Cigarette branding – the power to influence?

Posted on in BrandBlab

The UK consultation on government plans to introduce mandatory plain packaging for tobacco has highlighted some seemingly perverse views on the power of branding. Today I heard a tobacco industry commentator arguing that attractive brand packaging does not encourage to take up smoking. The interviewer was, not unreasonably, speechless for a moment as this implied the billions previously spent on branding have therefore no effect on smokers’ habit.

The debate previously centred in Australia on the government’s proposed ban on branded cigarette packaging certainly highlighted some interesting legal, ethical and commercial issues.

The starting position is clear. Governments in Australia and the UK are anti-smoking and see it as their public duty to do everything possible to limit and reduce consumption. The proposal is to force the tobacco companies to sell their products in identical drab packaging without logos, with graphic images of smoking related diseases and conditions. Brand names are to be in an agreed standard font on the front of the package.

While this raises issues of the freedom of the individual to harm themselves (nanny state etc.), the comments of the tobacco company executives certainly expose their ultimate belief – that it is packaging that apparently creates the key differentiation, enabling them to charge more for a perceived premium brand. They argue (not surprisingly) that plain packaging will result in pure price comparison. By implication, attractive product dressing is the key added value factor. Maybe the tobacco executives were misquoted, but there was a particularly revealing comment. One executive disclosed how his company would now have to consider differentiation probably “based more on taste to give consumers something they would talk about”. This seems to confirm that cigarettes previously were much of a muchness and it was their packaging image that enabled higher margins, rather than any inherent product quality attributes. While this comes as hardly a surprise to many, it certainly knocks on the head the years of brand promises regarding supposed added value product quality assurance worth paying for. The reality seems to be that these cigarettes provided simply a intangible image advantage for the smoker. This certainly begs fundamental questions of how to create perceived value and develop sustainable brand equity.

The need to display a brand logo is an inherent human trait it seems, whether on a cigarette packet, clothing or cars, to show that the smoker, wearer or driver is a ‘paid up member’ of that particular tribe and social status. A label inside clothing used to be a personal private assurance and was enough to make the wearer feel good or reassured. But now more overt, conspicuous displays of logos and brand names have become desired badges of belonging. Maybe a car without an obvious logo could be an interesting mysterious differentiator, provided that the vehicle in question reflects appropriate qualities of style, design and attributes. OK, I guess that few of us have the confidence or resources to develop ‘one off’s’, but surely that is the ultimate assertion of individuality as a cool, low-key personal brand attribute.

With cigarettes, it seems that branding never strayed far from its roots as simply a packaging led activity. Despite, and presumably because of, the massive investments in pure image rather than product attributes, the cigarette companies are fighting to maintain their carton identities. With that key differentiation removed, the product is left exposed, back to its bare essentials, as potentially just a commodity.

Cigarette companies have in the past recognised the need to develop real and perceived product attributes –menthol, low tar, full strength, special filter, etc. Like virtually every other consumer product, cigarettes have needed to acquire, emotional and rational unique selling points to avoid simply a price led status. Many products have become service brands – chewing gum is a dental treatment and mouth freshener. It could be argued that smoking is a great stress reliever for some and has been portrayed as a special ‘part of your life’ and image. The Australian and UK government would say, it also contributes to your potential death. Interesting times for the branding community…