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The Making of an American Fragrance House: How Fulton & Roark Found Its Groove

Published May 28, 2024
Published May 28, 2024
Fulton & Roark

America is known for many things—baseball, fast food, and Hollywood, to name a few—but fragrance isn’t one of them. When co-founders Kevin Keller and Allen Shafer founded Fulton & Roark in 2012, they purposefully tossed tradition out the window and started from scratch to create an entirely new category of fragrance, one they’re calling American fine fragrance.

“We just kept seeing this arc emerge over and over. Whether you're talking about fine wine, beer, or chocolate, this thing kept happening where Americans imitate the European establishment, and they do a bad job,” Keller tells BeautyMatter.

“Then, we eventually get weird and start doing things our own way—not attempting to imitate the European establishment, just doing things that make sense to us. We wanted to do that same thing with fragrance.”

The gamble on weird seems to have worked. Fulton & Roark has been profitable for 10 years straight and has grown every year. The fine fragrance brand is currently available at about 450 retailers throughout the US and Canada and just launched on Total sales last year were about $4 million, and the brand is currently on track to clear $7 million by the end of 2024. Keller and Shafer started Fulton & Roark with just $11,000 and have managed to achieve this slow and steady growth without any outside investments. Much of that growth in the last few years was due to the brand’s popularity on #PerfumeTok, a highly engaged community of fragrance enthusiasts on TikTok.

Fulton & Roark’s big bet on weird aligned perfectly with the rise of the fragrance category and the subsequent changing taste of fragrance consumers. US prestige fragrance was the fastest-growing beauty category in Q1 based on sales revenue, up 13% year over year, according to Circana. Gen Z are also big fragrance fans, with 83% using fragrance in 2023, up 5% from the previous year. A few fragrances became wildly popular during this time, like Le Labo Santal 33, Phlur Missing Person, and Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540. As the popularity of fragrances continues to rise, savvy consumers are increasingly seeking unique scents. Fulton & Roark boasts scents with notes of bell paper, ginger, and coriander mixed with traditional fragrance bases like vetiver, sandalwood, and vanilla. The result are scents that’s completely different from anything else on the market—unconventional yet captivating.

BeautyMatter caught up with Fulton & Roark co-founder Kevin Keller to discuss the brand’s unique journey into the world of beauty and grooming and the strategies they’ve used to navigate the ever-changing fragrance landscape.

To create Fulton & Roark, Keller and Shafer stripped away everything they thought they knew about fragrance, starting with the delivery. Instead of developing an eau de cologne or perfume, which is the expected format, and basically sacred in the fragrance world, Fulton & Roark launched in 2013 with solid, wax-based fragrances. The refillable containers are pocket- and purse-friendly, allowing customers to freshen up throughout the day.

“When we launched, literally no one was doing solid cologne,” says Keller. “We were trying our best to do the exact opposite of familiar fragrances.”

Initially, the brand focused on opportunities in the men’s grooming space. At the time, men were just starting to lean into self-care. 2-in-1 products were trending among most guys, but some men wanted more. “Metrosexual” was a popular term to describe straight men who enjoyed fashion and took an interest in grooming products. The modern man in 2013 wanted products that were made just for him.

“Both my partner and I saw things in the [men’s] grooming and fragrance space that just annoyed us, but we also thought were solvable problems,” says Keller. “Men wanted to take better care of themselves and try new things. What we saw on the market was the same old, same old, just slightly repackaged.”

In the 2010s, brands like Glossier, Dollar Shave Club, and Harry’s were pioneering the DTC trail. True to form, Fulton & Roark decided to do something different and only offer its products exclusively in select high-end men’s retail stores.

“We just thought, if this is on the internet, no one's going to search for it,” recalls Keller. “This is a format they've never heard of and fragrances they've never smelled. If this is a department store, no one will know what this is. It’s just going to look like a shiny rock, and no one's going to even touch it.

Fulton & Roark’s initial strategy was to rely on sales associates' expertise at these high-end men’s retail stores to introduce the product to men who had never tried a solid fragrance before. The brand eventually created an e-commerce store at the behest of publications that wanted to feature its products in online articles, and today, DTC is 75% of Fulton & Roark’s total revenue.

Fulton & Roark’s unique scents are what initially set them apart from the crowded fragrance market and put them on the map. Each one of the brand’s scents is inspired by a different place in the U.S., which helps potential customers understand where a fragrance comes from before they even smell it. Fragrance is difficult for even experts to talk about, and this approach simplifies the process of picking a scent.

“We want to be very approachable in the way we talk about [scent], and tying it to places helps,” says Keller.

Take Thousand Palms, a fragrance inspired by the community of the same name in California’s Coachella Valley. The primary note is green bell pepper, with notes of petitgrain and pink pepper. The slightly spicy scent opens to reveal fresh tuberose and coriander leaf, as well as a hint of mango, all layered across a base note of amber wood. Keller describes it as a floral for people who aren’t into florals and one that men can feel very comfortable stepping into.

“It's great because it's got that fruitiness that you get if you think about slicing into a fresh bell pepper,” he explains. “It’s immediate and green and intense, and then we pair that with this really soft white tuberose. That juxtaposition is really fun in an olfactive sense. It’s weird, and we’re fine with that.”

