As tobacco giants Altria and R.J. Reynolds launch their new unregulated electronic cigarettes this summer, buzz is growing about huge marketing budgets waiting in the wings. But money is just one issue—the other is if the behemoths can figure out how to brand cigarette-shaped electronic gadgets in the Facebook era.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated tubes that emit a puff of water vapor, usually containing nicotine. Unlike cigarettes, they can be used almost anywhere (so far), and ads for e-cigs are only required to be aimed at adults. Most ads make no health claims while they await FDA rules, but media and customers commonly describe e-cigs as a way to wean off unhealthy cigarettes.
The marketing challenge is whether to pay more attention to the “electronic” than the cigarette aspect of the product.
Blu eCigs, for instance, target smokers 35-45 who like techie devices, said founder Jason Healy, who sold the company last year to Lorillard, maker of Newport cigarettes. Blu packs and displays are black and sleek, like a mobile phone. If you flip a switch on the brand’s “smart pack,” it flashes and vibrates when it senses another Blu smoker nearby. Soon the pack will also be able to talk to your other electronic devices, said Healy.
In contrast, independently owned Njoy, the market leader, goes retro with gold emblems and colored slashes on its signs and packaging.
Both brand design approaches are clichéd and trite, said Fred Richards, worldwide creative at The Brand Union, a branding and design consultancy. “The sleek-looking packs have slick brand names and language similar to like premium chewing gum. And the crests and sashes are from cigarette packaging of old.”
The larger opportunity, according to experts, is in using digital media and events to tap the modern-day smokers’ communal angst. “Smokers have been treated like social outcasts for 20 years. There is a whole generation who are too young to know what it was like to smoke on airplanes and in offices and restaurants,” said Richards.
Blu is trying to embrace that sense of community with social media, said Healey. “We encourage people to tell their stories. Plus, data from social sites allow us to zero in on people over 18 who smoke.” Blu runs a TV spot on late-night cable, print ads in lifestyle and culture magazines, and it is significantly expanding its events and social media marketing. “With a product like this, we have to dig to get the demos we want, and then we need to have a conversation [to win them over],” said Healey.
The controversy over e-cigs’ health impacts is gathering steam as the industry approaches $1 billion in sales. At the same time, a new brand category is emerging. “This is a breakthrough in technology and a shift in the social stigma toward smoking,” said Richards. “It’s an opportunity to create a whole new language, lifestyle and attitude.”