THE MARKETING 100: NATURAL AMERICAN SPIRIT: ROBIN SOMMERS

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Robin sommers' product has appeared with Jason Alexander on "Seinfeld" and with John Travolta in "Broken Arrow." It's been photographed with Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.

Yet Mr. Sommers employs no ad or PR agency and spends a tiny fraction of what his competitors spend on marketing.

Moreover, his product is thriving in a market that's been subjected to unrelenting regulatory scrutiny.

Mr. Sommers, 55, markets Natural American Spirit cigarettes, a brand built by what he calls "a reverse marketing gambit." When Mr. Sommers, now president-CEO of privately held Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., moved West and linked up with the company in the mid-1980s, he had just left New York where he was a consultant in magazine circulation marketing.

Rather than take the brand to distributors, his idea was to use direct response to "mobilize a dedicated consumer base to penetrate retailers."

The direct mailing created an unusual position for the product-an additive-free cigarette that hearkened back to the spirituality of tobacco as it was originally used by American Indians.

"The whole idea is to exalt tobacco," says Mr. Sommers. "To bring it back to its roots as a gift brought to western civilization."

Because of the spiritual halo, the brand has become somewhat of an "appointment" cigarette-Mr. Sommers says many American Spirit users smoke only four or five a day.

After the direct mail came text-only, b&w ads in publications such as Mother Earth News, Utne Reader and Whole Earth Review that were so unlike most glossy cigarette campaigns they added to the brand's cult mystique.

Even more appealing was the fact they were hard to find. Mr. Sommers made American Spirit available only through the mail or through high-end tobacconists and liquor stores initially. It wasn't until recently that the company added convenience stores and mass retailers.

Now, even though American Spirit's share is "under half a point," according to Mr. Sommers, a non-smoker, that's still big bucks in a $50 billion industry.

Next up for Santa Fe is a non-tobacco, herbal cigarette for "people who want to cut down," says Mr. Sommers. It's also adding a menthol light and ultra-light version of its flagship brand. As of January, the company started expansion in the U.K., Netherlands and Germany.

Mr. Sommers sees a bright future for his brand. "As long as smokers are smoking only four or five cigarettes a day, they might as well smoke the very best."

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