Marketing execs like sound of ‘Altria’

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B-to-b marketing executives are widely hailing the decision by Philip Morris Cos. to change its name to Altria Group Inc. as a wise—and belated—move.

The name change, to be voted on at the New York-based company’s annual meeting in April, is being made to underscore the company’s stellar financial performance and expanding roster of brand-name food products.

Philip Morris is also trying to distance itself from its tobacco product lines, which have dragged down the company’s brand image over the past several years.

Subsidiaries stay the same

Altria Group will only replace the Philip Morris corporate name and not the names of subsidiaries—Philip Morris International, Miller Brewing Co. and Kraft USA, for example—which have a great deal of brand equity with key b-to-b clients, including grocery store buyers, liquor distributors and foodservice executives.

Altria is derived from the Latin word altus, which can be broadly translated as "higher." The Altria logo, a square with multicolored squares within it, will replace Philip Morris’ corporate symbol, the crest currently emblazoned on everything from the company’s cigarette packs to its headquarters at 120 Park Ave.

In announcing the proposed name change last month, Philip Morris Chairman-CEO Geoffrey C. Bible said the company was trying to clarify its corporate identity with a moniker that would reflect its expanded scope.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, Philip Morris grew from a tobacco specialist into the world’s second-largest food and beverage company (Nestle S.A. is the world’s largest food and beverage company), with brands that include Miller, Oscar Mayer and, as of last year, Nabisco.

B-to-b brand power

Most branding experts lauded Philip Morris’ move.

"I think they needed to take credit for all the smart business strategies they’ve done in the past few years. My reaction was that it was about time," said Julie Cottineua, director-naming at Interbrand Inc., a New York-based marketing agency. "The Philip Morris name didn’t allow them to do that. They have incredible brands: Oscar Mayer, Jello, Country Time. These are positive brands that people feel good about. As long as they had ‘Philip Morris,’ people would always think about cigarettes."

There also was speculation among industry watchers that the name change would allow Philip Morris to improve its recruiting of top marketing talent out of business schools, something that many considered difficult because of its current name.

However, Philip Morris’ name change is not without pitfalls, according to John Davis, CEO of Brand New View Inc., a Sacramento, Calif.-based branding consultancy.

"The issue they now face is being able to convince people that their new brand is meaningful," Davis said. "They will never be able to distance themselves from their tobacco products entirely."

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