This Former Ralph Lauren Exec Wants to Change How You Buy Cologne
Eric Korman fell into the fragrance business by accident. Before he became head of digital marketing and e-commerce for Ralph Lauren in 2010, the last time he put on cologne “was probably to my seventh-grade dance,” he says with a laugh. But he began wearing the fashion house’s signature scents to the office.
At the same time, Korman began looking into why Ralph Lauren’s fragrances weren’t selling as well as he thought they could at a time when such digital retail brands as Warby Parker and Bonobos Inc. were launching increasingly successful e-commerce operations.
After stocking up on bottles from niche brands such as Byredo AB and Le Labo Inc. at Barneys New York during walks to work, Korman started geeking out. “I quickly saw that by and large, nothing had really changed since the days of Mad Men-era marketing,” he says. He left Ralph Lauren in 2014 and the following January launched Phlur Inc., an online-only retailer of eco-friendly fragrances that prides itself on permanently liberating customers from “walking into a department store and having the sales guy spraying something into your face,” says Korman.
Having no insider knowledge of the nuts and bolts of launching a fragrance, Korman surrounded himself with people who did, including David Apel and Nathalie Benareau, senior perfumers at flavor and fragrance behemoth Symrise AG, as well as author and former New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr. Korman’s wife, a graphic designer and former art director of Glamour magazine, became a creative touchstone, helping to design campaigns, social media initiatives, and minimalist packaging.
To bridge the gap between selling something inherently sensory to a customer who has to pay before smelling it, Korman focused on a sample set to win skeptics over. For $18, the company will deliver three 2-millimeter atomized vials that offer about a month of sprays. Within 30 days, that $18 can be applied to a 50mL bottle, which costs at $85.
One, called Greylocke, has fragrance notes of sea salt, bergamot, birch leaf, silver vetiver, and pine resin. Another, Hepcat, contains saffron, black vetiver, tobacco, and oud. Olmsted & Vaux, named for the architects of Manhattan’s Central Park, smells of shiso leaf, white ginger, orange flower, and maté.
Last month, Phlur released three candles that are “translations” of the fragrances: An interpretation of the brand’s Olmsted & Vaux fragrance is Claremont, a bright, crisp scent designed to give a hit of energy for an invigorating start to the day. Another is a take on Phlur’s Hanami fragrance and is called Annica, which has notes of fig, hazelnut, and sandalwood. At $68 each, they are similarly priced as perennial favorites D.S. & Durga, Diptyque, and Molton Brown.
Though Korman didn’t set any limitations on ingredient costs or time spent experimenting with new formulas, one stipulation was firm. “Everything going into the bottle has to be good for the consumer and good for the planet,” he says. “We have a filter for ingredients that can’t go in: parabens, phthalates, BHT, and certain types of musks.” The company doesn’t use ingredients from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened plants, either.
For every bottle sold, Phlur also donates $5 to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which has so far enabled the Swiss NGO to research and document 50 previously unlisted endangered species; each sale of Olmstad & Vaux sends the $5 directly to the Central Park Conservancy. In its approach to giving back, the Phlur team, which set up shop in Austin after Korman fell in love with that city, also focuses its efforts locally. Phlur holds all-team service days quarterly, having most recently helped organize the logistical operation of Austin’s Dress for Success offices. It also regularly partners with Goodwill when it comes to finding freelance workers.
This business model and approach to customer relations has been paying off. In addition to the candles, three new fragrances are set to come out within a year. “We have over 25,000 paying customers and have exceeded our initial expectations,” says Korman. “It’s all about creating a product that’s evocative and interesting from a fragrance perspective, good for the skin, thoughtful about the planet, and available at an honest price.”