PM pushes paper with new $20 mil Merit effort

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Philip Morris USA will launch a $20 million print campaign in September to show that its new cigarette paper has Merit.

The No. 1 tobacco marketer this week begins a national rollout of its Merit brand made with Paper-Select, designed to make cigarettes less likely to ignite certain fabrics and more likely to burn out quickly if left in ashtrays.

The campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, based on consumer tests in Buffalo and Denver earlier this year, will explain how the new product uses ultra-thin paper rings to slow burning when the lit end crosses over them.

"The key objective was to explain it to people so they understand it in an unambiguous way so they're not careless," said Tho-mas Garguilo, Philip Morris' category brand director for premium brands.

The company wanted to be sure "that we didn't somehow give people a false sense of security," he said. "No cigarette will ever be fire-safe."

STILL RESEARCHING

A spokesman for No. 3 marketer Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. said, "We have been doing research for quite a while on fire-safe cigarettes" but have not finalized any products. Even though "a cigarette itself may pass fire-safe testing methods such as the fabric method, it could be harmful to the consumer," he said.

Philip Morris conducted toxicological tests to determine that the new paper does not increase known health risks of cigarettes, Mr. Garguilo said. A spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said the company has tested the concept "for decades" and that "To date, however, we have not been able to produce a fire-safe cigarette that consumers find acceptable."

The ads, slated to run in more than 200 newspapers nationwide and in select magazines, are information-heavy. They fit into Merit's positioning as "the rewarding light" with copy that reads: "You still get the same rewarding taste, only now with our patented cigarette paper."

Mr. Garguilo said the broad media buy will ensure that "virtually still get the same rewarding taste, only now with our patented cigarette paper."

Mr. Garguilo said the broad media buy will ensure that "virtually every adult smoker in the country will be aware of this new feature" by the fourth quarter. He expects the new Merits to be available nationwide by Labor Day.

`SORT OF A NEW THING'

"Marketing of these technical features is a bit new in the category," he said. "I don't know how long technical information advertising lasts vs. brand image, traditional cigarette advertising. It's sort of a new thing for us."

Each Merit pack will carry the PaperSelect logo and include an informational insert, with a product explanation under the copy: "Looks the same, tastes the same . . . Not the same."

Philip Morris chose to incorporate the new technology into Merit because its wide variety of styles--including light, ultra-light, regular and menthol--make it appealing to a broad base of smokers, as opposed to a brand such as Virginia Slims, which has a 99% female franchise, Mr. Garguilo said.

Test-market results showed that nine out of 10 Merit smokers and one out of three smokers of competitive brands preferred the new version, which Mr. Garguilo said "was so encouraging," given that "it's a very brand-loyal category; people don't switch around a lot."

But cigarette wholesaler Doug Burke of Burke's Distributing, Spokane, Wash., doubts the new feature will increase Merit's consumer base. Although Philip Morris had not contacted him about the new offering, he said, "As long as it doesn't change the taste of the product for the consumer, it's going to be fine. I don't think it's going to cause anybody to switch over to it; if it does, it's going to be very small."

EXPANSION TO OTHER BRANDS

All 15 styles of Merit, which is Philip Morris' fourth-largest brand with a 1 million-customer franchise, will now be made with PaperSelect.

The new feature "was not designed to exclusively boost Merit's share, although in the short term, that might occur," Mr. Garguilo said. Merit had a 1.84% market share in 1999, according to Sanford C. Bernstein Co.'s analysis of company reports. Philip Morris is working to increase its capacity to manufacture PaperSelect and might incorporate it into its other brands or license it to other companies.

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