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Assorted Atomizers: HOOHAA Founders on Curated Niche Fragrance Subscription Service

September 24, 2021 Carla Seipp
September 24, 2021
HOOHAA

Describing itself as “No-Nonsense Niche Fragrance,” HOOHAA is looking to open the doors of niche and luxury perfumery for scent newbies and veterans alike.

Fragrance discovery has always been a challenging field for consumers; from nebulous descriptions to attempting to interpret fragrance notes without knowledge of the actual raw material smell, not to mention the expansive range of products to choose from, it can be an overwhelming world indeed. Annual fragrance revenue totalled $2,254.1MM in the UK alone, so the curiosity is undoubtedly present, but, for some, requires a bit of guidance and direction.

Unique to HOOHAA’s model is that the subscription service (for £14.95 a month) is unisex, and 10ml-sized scents are preselected for customers, with the option to choose from three overarching edits: Easy Does It, Buckle Up, and Take Me to Mars, offering an ascending level of adventurousness. Brands available include The Zoo (by BeautyMatter interviewee Christophe Laudamiel), Gallivant, and Maya Njie.

The two minds creating these edits are perfume creators themselves, giving them an insider perspective on the niche market’s offerings. Lorenzo Vasini, a digital entrepreneur, and Ryan Hall, a products, services, and investment growth specialist, founded luxury fragrance brand Vaunt, a modern unisex range offering “fragrances for expression, not suppression” in 2019.

Amidst launching their subscription service, Vasini and Hall sat down with BeautyMatter to discuss their curation process, curb appeal, and genderful fragrance.

What prompted the launch of HOOHAA, and how did having your own brand prior inform your approach?

HOOHAA was a result of the journey we took creating Vaunt. It was clear there were more great brands out there that people needed to discover, but getting them in front of a bigger audience was hard. Many stores can put consumers off, as they're worried they might not know what notes or types of perfumes they are looking for. After all, who knows what Calville Blanc apple aromas, sacred top notes, and unicorn farts are?! So we decided to make it happen, in the shape of a subscription business, rather than a straightforward e-commerce website. And with the mission to help anyone who wants to discover new and often better-quality fragrances, without the pretence, pomp, or arrogance. It's about getting the good stuff out there without the ego and just letting the product and brands speak for themselves.

“Because perfumes in department stores have such a limited window of time to capture a customer's attention, they're giving all of their best bits up straight away, which can sometimes lead to a disappointing wearing experience.”
By Lorenzo Vasini and Ryan Hall, Founders, Vaunt

What is the curation process like, both in terms of the niche brands you work with and the monthly sets?

The process of deciding which perfumes make it into our curations is both a joy and a gauntlet. For us, there are many parameters as to how we define a fragrance as excellent. This goes far beyond the technicalities of a well-composed perfume. When testing a new scent on the skin, we are looking at the aromas used and how those move together throughout the course of the fragrance's trajectory throughout the day, and if there are any gaps or places we feel the fragrance seems incomplete. We also pay a lot of attention to what happens in the drydown.

The experience that HOOHAA offers is entirely different from a customer experience in a department store. A lot of perfumes found in the beauty halls have what we like to call curb appeal. Because perfumes in department stores have such a limited window of time to capture a customer's attention, they're giving all of their best bits up straight away, which can sometimes lead to a disappointing wearing experience. However, because our customers get to experience scent differently, we like to do our best to make sure the perfumes found on HOOHAA deliver for them and how they will be experiencing them.

Seasonality is crucial, and one thing we take into account when curating the monthly subscription edits. Just through our own experience, we're aware of what sort of fragrances people enjoy at different times of the year. However, we're fortunate in that we offer three very distinct paths to hop in between. For instance, our Easy Does It customers received Maya Njie's Les Fleurs in July, a fantastic laidback citrus floral white T-shirt scent, appropriate for any occasion. Our Take Me to Mars customers got 4160Tuesdays' Maxed Out, which uses a whopping dose of cumin. Cumin can smell quite sweaty, which might not be for everyone during a heat wave; however, those customers subscribed to that edit specifically for that reason. They want a challenge!

