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How cigarettes shaped modern marketing

Nov 6, 2019
How cigarettes shaped modern marketing

At the start of the 20th century branding as we know it today didn’t really exist. There were no tone of voice documents, brand values or intended target audiences. Big names like Kellogg’s and Campbell’s were about but their emphasis on branding trailed far behind an unlikely source: cigarettes.

Branding in the world of cigarettes was crucial; your brand was your differentiator. Without a distinctive brand story your cigs would blend in with countless others on the shelf. With a strong focus on branding and developing a brand story, marketing we see today is in effect a direct continuation from tactics employed by cigarette brands. 

The power of advertising

Before cigarettes truly ‘took off’, pipes, cigars and chewing tobacco dominated the market. This was before an inventor named James Bonsack from Virginia patented a machine capable of rolling 200 cigarettes a minute. The significance of this invention was not lost on tobacco entrepreneur James Buchanan Duke, who was determined to corner the market. 

To sell, he knew he had to advertise. He created a variety of schemes designed to encourage the purchase of his cigarettes and was spending 20% of all revenue on promoting his product by 1889, and it worked a treat. By 1923, the cigarette had become the method of choice for smokers to consume tobacco.

Medical testimony

One factor that helped shift packs were endorsements from medical practitioners and physicians. In this day and age, knowing what we know about the harmful effects of tobacco, this seems absurd. But before regulations were altered and medical testimony was outlawed, it wasn’t uncommon for tobacco companies to use the words of medical professionals to sell their product.

Brands would often eulogise about how their brand of smokes were less harmful than the competition, or in some cases even good for you. This all changed when American regulators decided they shouldn't allow cigarette adverts to reference doctors or body parts in the 1950s.

A lightbulb moment

What should have been a catastrophic blow was actually far more liberating. Posed with this conundrum, Donald Draper, a fictional ad man in the series Mad Men, saw these changes in regulation as a fruitful opportunity.

With identical products and the same stipulations placed against each company, cigarette brands would have to go all out on branding to differentiate themselves. How they branded their cigarettes would determine their market appeal. And it worked too; Americans were smoking like chimneys in the 1960s with 42.5% of the population enjoying a smoke, a figure that has steadily declined ever since.

In fact, branded cigarettes proved so effective that many countries chose to ban branding in favour of plain packaging. The UK introduced these measures in 2016; packs are now made up of a single colour – ‘Pantone 448 C opaque couché’ (dubbed the 'world's ugliest colour') – and the brand name is written in a standard font and size.

Reinvent. Reposition.

When faced with obstacles that would finish off any other industry, tobacco reinvents and repositions. Big Tobacco shouldn’t be hailed as a force for good, their products are cancerous after all, but they do provide an interesting case study in adapting to a modernising world. Their ability to adapt in times of unparalleled change deserves some admiration. Cigarettes are now deemed an incontrovertibly bad thing – so how did Big Tobacco respond? By diversifying their product range and venturing into the world of e-cigarettes – the hip, healthier cousin of the traditional cig. While the long-term effects of vaping are yet to be determined, it would be hard to argue that e-cigarettes don’t represent a less dangerous alternative to cigarettes.

The evolution of advertising cigarettes can teach marketers an awful lot – how to adapt in times of adversity, the power of advertising and realising that customers buy into a brand’s story, not just the product they sell.

Is there any other industry that you think has been as influential in shaping how we market today? We’d love to hear your thoughts @otbtweeter.


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