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Penhaligon’s Opens the Virtual Doors of Its Portraits Mansion

The British niche fragrance label has launched a digital platform offering an immersive, interactive, transactional and, most importantly, fun experience to consumers.

MILAN — An eccentric mansion filled with paintings, books, musical instruments, animals and fragrances is the imaginative world British fragrance brand Penhaligon’s created to enable consumers to virtually explore its Portraits collection.

The Puig-owned label has upped the ante in storytelling and digital communication by launching a platform that delivers an immersive, interactive, transactional and, most importantly, fun experience.

Visitors are invited to step into the mansion and navigate into different rooms and corners to discover more about the fragrances, their ingredients and the rich narrative behind the successful range. Not coincidentally, the project is centered on an olfactory collection known for being based on fictional — often naughty — characters of an aristocratic Victorian family, circa 1870, the year founder William Henry Penhaligon set up his shop in London, later to become the court barber and perfumer to Queen Victoria.

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Launched in 2016, the Portraits collection is a tribute to the English spirit and its signature humor, which permeates every corner of the virtual mansion and defines the tone of voice of the project.

The main drawing room features walls showcasing portraits and busts to discover single fragrances as well as a family tree, that helps users to explore all the relationships among the family members. Cocktail recipes and etiquette advice for gentlemen are also hidden between the many objects filling the space, adding to the entertainment.

Another room leads to the laboratory, a greenhouse where the brand’s founder himself invites guests to a remote fragrance testing, where scents can be discovered according to olfactory families or single ingredients.

In each stage of the journey, users can buy the desired perfume, chat with an expert, consult a map to navigate the space easily or be redirected to the brand’s main website.

The Drawing Room in the Penhaligon's Portraits Virtual Mansion.
The Drawing Room in the Penhaligon’s Portraits Virtual Mansion. Courtesy of Penhaligon's

“We’re always trying to find ways to bring our consumer a delightful experience. And as part of that, we have these four Es: everything we do needs to be entertaining first and foremost; engaging; it has to educate you, and finally it has to elicit an emotion, so it has to be emotive,” said Lance Patterson, chief executive officer of Penhaligon’s and its French sister brand L’Artisan Parfumeur.

“This [platform] is transactional but that’s not really the point. This is about creating an engaging experience that makes you feel like you’re having a good time,” said the executive, who underscored that the project was first conceived at the end of last year and it took nine months to develop with the help of Puig’s Innovation and Creative Lab and tech start-ups.

“There are things virtuality will never replace but there are things physicality will never achieve. And that was the essence of this project,” echoed Vanita Sabnani, vice president of Puig’s Innovation and Creative Lab.

“This was not only about creating a virtual reality… it was really about what the next generation in storytelling will be like… which is not just re-creating what we already have or replicating a store but really creating what you would never have in a physical reality,” she said.

The platform is accessible through its dedicated website, the brand’s page and will be soon available also in Penhaligon’s physical stores for an omnichannel approach.

Going forward, the virtual mansion will increasingly evolve to accommodate new rooms, new characters and integrate more games, with the goal to further enrich consumers’ experience and enhance their engagement.

“This is limitless in what we can do,” said Patterson. “This is a gaming platform but we’re not doing games just yet here, so that’s coming up,” he teased.

The brand began to explore this kind of activation this year, since a Christmas game is currently available on Penhaligon’s website.

“The thing we’re working on now is to bring it all into one ecosystem. So maybe Mr. Penhaligon will launch his own arcade next year, a place where [users] can come and play all of our games,” said Patterson.

“To be really able to move from storytelling to story selling, we really need to do it in the languages that our different audiences connect with,” offered Sabnani. “For Millennials and Gen Z, gaming is their language, so we need to start immersing ourselves and speak a language that can truly connect with them. It’s really about speaking to our community and consumers in a way they want to be spoken to.”

For the next 12 months, the platform will also continue to focus on the Portraits collection, which at the moment counts 16 fragrances.

The fictional characters in the range include the elegant and deceptive Lord George; his vengeful wife Lady Blanche; his eccentric son-in-law The Duke, and the demure Duchess Rose, who is always aching for desire, among others. Retailing at 204 pounds for the 75-ml. size, each fragrance is topped with a cap resembling an animal’s head and nodding to members’ personality: Lord George is a stag while The Duke is a dog, for instance.

One of the cocktail recipes featured in the Penhaligon's Portraits Virtual Mansion.
One of the cocktail recipes featured in the Penhaligon’s Portraits Virtual Mansion. Courtesy of Penhaligon's

Patterson revealed the family will expand soon and other members will be visiting the virtual mansion. For example, next year the company will launch a new fragrance linked to a character named Arthur, who “will be coming over to visit the family from China, where he ended up staying after leaving for an adventure many years ago.”

The scent will launch in March, right after the Chinese New Year, and the bottle will be defined by a cap in the shape of a dragon. Other launches are expected for 2023, too, but Patterson didn’t disclose further details.

Defined as “a game-changer” for the Penhaligon’s business by the executive, the Portraits collection resonates with different targets according to geographies. While in the Western world the audience is more heterogeneous, with a particular engagement from Millennials, in China the brand and its rich storytelling attracts younger customers.

China is becoming increasingly important for the company, now ranking third in its top best-performing markets after the U.K. and the Middle-East. In addition to a digital presence on Tmall, in September the brand opened its first store in Mainland China at the IFC mall in Shanghai, which will be followed by another opening in the country by the end of the month.

Penhaligon’s counts 50 stores worldwide, and plans to reach 70 to 75 units in the next two years.

Without disclosing sales figures, Patterson said that the Portraits collection kept growing year-on-year, despite the pandemic. In 2020 the brand didn’t report an overall growth, as the CEO said sales “declined in line with Puig results, we were maybe two points better than that.”

As reported, in the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2020, the Barcelona-based group’s net sales totaled 1.54 billion euros, down 24 percent in reported terms, partially offset by Charlotte Tilbury, which was incorporated in June 2020. On an organic basis, Puig’s sales sank 32 percent.

Founded in London and holding two Royal Warrants, Penhaligon’s was acquired with L’Artisan Parfumeur from Fox Paine & Co. LLC. in January 2015.