To select a brand, we put them through our QCQ process. It stands for Quality, Culture, and Quantities.

Quality: Are these good perfumes? Do they feel complete, considered work? Do they make sense narratively? Do they evoke a response? Are they aesthetically pleasing and a joy to use? There's a lot we consider because we want you to have a great experience overall!

Culture: The culture of the brands we work with is vital to us. We want to work with and support brands we feel are putting good out into the world, which goes beyond smelling good.

Quantities: Smaller, independent brands are doing some of the most adventurous work in perfumery. There's also an element of sustainability tied to their work because of the small quantities they produce. Sustainability is important to us as it affects everyone.

Scent can be incredibly subjective. How do the single scents you choose each month offer broad appeal?

That's a tough one to balance. The last thing we'd ever want to do is clip the claws from any of the edits out of fear they might not be congenial enough. However, we feel that the quality and craftsmanship that goes into the perfumes we're curating elevates them to another space that transcends individual taste.

Since we launched, one of the most gratifying experiences is customers telling us how they would never have imagined wearing a particular type of perfume but taking to it after receiving their subscription. And these are the same sort of things we experienced in our personal fragrance explorations. Perfumes that we hated at first sniff have gone on to become favourites.

What is your advice for brands looking to stand out amongst the large stream of constantly launching products?

Start small. Debuting with an extensive collection can come off as a box-ticking exercise. We would never expect one brand to have a product to accommodate every type of fragrance, and it's not something we would even want. Anyone thinking of launching a brand should also really do their homework and know what's out there already. We smell so many things, and sometimes the only thought we have on them is, "Why does this exist?"

Since 2016 there have been almost 5,000 new perfumes launched every year. It's an extremely oversaturated market, and instead of inspiring curiosity as we imagine these people launching brands hope it might, it's causing customers to become fatigued. They don't want to spend weeks sampling brands and looking for magic when they could be wearing perfumes they already know they love.

As researchers of the fragrance market, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions or surprises?

We feel there are a lot of misconceptions around ingredients used to make perfumes. Much of this is off the back of really unhelpful marketing copy—“finest quality ingredients,” which are almost always rooted in naturalism. A brand may very well be using an exquisite ingredient grown right in the heart of Grasse and picked at the crack of dawn while its petals are still laden with dew (cue: dramatic music). However, it's a bit of a piss-take, for the perfumer is only actually using a drop of that and leaving out the fact the rest is put together with synthetically derived aroma molecules.

That's not at all a dig on synthetics—quite the contrary. We would not be able to have perfume as we know it today without using synthetic aroma molecules. We feel that it's a shame that they have been left out of the conversation surrounding perfume for over a century. It's only now that we are beginning to see some of them creeping into notes lists, usually ambroxan, cashmeran, or Iso E Super. Perfume is not just a story built around beauty. Science is the other side of the story, and one people are becoming increasingly curious about.

What has the response been like?

The support we've had has been incredible—way beyond where we hoped for at this point. Not only are our customers loving the products that we're helping them discover, but they're getting our brand and personality. People seem to connect with our slightly irreverent but straightforward approach to helping people discover new, unique scents through subscription. The fact that we've got both is bloody brilliant, and it also means we're resonating with the right people, and our concept is what people really want.

What is your customer demographic?

It's a little early to be entirely certain about this, but we know for sure that 65% of our customers are women, between 21-50 years old. We have people from a broad range of industries, from creative agency owners to finance professionals, and biochemists, so the appeal seems to be pretty wide.

But most of our customers are looking for something different. It might be in how they dress, how they style their homes, what places they visit. Our customer is generally not looking to do what the masses are doing.

"The truth is that the population still struggles with the concept of a unisex fragrance. They feel safe knowing that a scent has been labelled safe for a man or woman."
By Lorenzo Vasini and Ryan Hall, Founders, Vaunt

Why do you think it has taken so long for the larger fragrance industry to adopt a unisex approach?

