Smoking the greatest rebrand - Hello Ernest blog post

Tobacco: the greatest rebrand in history.

It’s a balmy, September evening in Bristol. We leave the bar to get some fresh air, take stock of the night so far, and decide what’s next. Much to my surprise, a non-smoking friend lights up a cigarette, looks sheepishly at me and shrugs; “it’s a social activity…and having a lighter is a conversation starter with girls.”

For the vast majority of my life, smoking has been an accepted part of the every day. And for a long time it withstood a barrage of health warnings and anti-smoking campaigns. But eventually, the scales started to tip.

Now, I can’t remember the last time I saw a colleague disappear for a cigarette break, or the last time I had to move tables outside a bar to avoid second-hand smoke. 

One morning, smoking was no longer popular. How?

The Smoking Ban

The Health Act 2006 paved the way for the smoking ban that came in July 2007. It made smoking illegal in all enclosed public places in England, including pubs, bars, restaurants and workplaces. Whether it was the smokers losing the temptation of seeing their peers light up, or the non-smokers suddenly able to eat their meals in peace and comfort; everybody got the message. Smoking was out.

The prohibition of smoking in these places wasn’t the objective of the law, it was designed to make the customer’s life difficult and inconvenient. It was the exact opposite of successful product development, appealing to key decision-making factors like convenience and ease-of-use; and turning them upside down.

Price Increase

This one’s easy. The RRP of a 20-pack of cigarettes at the time of the Health Act 2006 was £5.05, whereas today you can expect to pay £9.40. Inflation would only have taken it to £6.59. That’s an 86% price increase, meaning that your average smokers have seen their yearly spend go from £1290 to £2401 (working on an average 14 per day in 2010.) 

With that money, a 40 year-old smoker could instead treat themselves to a Ferrari 360 Modena.

Advertising & Censorship

Avid watchers of TV in the 90s will remember that the snooker was prominently sponsored by Bensons & Hedges, not to mention most Formula One teams, until 2003 restrictions on tobacco advertising put paid to that. About this time, your local shops would have dropped Silk Cut and Regal branding from their signs, replacing them with Coca-Cola or The Daily Mail.

Supermarket cigarette cabinets were ordered to be kept closed in 2012, with small traders also ordered to keep tobacco products out of sight in 2015.

Now only obscure advertising exemptions remain legal like “…pubs, clubs and shops may promote tobacco as long as the advert’s total size does not exceed that of an A5 piece of paper, with 30% of that being taken up by government health warnings.”

Out of sight, out of mind.

And everything else…

Let’s not forget the reduction of smoking on popular television shows, of better education on the risks of tobacco and of cancer, of national funded support programs for smokers – and of all the things that I don’t know about. 

Why is this interesting to me?

When I look at the success of the anti-smoking drive, I see 2 big parallels with integrated marketing.

Firstly the buckshot approach; hitting a number of channels with a solid message and a unified style. Mirroring the campaign across online and offline media in a changing world – but catering the message to the medium – hits a broad range of customers. Smokers are male, female, young, old, black, white, taxi drivers, brain surgeons, bricklayers and quantity surveyors – so without a wide-angle strategy, there wouldn’t have been an approach that transcended personas.

Secondly the compound brand awareness. Traditional marketing wisdom says that we need to see or hear something seven times before we act. With good integration, a cold prospect takes far less time to become a customer – thanks to the proliferation of advertising. For anti-smoking, this meant that the message was delivered quickly and reinforced often; speeding up the process of influence and prompting more immediate decisions to quit.

But don’t you dare try to take my New Year’s cigar away.

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