Even some of Fulton & Roark's more approachable fragrances are just slightly left of center. Blue Ridge is the brand’s “love song to sandalwood,” but with a twist. Typically, a brand that develops a sandalwood fragrance leans heavily into spice elements, which almost always tips it over into the amber category. Fulton & Roark went into development wanting to have a really fresh, light sandalwood fragrance.

“Ours is paired with a lot of blue sage and lemon rind,” says Keller. “It’s light and a very casual sandalwood. It's kind of familiar and comfortable, but it's also a pretty different take on your standard sandalwood fragrance. We try to have some [fragrances] that are really easy, but never expected.”

After ten years of only producing solid fragrances, Fulton & Roark recently introduced extrait de parfum spray fragrances for the first time, which have a fragrance concentration level of nearly 30%. Eau de cologne typically has a 5-8% fragrance concentration, with eau de parfums performing a little better at 8-10%. The extrait formula offers enhanced longevity and a more intimate sillage, or “scent cloud,” which means that it wears closer to your skin and won’t overpower a room.

“We’ve thought of ourselves as a bit of a fragrance company for introverts,” says Keller. “We love longevity, and we love the depth that comes with a higher concentration. You get more nuance.”

“I've never really understood why oak moss was supposed to only be for men and why women owned jasmine. That doesn't make any sense. You wouldn't do that with food. But somehow with fragrance, we do this weird thing that doesn't make any sense to me.”
By Kevin Keller, co-founder, Fulton & Roark

With such unique fragrances, it can be difficult to get consumers on board to buy a scent they’ve never seen or smelled before. In 2019, Fulton & Roark began to offer discovery sets to allow consumers to sample fragrances before they commit to buying. Each discovery set comes with a $30 code for first-time discovery set buyers. Discovery sets range from $30 for five 1.5ml samples to $65 for 15 1.5ml samples, which makes the discovery set either free or very affordable for those who end up purchasing a full-sized product.

“It's been a really cool way for people who are brand new to Fulton & Roark to experience new things, as well as our current customers who've been customers for a decade to try something they've been kind of curious about for a while,” says Keller.

Sample sizes may look small, but they’re no small feat for indie brands to pull off. While many bigger brands can give out sample sizes for free without much of a hit to their bottom line, small brands don’t have the same luxury. Charging customers for the samples and giving it back to the consumer as a credit ensures that the company doesn’t lose money on non-paying customers.

“As a tiny little company, we didn't want to have to send [our customers] stuff for free,” says Keller. “We've actually found that that helps us find better customers who are actually kind of serious about finding something, not just people who like free stuff.”

The biggest shift in Fulton & Roark’s business has been moving from a focus on men's products to becoming a gender-neutral brand, which happened naturally over time. In 2018, Fulton & Roark dropped any reference to men in their marketing. For Keller, ditching the gender-specific language felt freeing.

“I've never really understood why oak moss was supposed to only be for men and why women owned jasmine,” he says. “That doesn't make any sense. You wouldn't do that with food. There aren't women's foods and men’s foods. But somehow with fragrance, we do this weird thing that doesn't make any sense to me.”

Fulton & Roark estimated that more than 90% of their customers were men for the first five years of business. Today, the brand estimates that about 35% of its customers are women. That shift continues, as new female customers are outpacing new male customers, with 70% of new customers this year being women.

“Women have come on board as customers like never before,” says Keller. “Our female customers have more than quadrupled in the last three months. Women, I think, in general, are better educated in this space… It's been interesting now that more women are aware of us just how much faster they seem to get it and want to be part of what we're doing.”

Recently, Fulton & Roark has exploded on TikTok, earning 70,000 followers in a short amount of time. Keller believes a large part of that is the highly engaged #PerfumeTok community.

“We've seen this renewed interest in fragrance, which, of course, we're really delighted by, particularly among Gen Z and among TikTok users,” says Keller.

One popular TikTok describes Fulton & Roark’s Cloudland fragrance as “old money luxury.” Elise Loves Smells, a popular fragrance TikToker, says she’s “feral” for the Calle Ocho fragrance. “I have never been this down bad for a fragrance before,” she says. “I want Calle Ocho to be the next viral TikTok perfume. I’m serious; she has me in a chokehold.”

Fulton & Roark may have started as a men’s fragrance brand, but it really found its momentum when it dropped the men’s label and embraced the audience that loved its unconventional scent combinations. Keller says he isn’t particularly interested in narrowly defining who is and isn’t a Fulton & Roark customer. Because the brand is self-funded, it can make a huge shift like this without needing approval from outside investors.

The shift in strategy seems to be working: this year, Fulton & Roark’s DTC business is up 121% compared to last year. Looking towards the future, Keller says the brand would be interested in taking on investment capital, but it would have to be with the right kind of partner that understands its unique approach to fragrance.

“We’ve always been very disciplined and been able to make long-term plays so we can be very true to our vision rather than trying to make investors happy. We've never felt that ticking clock. We wanted to do it our way—the right way.”


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