This is a really thorny issue, to be honest. People into niche fragrances get it, but the truth is that the population still struggles with the concept of a unisex fragrance. They feel safe knowing that a scent has been labelled safe for a man or woman. Lots of men don't want to smell girly, and women don't want to smell manly. So the big fragrance houses don't want to risk a sales decline, especially at this time after the pandemic.

But things are changing slowly, and we want to be one part of that movement, helping democratize fragrance and open people’s minds up to things they might never normally discover, or consider wearing for themselves. Prior to the post-war period, with the exception of perhaps Caron’s Pour Un Homme, which came out in the 1930s, there really were no hard lines between what was sold to men and what was sold to women when it came to fragrance. It was only in that economic boom that followed that brands delighted in the fact they could make twice as much money selling one selection of perfumes to madame and another set to monsieur.

The perfume-buying public thought Calvin Klein was doing something really revolutionary in the 1990s with CK One, but they were actually just capitalising on an idea that was always there. The industry was slow to adopt the approach simply because it was more economically beneficial not to until niche perfumery really took off. Not only were the concepts fuelling the design of fragrances within the niche sphere no longer about attracting the object of your affection, but the customer experience slowly began to change as well with more customers taking the time to make more informed choices by being able to purchase samples and get to know new perfumes in their own time.

However, once the larger brands that typically populated the designer end of the market that capitalized on binaries started seeing how much money there was to be made within “niche,” they too introduced their own collections—Chanel’s Les Exclusifs and La Collection Privée from Dior for example—all of which were marketed as unisex.

Interestingly, though, the conversation regarding gender in fragrance is evolving to what one brand called “genderful.” As more people come round to engaging with scent as a vehicle for deeper self-expression, terms such as genderless and gender neutral are beginning to feel like a disservice to utilizing perfume in this way because people want to reflect their gender identity through the perfumes they’re wearing. Empowering people to discover a full spectrum of gender through scent can be deeply gratifying and very fun.

There’s always going to be a generous proportion of “unisex” fragrances. Many of the concepts and narratives used as inspiration for perfumes don’t touch upon gender at all, so it simply would not make sense for them to dip into binaries; however, as more people begin to experiment with fragrance in their own personal perfume wardrobes and olfactory exploration, they’ll be less afraid to dip their toes into pools they thought they’d never be able to swim in. A case in point is Verano Porteño by Frassai. We’ve had so many men raving about this scent, that traditionally they may have been hesitant to wear, based on its floral nature.

How do you see the future of fragrance retail developing?

We see it changing in a few ways:

Shift to online: The pandemic has helped people rethink their online purchasing habits. With fragrance, they've likely taken the leap with more blind buys than before or signed up to some discovery service to feed their habit. At the least, they've used online to replenish existing favourites. In doing so, they've realised that testing fragrance in their home over a more extended period is a far more effective way.

In-store innovation: The restrictions forced on retail by COVID and the shift to online will accelerate the need for a change in the in-store fragrance experience. We can't go back to the old days of invasive overzealous sales assistants spraying the latest releases at people. Retailers will have to think more carefully about facilitating discovery in a less high-octane environment. We've seen Coty come up with a touchless fragrance tester that delivers a single droplet of liquid directly to an arm or a blotter.

Change in form factor: We're declaring the end of the 100ml bottle as the default choice for consumers. We think there are too many fragrance graveyards out there, and people will soon wake up to the waste and the restriction this places on them. Once they realise a signature scent is something the brands invented to keep them coming back for more of the same perfume. Once consumers are educated about the concept of a fragrance wardrobe, they will want to have more choices. And this will mean smaller bottles being bought more frequently. And we think there will be more ways to wear scent. Think gel pens, car air fresheners, roll-ons, etc.

Sustainability: Soon enough, the excessive packaging that helps brands stand out from their competitors will become the very thing that stands in the way of them and their consumers. Single-use plastics, the use of natural, and clean beauty are all prominent themes that brands will need to navigate in the coming months and years.

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