Michelle Pfeiffer's Fragrance Brand Took 20 Years (and Plenty of Rejection) to Build
Hear Michelle Pfeiffer discuss her company on the Entrepreneur podcast Problem Solvers:
When Michelle Pfeiffer calls someone, they generally answer. It’s a benefit of celebrity. And so, many years ago, when Pfeiffer wanted to solve a problem, she assumed the solution would be that simple. “I did what, traditionally, a lot of celebrities do, because that was really the only thing that I knew,” she says.
She wanted a fine fragrance company to create a “transparent” product -- that is, a perfume or cologne that would list every ingredient it contains, just like you’d find on the side of your morning cereal box. Nothing like this existed, but perhaps, she thought, that’s just because nobody like her had asked for it. She started reaching out to major cosmetics brands (she won’t name names, but think about the bottles you’d find at Macy’s) and offered her services to them: If they made a transparent fragrance, she’d attach her name to it.
They all said no. “They were unwilling to be 100 percent transparent,” Pfeiffer says. A movie star’s unstoppable star power had met the immovable object: the secrecy of the fragrance industry.
Pfeiffer never really desired to start a business. She’d accomplished plenty as an actor, and a new career wasn’t on her bucket list. But now she faced the kind of crossroads that creates entrepreneurs: Something doesn’t exist in the world; there is a problem to be solved. And there’s only one way to solve it. I will have to do this myself, Pfeiffer thought. I will have to build a company.
“I hope you realize what you’re getting yourself into,” she remembers a friend telling her. “Is this something you really want to do?”
Back then, around 2011, Pfeiffer was dogged and full of optimism. “I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ ” she recalls.
But she didn’t realize what she was getting herself into: years of rejection and failed partnerships and more meetings than she can count within an industry that had almost zero interest in change. “If I had known then how hard it was,” she admits now, “I’m not sure I would have done it.”
And yet she did. She created a brand called Henry Rose, a gender-neutral fine-fragrance company that in April released its first products -- and marked a few historic firsts for the industry.
Henry Rose is the first fine-fragrance company to reveal all its ingredients, and the first to earn two leading organizations’ environmental and safety certifications. And although Pfeiffer has now reached the culmination of a process that spanned 20 years off and on (and fully consumed her for the past three), she knows this is no time to feel smug. “The launch is actually not the end,” she says. “It’s the beginning.”
Pfeiffer, to her own great surprise, has become an entrepreneur.
It all started when she became a parent.
“I began to pay closer attention to the products I was exposing myself and my kids to,” she says -- what they ate, the shampoos they used, the perfumes she sprayed on her body. Around the same time, both her father and best friend were diagnosed with cancer, which raised her concern more. “I started searching for products that were healthier,” she says.
It wasn’t easy. This was the late 1990s; consumers weren’t talking about safety much, so neither were companies. Pfeiffer eventually discovered an advocacy organization called the Environmental Working Group, which had a website, Skin Deep, that ranks cosmetics products based on the safety of their ingredients. “Man, I went down the rabbit hole,” she says. Pfeiffer was horrified to discover that fine fragrances all ranked low -- not necessarily because they were dangerous but because their creators wouldn’t reveal what was in them. In the absence of information, she stopped wearing perfume.
Years went by. Pfeiffer kept researching and thinking, and around 2009, she started to see a cultural shift. More people were talking about product safety. So she made those first calls to fragrance brands, offering to endorse a transparent product. When they all said no, she reached out to the Environmental Working Group, figuring at least it would develop a line with her. But EWG was focused on changing policy at a government level; it didn’t work with businesses. Once again, rejection.
Pfeiffer was discouraged but not deterred. If there’s one thing Hollywood teaches -- even to legends -- it’s how to deal with rejection. “You never can get too comfortable,” she says. “I don’t care how famous you become, or successful; you think your last job may be your last job. And so you learn to live with that uncertainty.” And so, she says, she’s developed a strategy to deal with the uncertainty: “Keep yourself busy.”
Pfeiffer did just that. She met with anyone who had insight on the industry, and each meeting led to a fresh introduction. “This went on for years,” she says. But the most important connection, it would turn out, would be one she’d already made. In 2016, Pfeiffer called EWG again and discovered that the organization no longer focused solely on policy -- it was now also working directly with brands. “I probably spend half my time talking to people in the private sector, to make things happen deeper or faster than passing regulations or law,” says Ken Cook, EWG’s president, who invited Pfeiffer to join the company’s board. “That’s where policy is being made now, with entrepreneurs like Michelle who are not waiting for the federal government.”
