When you work as a brand builder, one has to admire what the cigarette industry has been able to accomplish.
Whether right or wrong, they’ve created some of the most iconic brands in the world—with help from some great creative agencies, of course. So, with that in mind, why is the branding and advertising for the next big thing in this industry—electronic cigarettes—so awful?
I’m not a smoker, but I know plenty and understand the accompanying habits and rituals. A few months ago, I was out with a friend who’s a heavy chain smoker, and he pulled out an electronic cigarette and started puffing away. The slick little device was intriguing because it seemed like a very simple and elegant solution.
Soon after, I started hearing and seeing more about these products. Blu Cigs is definitely the most sophisticated of the E-cig brands, with advertising featuring Stephen Dorff, an attractive young actor who was a smoker for over 20 years. In one television spot, shot in black and white, Stephen evokes James Dean (at the beach, for some reason) and talks about how he’s just as cool using his Blu. The campaign centres on the tagline “Rise from the Ashes.” (I’ll save my critique of this creative for later.)
Photo: Blu Cig
Photo: Blu Cig
My curiosity was definitely piqued, so I decided to investigate how other brands in this seemingly competitive landscape are presenting themselves.
One of the top brands is South Beach Smoke. Their image literally reflects the name—with sexy hipsters dressed to impress and enjoying some vapor at a club. (I’m assuming it’s one that’s very hard to get into if you’re an average-looking guy.)
Photo: South Beach Smoke
Ever Smoke takes a different approach and caters to the masses—so whether you’re the girl-next-door type or the hotshot douchebag type, this product is for you. Optima Cigs created an image that looks more like something developed in the back of a Berlin underground techno club. I guess they smoke these on the Star Trek Enterprise.
And then there’s Green Smoke, the obvious way to play up the non-sexy side of smoking. The list goes on but you get the idea. Each of these brands is trying to find the right way to present themselves to smokers. And all of them are failing.
Let’s look at the market. According to the centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 20% of adults smoke. That’s roughly 46 million people. The cigarette industry spends billions in advertising. Smoking costs the healthcare system in the U.S. approximately $190 billion a year. Second hand smoke costs more than $10 billion. So obviously there’s huge potential here—and we’re just talking U.S. numbers.
I’ve never worked on a tobacco account, but it’s obvious to my non-tobacco influenced brain that changing the mindset of this immense and diverse audience will be a massive undertaking. We’re basically talking about every type of person on the planet. I can’t help it, but the brand builder in me loves the thought of this challenge.
And for makers of these products, the revenue opportunity is enormous. Which means more money for creative agencies. Sure, Big Tobacco owns many of the E-cig brands—and you can’t have one without the other—but at least it’s a change in the right direction.
This leads me back to my critique of the creative from Blu Cigs and others. The life of a smoker is very different today than it was in the 50s—when smoking was ubiquitous and more widely accepted. Blu Cigs and others are forgetting this fact. None of these brands look or sound authentic, let alone reflect real life. It’s a weird mix of brand and style influences—from bad infomercials to liquor to energy drinks—plus it’s a huge missed opportunity. Where are the real gut-wrenching messages, like “I’m doing this for my kids.”
Where’s the candid imagery of real people who are looking me straight in the eyes while telling me their story? Perhaps it’s OK to not make everything so sexy and aspirational all the time. Maybe Blu Cigs missed the mark by using their celebrity spokesperson as a celebrity. If they had humanized him, made him relatable, then it would have made more sense. Just put him in front of the camera and have him talk, unscripted. He smoked for 20 years and now he’s using your product. That’s compelling enough.
Regardless, all of these brands are missing an opportunity to communicate a healthier lifestyle. Even if they’re saying it, it’s done passively or put into the wrong context. The product is innovative. The marketing, not so much.
I believe the first brand to get this right will have a huge advantage. And, hopefully, they won’t be using a tagline as cliché as “Rising from the Ashes.”
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