Smoke for the holidays

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Cosmopolitan-drinking, W Hotel-hopping, supremo skim-latte sipping hipsters might be sporting a new trendy accessory this Christmas-Marlboro Special Blends.

With all-black packaging and limited-edition cachet, the cigarettes-on store shelves from Nov. 19 through Dec. 31-appear to be Philip Morris USA's attempt to crash the sexy, stylish, status-smoke party that rival R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. arrived at already.

RJR last year brought to retail shelves Turkish Gold, an extension of its Camel brand that highlights exoticism and class with its "Pleasure to burn" positioning. Similarly, the company-a distant No. 2 with 23% market share last year behind Philip Morris' 50.5%, according to The Maxwell Report-introduced its Winston S2 in June with sleek silver packaging and ads that support the modernized brand with a new "quantum smooth" blend. Since 1999, it's been marketing another premium extension, Camel Exotic Blends, cigarette lines in unusual flavors, including citrus, through direct mail.

Although Marlboro is far-and-away the category leader with a 37.7% market share compared to Camel's 5.4%, according to The Maxwell Report, Philip Morris is "trying to make the premium marginally more premium," said one tobacco industry insider. "Philip Morris is realizing that some of the niches RJR is trying to fill in, maybe they can play in too."

"I'm sure it's somewhat in response to what RJR has done," said Bonnie Herzog, senior tobacco analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. Although no market share figures are available, Camel Turkish Gold, handled by Mezzina Brown & Partners, New York, has had a good reception in the marketplace and that might have prompted Philip Morris. "You watch that and see some success, and you take advantage of that," she said.

There's also some psychology at work here. Philip Morris is tapping into consumers' desire to be part of a limited-time-offer that connotes status and luxury, said James Twitchell, a University of Florida English professor and author and expert on pop culture and marketing. "Certainly it will get them talked about," he said. "Luxury is, by its very definition, the story at the highest volume. ... It's crucial that this is a limited edition."

"When you have a product like Marlboro, that is almost too well- known as a good smoke, making it into a great smoke is a real temptation," Mr. Twitchell added.

While Billy Abshaw, manager, media programs at Philip Morris, described the limited edition Marlboro as "a special smoke for a special time," Mr. Twitchell maintains "It has nothing to do with a real change in quality. You exploit the weird dynamic that's around a holiday." Cigarette companies are not the first to do this, he said. "Bringing out a premium brand at Christmastime is indeed what alcohol makers have been doing since the late 1940s."

Despite its upmarket image, Marlboro Special Blends will retail for the same price as other Marlboro styles, Philip Morris said. But it will be set apart in looks if not price. "You put all your marketing into the container and the story that surrounds your container," Mr. Twitchell said. "You do that when you have a fungible product."

Packaging means everything, especially for products that, despite tobacco companies' proclamations, have little hope of differentiating themselves by taste, the tobacco industry insider said. "Taste isn't something that's going to sell." RJR, for example, recognized that in its design of the silver Winston S2 pack. "It looks slicker; it looks more expensive," the insider said.

The full-flavor variety of Marlboro Special Blends will feature red lettering and a red triangle with an "M" in the center; lights will have a gold triangle with the centered initial, said Mr. Abshaw. Further setting them apart, Marlboro Special Blends will be sold only in packs, not cartons.

As with most elite trendy products that catch on via word of mouth, the new Marlboro style will not be advertised through mass media. Instead, it will be more selectively marketed through direct mail to existing Marlboro smokers, in trade ads and at point-of-sale. Marlboro shop Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, handles.

The company's unprecedented limited-time holiday offer aims "to create excitement in the marketplace among loyal Marlboro smokers and also competitive smokers," said Mr. Abshaw, who maintains Philip Morris will stop selling Special Blends on Dec. 31. But "If it's successful, I'm sure they will be considering it as a line extension," Ms. Herzog said.

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