Impossible Branding?


It looks like Australian politicians have taken up reading neuromarketing books. In the ever-escalating war between regulators and tobacco firms, the most aggressive step yet has been proposed Down Under: un-branding cigarette packaging.

In Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology, we learned that tobacco firms had coped with increasing restrictions on advertising in various ways. One key method was to create a strong brand association with such simple design elements as color. Researchers found that even though the signature Marlboro logos were gone from Ferrari Formula One cars, merely seeing their bright red color triggered tobacco craving in the brains of subjects who saw race car photos. And as for the graphic warnings promising smokers disease and death? They, too, triggered cravings for tobacco (see Are Tobacco Warnings Really Ads?).

Whether he read Buyology or not, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd seems to understand some of the neuromarketing principles at work here. He has proposed legislation to remove all distinctive branding from cigarette packages. No Marlboro logo, not even a red box. Just a plain, generic-looking package with a hideous disease photo and a tiny text brand name. While I have no doubt that after a few months of such packaging one could strap an Australian smoker into an fMRI machine and demonstrate that plain brown boxes trigger craving for a smoke, these packages would create a major branding challenge for the tobacco firms.

The difficulties posed by these packages are twofold. First, such a package would break the link between satisfying an addictive craving and the distinctive brand characteristics: colors, logos, graphics, etc. Dozens of potent branding opportunities would vanish. (Arguably, the correlation between the craving satisfaction and the cigarette package might well be one of the most potent branding moments for any legal product.)

Second, one’s brand of cigarettes signals something to others. Marlboro is a rugged, masculine brand – think cowboys, ultra-fast race cars, and the other associations the brand has created over the years. When a paunchy accountant shakes a Marlboro out of its pack, he’s doing more than getting a hit of nicotine – he’s showing that he’s the kind of guy that identifies with the macho Marlboro heritage. Generic packaging would virtually eliminate the signaling benefit of smoking a particular brand.

Can tobacco companies survive such legislation? As addictive as their products are, and as many resources they have, most likely they will find a way to keep moving their product. With so many restrictions on advertising and packaging, though, the opportunities for brand building will be increasingly limited. I find it inconceivable that a new brand on the scale of Marlboro and the other biggest brands could emerge in this environment. If anything, cheaper brands (if any brand that costs $15US per pack can be considered “cheap”) might grow simply because the packages have lost their signaling value.

This legislation has not been enacted, and I’d expect the tobacco firms to fight it fiercely. In essence, the brand equity that they have invested billions of dollars in building is being rendered nearly worthless. Should some version of this legislation pass, it will be interesting to see what new approaches to conveying brand identity will emerge in the aftermath.

  1. Darius cel Tulbure says

    The Tobacco Companies could easily sell branded tobacco boxes so that smokers can move their cigarettes from the ugly/hideous/indecent pack into the branded box.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Hmmm, that might work, Darius. Perhaps a decorative sleeve that the generic box could be slid into would do the trick. Of course, if such “repackaging” options became popular, I still see some branding issues. Some smokers might slide whatever is cheapest into a Marlboro sleeve, while others might choose some other kind of signaling look, e.g., a case labeled with something entirely different (e.g., Porsche, Rolex, Lady Gaga, or some other non-tobacco image/brand).

      Good point!


  2. Alexandre says

    If this non-branding packages come true, I will do this: transfer the cigarrettes into a beautiful and cool package. It’s not a problem.

    What could happen is a decreasing of cigarette selling.

  3. Alexandre says

    …decreasing of cigarette selling… For those who never smoked, of course.

  4. Brendon Clark says

    As a non-smoker, what the pack looks like is irrelevant to me. From a neuromarketing angle, it’s fascinating, and I enjoyed Martin Lindstrom’s piece on it in Buyology. As a New Zealander, what Australia does is interesting as our countries follow many similar paths.

    Now, as a non-smoker who likes concepts like this, I might be uninformed about what’s been done but, try this… thinking as I type…

    Does the intended legislation cover the cigarette? Why can’t I brand the cigarette itself. First time I pull a red cigarette out, people will want to know whose it is. Marlboro wins. Or patterned. Imagine that. With cool messages.

    On the other hand for that matter, why can’t government legislate that not only must there be unbranded packets, there also must be messages on the cigarette, and not about cancer and lungs but about things that are more immediately important to smokers.

    What if the cigarette had to read, Smoking makes you impotent, or similar more direct variations, or Your breath stinks, or Whatever else?

  5. Dr Stephen Dann says

    It’s much more valuable for the tobacco companies than it is for the anti-tobacco lobby. Branding removed from the packages only leaves word of mouth from smoker (credible source) to new smoker (novice opinion seeker), or smoker to smoker word of mouth as the marketing communication method / brand reinforcing statement of choice.

    Unbranded, and now with hidden away display cases pushes into a greater level of demand for unprompted recall of the product, and that’s usually regarded as higher involvement which trends towards greater loyalty.

    Involvement, loyalty, need for high functional levels of unprompted brand recall and a market that’s only depending on credible word of mouth for messaging. How much better can we make life for the makers of niche market product?

  6. Huw says

    I’ll just add that Australia is already doing a pretty good job with its anti-smoking campaigns. Here is a link to some convenient info ( showing how the smoking rate in the adult population has declined over time. It’s down under 20% of the adult population and I understand it may even be at around 15% now.

    To some extent this is the Federal Government threatening to twist the knife.

  7. Chantelle Jackson says

    As an Australian non-smoker who grew up with two smoking parents, I hate smoking and the whole foul stench that goes along with it. I am embarrassed to say that one of my sisters (who has six children) smoked while she was pregnant to keep her ‘babies small’…there should be a law against it.

    I am disgusted by people who smoke with children in vehicles and inconsiderate parents who smoke inside the home. Forcing children to inhale this sullied poison is outrageous! Surely a parent who does this lacks the responsibility to take care of the child in a loving manner and is failing miserably in their duty of care.

    Even if the tobacco companies were forced to have plain-brand labelling they would still come up with enticements for their addicts. They would probably do something like give away a free, heavily-branded sleeve to ‘protect’ the plain cigarette box.

    Interestingly, today, I was talking to a petrol station attendant who gave up smoking last year and is now buying herself a Harley with the money she saves from not smoking.

    Incidentally, her teenage son, who abhors the increase in cigarette taxes (along with the government who introduced the taxes) currently spends a smidgeon under seven thousand dollars each year on his smoking addiction-which is the same amount of money that his car cost to buy.

    Smokers, if you are going to smoke, please, please stop dirtying up the air around the entrances to hotels, shopping centres, restaurants, cafes, cinemas, lobbies, etc. and keep your dirty little habit to yourself and away from your innocent children.

    I hope the government does everything and anything to continue increasing cigarette prices and discouraging smoking.

  8. Thanh Ngoc says

    I like that Australia is trying to come up with a way to decrease smoking, but I think it’s a bit counter-intuitive, since the cigarettes are allowed to be sold in the first place.
    Of course, if they were to become illegal that would cause huge backlash.

    I wonder if using plain branding would then trigger a smoker when they see plain branding on other products, such as the home brands of supermarkets that are becoming more and more popular nowadays.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanh, I do believe you are right – once a smoker becomes used to plain brown cigarette boxes, it seems likely that a similar brown box containing another product could be a craving cue.


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