Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The last gasp rearguard action against plain cigarette packaging is as mendacious as ever from the Tobacco Giants.

As a Formula one fan and also because I worked in a Brand Management for Shell and was at times quite close to the company's sponsorship of McLaren and later Ferrari I know a bit about tobacco marketing. F1, of course, was almost the last of the global sponsorship opportunities that the likes of BAT, Imperial  Tobacco and Philip Morris had. They hung in there to the bitter end and used every trick in the book to keep their noxious brands on F1 cars for millions of television viewers to see. Even Tony Blair fell for the soft sell ( and the money) of Bernie Eccelestone who was essentially the tobacco industry's mouthpiece for years ( in his own interests of course). Tobacco money is big money - very big money indeed. There is no lobbyist too expensive, no campaign too costly that Big Tobacco can't afford it. Every restriction on cigarette brand promotion has been fought tooth and nail and the advertising profession has been compliant in trying to stop or delay controls. But gradually advertising of tobacco products has ceased in most countries as has the sponsorship of sporting and other events. 

The latest well funded rearguard action by the tobacco industry in the UK is to campaign against the  proposal that cigarettes will have to be sold in plain packs in future. The companies unite together under the umbrella of "Forest"  (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking) and they are currently targeting the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in their campaign:

Those of us who followed the fight of the Tobacco giants to keep in F1 know how they work. They fought off restrictions for years skilfully and with lavish use of all the financial clout they enjoyed. In the end they were beaten but F1 cars stayed mobile fag packets for years after such displays were banned everywhere else.

So why are the companies so in favour of branded cigarrete packets and why are they fighting this last battle so hard? The reason is simply that they know (1) The pack design is a key component of their brand promotion. The Marlboro' pack, for example, is an iconic brand symbol. 

(2) Brands add value - massive value. The profit comes from the brand promise which is symbolised by the pack. If the promise, in the case of Marlboro, is distinctive you make more money - much more.


In one recent survey, the top brands in America were shown to be Apple, Marlboro, and McDonalds and Malboro generally features in the top five or so brands in most countries where it is marketed - despite promotion of its brand being prohibited by law. It is also generally the number one tobacco brand.

Philip Morris, owners of Marlboro, know that for their brand to continue to prosper it has to be visible at the point of consumption. The Marlboro brand offers benefits to its choosers which meet those consumers' needs. Those needs are partly physical - the need to satisfy a craving for nicotine. But that could be done by any generic or unbranded cigarette. The main needs that Marlboro satisfies are emotional - above all the need for status. You take your pack of Marlboro out of your bag or pocket. You display it. You tap it. The cigarette comes out and you light it and smoke it. You are seen to be doing this - you are a Marlboro smoker. You have status.

The tobacco companies argue that strong branding only encourages brand switching - you are persuaded to switch from Camel (say) to Marlboro because you are persuaded about the practical and above all emotional benefits that will accrue from doing so. There is no increase in the size of the market from the branding activity, they say, and so it is just harmless competition between brands for existing smokers. This is nonsense.

All marketing has two objectives. To persuade people to try a product and to persuade people to buy your brand of that product rather than someone else's. This is especially so of premium brands like Marlboro. A young person seeking a variety of satisfactions might not think that cigarettes are one of them but is then exposed to the world of brands conferring status on him or her. He sees the Marlboro smoker and the uber-cool Marlboro pack and maybe he's tempted in a way that he almost certainly wouldn't be by a plain pack. There is ample evidence around the world over history of how young people begin smoking because they see it "cool" to be associated with (say) Marlboro. 

So "Forest" and their paymasters know exactly what they are doing. Yes packs may encourage brand switching. But they also, and crucially, help the growth of the market among the young people that the tobacco companies need to recruit to replace their older smokers who are dying off.

I attended the recent ConHome conference - a Conservative party gathering (mostly!) and there were one or two organisations who had paid to have stalls and displays there. One of them was Forest and they also advertise prominently on the ConHome website. There has always been right-of-centre political support for the Tobacco industry - often backed up by "Freedom of Choice" type arguments so it is perhaps no surprise that the mostly excellent ConHom website rather contaminates its brand by associating with the tobacco industry. Never underestimate the power of Big Tobacco. They would not be so strongly fighting the plain packs legislation iof they did not see it as a threat to their brands and to their business! 


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