Cook suggested that Pfeiffer bypass fragrance brands entirely and manufacture her dream product on her own -- something she hadn’t even realized was possible, but it is. There’s a whole world of companies called fragrance houses that brands from Old Spice to Chanel contract with to create their products. Why couldn’t Pfeiffer contract with them, too?
As it turned out, most fragrance houses were also not into the idea of being transparent about their ingredients. This wasn’t for any nefarious reason, they say, but a matter of appeasing their clients’ fears: What’s a $300 bottle of perfume really worth if someone else knows how to make it? But Pfeiffer finally found one house (again, she won’t name names) that was willing to work with her. She spent a year developing formulas there…until the company suddenly about-faced, for reasons Pfeiffer isn’t clear on, and said it couldn’t reveal every ingredient to the public after all.
That’s when, she says, she received two of her first big lessons.
“I’ve learned as an entrepreneur that when you set out with a really high standard, there are many points along the way where you come to a crossroads -- where you have the choice of compromising or not,” she says. “You’ve come this far. And you think, If I just compromise this tiny little bit, I won’t have to start all over.”
She agonized over the decision, and ultimately she walked away, opting to start again and do this thing right. It’s what led to the second lesson: “Somebody said to me, ‘Well, just consider that your education fund. Every entrepreneur, every new startup, has an education fund,’ ” she says. “So that made me feel a little bit better.”
But now more than a decade had passed, and she was still at square one.
Finally, a breakthrough. In 2017, Pfeiffer called another fragrance house called International Flavors & Fragrances (known as IFF). It had just started working with an organization called Cradle to Cradle (or C2C), which certifies ingredients and products for their environmental sustainability. That meant IFF, which designs scents for many of the world’s largest fragrance brands, was already primed to work under very strict standards.
“We are pretty good at making the impossible possible,” says IFF’s VP of fine-fragrance sales, Frederic Pignault, who took that first call with Pfeiffer. A meeting was arranged, and Pfeiffer brought one of EWG’s executives along with her. Pfeiffer wanted to make sure that, this time, she wouldn’t waste a year with a fragrance house that wasn’t fully on board with her mission.
By the end of the meeting, she was convinced IFF could make what she wanted. Right there in the office, in front of everyone, Pfeiffer was so relieved that she cried. “But I’m a little bit of a soppy cow,” she says.
The laboratory inside IFF’s Manhattan headquarters is enormous -- nearly the entire floor of a large office building. It’s divided up into little bays, where perfumers carefully combine drops from thousands of bottles of fragrant liquids. Some ingredients are natural (say, the oil pressed from a flower) and others are man-made, and in various combinations they can create anything from a fancy perfume to the scent of chewing gum. And these, at long last, were what Pfeiffer wanted to control.
The two organizations, C2C and EWG, began reviewing these thousands of ingredients, nixing the ones that didn’t meet their various standards. By the end, IFF’s perfumers were left with about 300 -- roughly 10 percent of the amount of ingredients typically available for a new job.
“Is it challenging? Yes,” says Pascal Gaurin, one of the perfumers who developed Pfeiffer’s scents. “But I don’t see what I’m missing; I see what I have. If you start complaining, ‘I don’t have this’ or ‘I don’t have that,’ you’re shooting yourself in the foot at the beginning.”
Two years of testing and experimentation followed. Pfeiffer dived deep into the ingredients that made the cut. Vetiver, for example, is an oil derived from a tall grass grown in Haiti, and would go on to be used in three of her company’s five fragrances. So Pfeiffer and her husband, David Kelley, as well as the IFF team flew down to the Caribbean nation to see how the crop is grown, harvested, treated, and processed. (To comply with C2C standards, IFF works with its suppliers to help support the local farmers -- say, by providing them with farm animals to raise and eat.)
All the while, she began staring down the next phase of this adventure. She’d finally found a way to develop a product, but she had no brand to wrap it in -- no name, no design, no concept, and, most important, nobody who knew how to grow a business. So once again, she kept busy.
“I literally just would keep talking to people, and I think a part of me -- a big part of me -- would go into every meeting hoping and feeling like maybe this person will, after they meet with me, say, ‘I’ll run this company for you! Let’s do this together!’ ” she says. “That didn’t happen.” And when she started looking for a CEO in earnest, she found a lot of people who said they’d want to own a large portion of her company -- something she knew enough to say no to.
