MILAN — “We’re a 800-year-old start-up,” said Gian Luca Perris, chief executive officer of Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, when asked to define the Italian storied apothecary.
Indeed little has changed in the energy, enthusiasm and artisanal approach to cosmetics production behind the company, which was founded in 1221 by Dominican friars after they arrived in Florence and settled in the Santa Maria Novella location, cultivating herbs to prepare medicines for their monastery’s infirmary.
After manufacturing recipes like aromatic waters and a bergamot-based fragrance for the Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici, in 1533 — still a bestseller — the apothecary opened to the public, officially launching as a commercial activity in 1612.
Today the brand offers more than 600 different products including skin care, soaps, pomades, colognes, candles, ambient fragrances and liqueurs, all delivered in its signature, old-school packaging that has contributed to its charm and increasing success worldwide.
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In addition to a new fragrance, Rosa Gardenia, other items to be introduced shortly include discovery sample kits, a 50-ml format as an alternative to the brand’s single 100-ml size and spray delivery systems for colognes.
These implementations might appear as minor tweaks, but are significant for a firm that has always been extremely faithful to its traditional image, products and business model. If so far the brand’s success has been based solely on word-of-mouth rather than communication strategies, now the company is additionally opening up to proactively approach consumers and enhance its brand awareness by promoting its heritage.
A little revolution that was set in motion last year, when Italian investment company Italmobiliare took 80 percent of the company following two deals, for a combined investment of 160 million euros.
“For the first time in its history, the company decided to expose itself to the market and media because we have such a beautiful history that it’s only right that we narrate it and let others know it,” said Perris, who joined the brand in September. Incidentally, before Italmobiliare’s acquisition, the company was helmed by Eugenio Alphandery, who in 1989 bought it for 800 million Italian liras, approximately 413,000 euros, and today still retains the remaining stake.
The many aficionados of the brand, who consider it as their own precious secret, might grimace at the thought of such a change of pace, but Perris ensured that the label’s DNA won’t be compromised. “I believe that Italmobiliare’s choice of having me in charge of this project is a clear one,” said the executive, who is himself a fragrance entrepreneur and creative director of the Perris Monte Carlo artistic perfume label, part of the Perris Group operating in the fragrance, skin care, pharmaceutical and 3D computer devices industries.
“I was not a manager but an entrepreneur of this industry, my family still works in this sector and I was chosen because I formulate perfumes myself and I have knowledge of the quality of products. So prioritizing this, rather than having other executives who could guarantee faster growth, says a lot about Italmobiliare’s approach to the company… Surely in the next years we won’t see any twisting of the brand. On the contrary, I hope the things we will do will make the loyal consumers appreciate it even more,” said Perris.
When it comes to retracing the brand’s history, all roads lead to its Florentine flagship in Via della Scala, which is the epitome of a unique customer experience. Setting foot in the store is like stepping into the Renaissance, with frescoed ceilings, bronzed angels and aromas lingering in the air from potpourri made with local herbs.
Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Courtesy of Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
In the pre-pandemic era, this unit alone counted 520,000 visitors per year — 80 percent of whom were tourists — and accounted for 30 percent out of total revenues, which in 2019 were more than 31 million euros.
Even if total sales decreased 30 percent in 2020, last year was pivotal for Santa Maria Novella, not only because of the acquisition but also for its digital acceleration, with the firm improving its online presence and unveiling a revamped e-commerce in Europe and the U.S. last month.
“Before, the website fragmented the experiences of storytelling and e-commerce, while we wanted to combine the two,” said Perris, adding that online sales helped partly compensate the losses of the brick-and-mortar channel in Italy but fully offset the ones in the U.S.
While tourists are still missing in Florence — inevitably affecting the domestic performance — at the moment sales have rebounded in the U.S., Asia — especially in South Korea and Japan — and Australia, where the brand recently unveiled a store.
Pinpointing the optimization in-store as key pillar of his strategy, Perris revealed the company is “working a lot to improving the quality of the experience and align it to the online one, with the goal to really become omnichannel.”
The brand currently counts 80 stand-alone stores and shop-in-shops in department stores, with boutiques in Milan, Rome, London, Paris, Cannes, Tokyo, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and corners at key locations such as Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche and Isetan, among others.
The label is additionally available at about 200 wholesale doors globally. Perris said the priority is to consolidate the current distribution network, but he is especially interested in expanding the wholesale reach in the future.
Meanwhile, the customer base is widening quickly, particularly in South Korea.
Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella cologne, scented wax tablets and rose water. Courtesy of Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
“In recent years, the world of perfumery and cosmetics has experienced a revolution leading to an increasing attention to unique, quality products compared to brands that perhaps are not specialized in beauty. So this has brought so much attention to artistic perfumery and we are by definition part of this category,” said Perris, who also believes that transparency will be one of the industry’s drivers in the future to attract ever-demanding customers.
To this end, the brand is in a favorable position as not only it can provide the authenticity of age-old methods but also ensure high qualitative standards by controlling its entire supply chain. To wit, all products are manufactured in-house at the company’s factory in Florence, which houses seven production units dedicated to the different categories.
Asked if he sees other brands as competitors, Perris cracked in a genuine smile and said: “Honestly, how can we have them? Who else has had a store for 800 years, frescoed by Giotto’s workshop in the 14th century?”
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