How the Tobacco Business Got It Right From the Start

Targeting Existing Customers Is the Best Way to Attract New Ones

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A CDC report earlier this month said Marlboro cigarettes were the No. 1 choice of teen smokers, which prompted critics to once again blame marketing as the cause. A company spokesman countered that the influence of adult smokers was far more likely to blame for teenagers' brand preference.

I think he's right.

Cigarette branding was an early crucible in which our notions of marketing's power were put to the test. Because tobacco is ultimately a commodity (a leaf), it was branded by every conceivable tangent: Tobacco companies pioneered the use of make-believe attributes, such as tasting "toasted," and faux-expert endorsements, such as doctor confirmation that one drag was "smoother" than another. Some of the most creative slogans ever were dedicated to cigarettes, such as "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," and "You've come a long way, baby." The spiritual patriarch of today's mascots wore a cowboy hat and smoked Marlboros.

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin is the author of "Branding Only Works on Cattle" and blogs at Dim Bulb.

Warnings failed to convince
When the authorities decided that smoking was a public-health crisis, it was obvious that the manipulative recruiting power of the industry's branding needed to be stopped. Anti-smoking public-service spots started in 1967. Three years later, all cigarette ads were banned from radio and TV, and those this-will-kill-you-warnings started appearing on cigarette packages and print ads. Every tobacco-branding exercise since has been scrutinized, and often vilified, such as Camel's use of cartoon imagery.

Unfortunately, during the same stretch of time, all those brilliant branding activities stopped convincing anyone of anything. So while other industries struggled and failed to connect with new consumers, the government saved the tobacco industry from wasting its money and encouraged it (however inadvertently) to apply itself to a different branding premise: Keep existing customers.

Dicey proposition
This is a dicey proposition, considering those customers tend to die, but talking to them delivers two of the real drivers of purchase intent: First, they're the best chance for selling more products. Nicotine is addictive, after all, so there's some price elasticity here, right? And if they're going to die, why not encourage them to smoke as often as possible?

Second, existing customers are the best tools for attracting new ones. Cigarette smoking is first and foremost a social product, in that you are made aware, learn how to operate, and then often experience its use in the company of others.

It's no surprise that the brands teens choose to smoke mirror those of adults. If a parent or adult role model lights up, it's a branding event far more immediate and compelling than any ad or new-media gimmick.

The tobacco companies have always been at the forefront of branding invention. Only we never fully understood how.

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