Finally, a mutual friend connected her to Melina Polly, a branding expert who once served as global managing director at Media Arts Lab, which drove Apple’s U.S. and international marketing and advertising strategy. “It wasn’t like I always wanted to launch a fragrance,” Polly says. “But I always wanted to be part of building companies that had a strong point of view, that did something out of conviction that there was a void in the market, and that believed consumers deserve a better option.”
So she signed on as CEO, and, for the first time in this 20-year journey, Pfeiffer had a genuine partner. Now they had a company to build.
Consider the paradox of a socially conscious brand. It is motivated by mission. It creates a product in accordance with that mission. It believes deeply in impacting the world. And yet, missions don’t sell products. In fact, they sometimes do the opposite. A mission can sound preachy, like a brand saying, Buy from us, or you’re a bad person. So Pfeiffer and Polly began with a fundamental question: How much of its mission actually shows up on its product?
“You don’t want to be educated by your fragrance brand,” says Polly. “It’s not ‘Let me tell you about all the bad stuff that’s in your fragrance bottle.’ Because we don’t want to be, you know, Debbie Downer.”
Instead, they wanted a fine-fragrance brand that was cool and sexy, and that people liked first and foremost because of its scents and sensibility. They named the company Henry Rose -- Pfeiffer’s two children’s middle names -- and decided to minimize the mission as much as possible, to make it a bonus instead of the reason to buy. “I want to recruit those people who have never read a label,” Pfeiffer says, “who really fall in love with the product and then as a side note happen to discover Environmental Working Group and Cradle to Cradle transparency.”
This is a hard balance to strike. They hired RedAntler, the branding firm that’s helped shape the likes of Casper, Foursquare, and Birchbox, and then kept refining. Early designs were spare and white -- too innocent-looking, Polly thought. The women wanted to avoid using cliché buzzwords like clean and organic on the product, and had to be on high alert for them. “People we’ve worked with for a year will use the word natural,” says Pfeiffer, “and we’re like, ‘No, we’re not natural! Stop using that word!’ ”
They also decided the box and the bottle would not contain Pfeiffer’s name or face. She’ll be a big part of the marketing at launch, sure, but they agreed that Henry Rose couldn’t be anchored to her celebrity. It had to stand on its own. “If we’ve succeeded,” Pfeiffer says, “I can recede more and more into the background, and they can just roll me out and dust me off when they need me.”
From all this, a strategy emerged. Henry Rose's marketing language plays off the concept of transparent ingredients, but with an evocative twist: Come closer; we’ll tell you everything. The product comes in an elegant gray box; open it and you’ll first find a small booklet that contains the fragrance’s ingredients and some information on the certifications. Underneath is the product itself -- in a simple, clear, dome-shaped bottle (made from recycled glass), with nary a mention of a mission statement.
To start, Henry Rose will be sold online only, and the company plans to explore retail partnerships as the brand grows and finds its own community and customer base. There are other lessons to be learned, too: Buzzy startups like Phlur, Pinrose, and Commodity have already proven that direct-to-consumer fragrances can work -- with the right sampling method. Henry Rose will sell a sample pack of its five scents for $20; if a customer decides to buy a full bottle at its $120 price within 30 days, that initial $20 will be applied to the purchase. The company argues that this is a better way to sample scents. A fragrance evolves as it sits on your skin, so how it smells in the store is not how it’ll smell an hour later. (That’s why, Pfeiffer says, her home contains a vanity full of fragrances she adored in a department store, then came to hate shortly after.)
Twenty years of work, and this is what has finally come of it: a product, a brand, and a sales strategy. Now, of course, comes the truly hard challenge of making people care, learning from their reactions, and growing the brand into something sustainable.
“I’m a little numb at this point,” Pfeiffer says, “and not sleeping a lot.” She’s talking in late March, when the launch of her product is two weeks away. She and Polly are hunkered down in their office, a sparse little startup place in Los Angeles with a green carpet, a small table with a phone on it, and boxes of product everywhere. They’ve hung a whiteboard on the wall and filled it with a quote from the cartoonist Stephen McCranie: “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” It is, they say, a helpful reminder.
To Pfeiffer, this is all backward from the world she’d come from. On a movie shoot, she says, the beginning is the most chaotic -- fittings and rehearsals and rewrites, but then the groundwork is laid and everyone gets on with the business of making a finished product. Entrepreneurship flips that on its head. The launch of a company is just the beginning. The refining and rewriting never stops. “It’s exhilarating,” she says. And by now, she knows she’s in it for the long haul.