With the UNITE cologne collection we went from the drawing board to the first crowd-funded boutique cologne in two years.
Here are five lessons we learned along the way...
Lesson One - It’s Personal
You cannot underestimate how personal cologne is. It’s something that your loved ones will remember you for when you’re not around. There’s nothing so visceral as scent, and it should be something you choose with extreme care.
So step one was understanding who was going to wear the fragrance: luckily if you’re a Thomas Clipper man we know you quite well by now...
You’re understated. You expect a world-class scent, but don’t need the whole world to know they’re wearing it. Subtle and nuanced, not overpowering.
You’re well travelled. You want to know that we bottled the best the world has to offer.
And you want something utterly unique, but you also expect a fragrance that is sophisticated and balanced: you’ve got nothing to prove.
This mix of characteristics led us to a difficult quandary: how to make a unique, but subtle cologne for every man.
Necessity being the mother of invention, this led us to our blending cologne idea: the concept of three colognes that are fantastic alone, but can be blended by you every time you wear them.
Lesson Two - Don’t Settle
We started developing the UNITE Collection 2 years ago. It’s possible to create an average cologne really quickly. Pick up the phone and an industrial fragrance house will throw something together at the drop of a hat (and the signing of a development contract...).
And that’s how we started the process. Initially, we were trying to tell ourselves that the fragrances that we were getting our hands on were good… great even. The truth was that they were the same as any other cologne on the market. If you’re not adding anything, why bother?
Going back to the drawing board and starting with new partners from scratch was a huge risk. What if the next developers are the same? What if we sink even more prototyping budget into colognes we aren’t happy with?
But sticking with a sub-par product is never going to satisfy our customers in the long run. Or even the short run to be honest (see Lesson One… you're a picky bunch!).
Lesson Three - If they’re good, they’ll want to have skin in the game…
After abandoning the industrial route, we found that in artisanal production everything is completely different. We shouldn’t have been surprised: this is our bread and butter. We know with craftsmen and women you’ve got to show that you’re doing something worthwhile first. If they believe in you they’ll invest their time, talent and materials to help the project get off the ground.
Richard made our initial bowl and brush prototypes free of charge. Sara showed us around the soap workshop and gave us our first Juniper pucks before we’d signed anything. It’s the same with small-batch boutique cologne.
The model works like this - if a perfumer believes in you they’ll agree to develop as many scents as it takes, free of charge. How can they do this? They’re banking on your success - they’re banking on re-orders.
Working with experts who have skin in the game means you get honest feedback, dedicated service and most importantly, you get an exceptional product.
Lesson Four - You can have it good or easy, but not both...
Because of Lesson Three, artisans of all stripes are, quite rightly, wary of who they work with. They want somebody who’s serious, who’s in it for the long game, and who understands the unique level of skill they bring to the table.
For that reason, they don’t always pick up the phone. Or reply to emails. Or open the door when you knock…
In fact, for the UNITE collection we travelled in person to Grasse three times before we found our ‘nose’ (developer). The first time we didn’t find a single open door, but by chance we did meet a fantastic ‘man on the inside’, a seasoned perfumer who was the brother in law of our AirBnB hosts.
The second time we had a series of short meetings arranged by our Grassoise fixer. And the third time driving to the south of France we were able to try the first scents and choose our partners for UNITE.
We learnt that you can have it easy, or you can have it good. In the world of artisanal production, the two rarely go hand in hand - and cologne development is no exception.
Lesson Five - Stick to your guns
This isn’t really a lesson. But it’s something we believe in.
We found out early in production that if we were going to sell in China and a couple other large markets, we’d have to do animal testing. This is mandatory for reasons of perceived health and safety.
China is a huge market. But there are certain lines that we’re not comfortable crossing (see our synthetic badger brush for another example).
Similarly, we are far from a large company, so every penny matters to us at this stage. But when we were sitting down to discuss the idea behind UNITE we thought it was important that if we could we would make sure the product benefited the wider world. So we made the biggest single ingredient (the alcohol) 100% organic. As with the animal testing question, we believe that a small step in the right direction is better than standing still.
Bonus Lesson Six - Ignore these lessons and go your own way
Well, possibly don’t ignore lesson five! But the point here is that you shouldn’t listen to what other people - including us - are saying. You should pursue your own vision.
If we’d just gone the same route as everyone else we’d never have had the audacity to launch three colognes at once with a blending concept at the core. This was not something anyone had done before in men’s premium cologne.
So to really do something different and exciting you have to do your own thing. Best of luck with it whatever it is. It won't be easy if it's worth doing, but if you've got the vision and persistence then it will be worth it in the end.