As a DTC brand, what advantages does Hawthorne have over legacy or mass retailers?
From the very beginning, Phil and I were very set on digital as a channel. More importantly, the digital side of it is where the future lies. We’re collecting significant amounts of data around the customer, and making real time recommendations is more conveniently done through an online experience.
The whole customer experience is really unlocked online. This is something that we learned through the great brands that came before us, like Harry's and Dollar Shave Club. They were not only providing the price play, where they have the cheaper razor blades, but they were also providing the convenience of not having to go to the physical store to buy these products that they use regularly.
The most important advantage within digital is that male consumers don't enjoy going to the Sephoras, department stores, and even the local drug stores and supermarkets where most of these products are located. These consumers are running out of their shampoo and using their body wash in their hair, or running out of their deodorant and going without until someone mentions something.
We heard this over and over again. We were dead set on creating an experience that didn't allow this to happen, and that ensured these consumers always had access to the products they needed.
Could you comment on your supply chain operations? Hawthorne has a focus on clean products. How do you enable that?
We are very insistent on getting customers products that are good for them. Customers will come to us and will look for specific products, like deodorant without aluminum or soaps without sulfate.
There are a lot of ingredients we know are bad, and there's plenty of natural alternatives that are safer. We will go ahead and make those decisions for our customers because of this relationship that we have.
There are no sulfates in any of our products, no aluminum, no parabens, no silicones, no talc and no phthalates. It's cruelty‑free. Our standards offer consumers premium quality products.
As for supply chain, we were very insistent on making sure we worked with the best manufacturers who were handling these ingredients to create the formulas. We started a relationship with Givaudan, which is the world's largest and most prestigious fragrance house.
We work with their two top perfumers based in New York—Olivier Gillotin and Rodrigo Flores‑Roux. They are creating products for both mass brands and high‑end niche brands. We went to them and said, “Use whatever you need to from an ingredients standpoint to create incredible, beautiful, high-quality products.”
That was exciting for them because they're been doing this for over 20, 30 years, and for someone to give them that artistic and creative license was exhilarating for them.
We simply wanted to source the best product creators. We went to dozens across the United States because we wanted to make sure we continue to serve products that were only formulated and made in the US. We had them compete against each other.
We went through this process for over a year, going back and forth with them, giving them tweaks, having hundreds of guys test these products. As male consumers become increasingly interested in their look, I think it's important for us not only to create products, but also to create the experience to get those products.
We wanted to create a vehicle to take these guys into the future of men's beauty—or whatever it'll be called. That's how we see Hawthorne,
Hawthorne is designing a consumer experience that appeals to its customers' demands and behaviors, enabling next-gen men's personal care. For more from similar innovative brands, see PSFK's reports and newsletters.
Lead image: Hawthorne via Facebook