Stubbing out the Marlboro Man

The beginning of 2011 saw governments taking a renewed widespread crackdown on tobacco advertising; an officious stamp to the death of earlier glory days of advertising for the tobacco industry.

Perhaps the most prominent example would be Marlboro, arguably one of the biggest advertising success stories of the 1950's with its iconic Marlboro Man ads by Leo Burnett. Today, it still remains one of the tobacco industry's top brands.

While the popularity of various cigarette brands vary in each market, Marlboro's situation is food for thought, being built on the efforts of advertising in the 1950's.

And obviously, Marlboro's long investment and history in advertising has paid off in brand equity.

With the option of advertising cut off, the brand can depend on product packaging, retail marketing and distributorship for now.

While its shipments have yet to show the toll the advertising ban may take on Philip Morris, the company, in its latest financial report, acknowledges it faces troubled waters ahead.

"We compete primarily on the basis of product quality, brand recognition, brand loyalty, taste, innovation, packaging, service, marketing, advertising and price," the company said.

Even that last frontier for tobacco brands may be soon taken. Last year, the Australian government passed legislation to have all logos and brand imagery on cigarette packaging removed.

Perhaps as a sign of its struggle, Philip Morris took legal action against the government.

Whether other governments will follow suit is another point to ponder. The ultimate question is without advertising, will Marlboro see its iconic brand eventually eroded?

Graham Hitchmough, ASEAN regional director at The Brand Union Singapore, said the dance with tobacco control lobbies has been going on since it emerged as the world's number one cigarette brand in 1972, adding that while Marlboro faces the greatest challenge to its international profile, its strong brand position makes it better placed than any competitor to face these challenges.

"Marlboro remains the only truly global cigarette brand, bigger than its next three largest competitors combined with around 10% of global market share (excluding China) and contributing a third of PMI's total revenue."

Hitchmough added that in recent years Marlboro's pre-eminence has been sustained by managed entry into emerging markets such in Asia and Latin America, where the brand is enjoying double digit growth.

"Inroads are also being made into the enormous and largely untapped markets of China and India," he added.

Shauna Li Roolvink, principal consultant at BrandHub said wild horses and cowboys are dying breeds along with advertising and most other forms of marketing for cigarette brands.

"But despite all these seemingly insurmountable roadblocks, the Marlboro brand will live on," suggesting that the brand focus on developing markets with growing populations and less marketing restrictions.

So what does the everyday smoker think? Caryn Tan, a 28 year-old smoker from Singapore said price, taste, brand and variety of different flavours are some of the deciding factors when buying cigarettes.

But depending on which country she is in, buying cheaper Dunhill in Malaysia may influence her to swap brands for the moment. She said however that the Marlboro brand still carries weight.

"If you offer a Viceroy to someone who doesn't smoke regularly, he or she may not take it.

"But with a Marlboro, the person would be more likely to accept. You can recognise the logo right away."

While the popularity of various cigarette brands vary in each market, Marlboro's situation is food for thought, being built on the efforts of advertising in the 50's.