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A smoky future: Marketing a product associated with the dark side of life

My fellow communications professionals will probably shoot me for saying that the basics of branding are fairly simple. You merely need to decide what your business stands for and then communicate the message. For example, Red Bull decided that it was all about “extreme” sports and parties and they focused their efforts on these two groups. Patek Philippe believed that its watches become part of the family heirloom and its communications message reflects as much.

But what happens when your brand is associated by many governments and health care professionals to death? What values can you possible communicate when your entire business is about selling a product that is associated with the dark side of life: cancer, lung problems and finally death? And it is not just the smoker who suffers but also  those around him or her.

The tobacco industry has put itself in the cross hairs of public ire through its efforts to, at first, deny its product is lethal and then entice the young to smoke. Bashing Big Tobacco is fashionable and is one easy way for many to become folk heroes as they jump on the bandwagon and join the growing cheer chorus when governments increase tobacco taxes and stop the cigarette companies from branding their products. Like in the case of Singapore which has some of the toughest rules in the world against smoking. How do you possibly build a brand when your product is seen as public enemy number one?

The world’s biggest tobacco company by market capitalisation, Philip Morris International,believes that the answer lies in disrupting itself by showing the world that you are slowly killing your main product (cigarettes) and reinventing your own business.

Philip Morris’s website has an opening line that talks about “designing a smoke-free future and it asks the rather disruptive question: “How long will Philip Morris International be in the cigarette business?”

What the company is doing is to pour money into products that give the world’s smokers an alternative source for their nicotine addiction. Products such as IQOS work on the principle of “heating” tobacco rather than burning tobacco and they are supposed to be safer than normal cigarettes.

Philip Morris’s efforts to reinvent and rebrand are being challenged. Governments in countries such as Singapore, Australia and Israel have put roadblocks to the alternative tobacco products and most crucially, the American Food and Drug Administration has yet to allow the IQOS into its market. On the other side of coin, countries such as Japan have allowed IQOS in. Despite intense lobbying by the tobacco industry, governing bodies like the WHO remain skeptical as to the claims that such products do offer a safer alternative.

However, these efforts have also received some encouraging signs of support. The Royal College of Surgeons in the UK have supported alternative tobacco products as being safer and while Philip Morris’ expectations of IQOS sales are below analysts’ predictions, the company is continuing its aggressive push to reinvent its business model by investing billions of dollars in scientific research to come out  products to eventually replace conventional cigarettes. As Andre Calantzopoulos, CEO of Philip Morris, argued in an interview with the Financial Times, “nicotine abolitionists are like condom opponents.”
What a catchy way to rebrand a product.

The writer is Tang Li is a PR consultant who has been doing freelance work for the last 12 years. He founded Tang-Asia consultancy in 2008 and has worked with companies including Alcon, 3M and the Saudi Embassy in Singapore.

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