Smoke and Marketing Mirrors

24/10/2018

The row about a tobacco company’s call for people to quit smoking highlights why people can be cynical about marketing – and how easy it is to get it wrong.

Philip Morris still sells a huge amount of cigarettes globally (including Britain), but have moved into vaping products to retain a foothold in countries where smoking rates are falling. Perhaps directors saw a “stop smoking” advertising campaign here as a logical next step in re-positioning their brand.

The trouble is, no one believes it. Hence the accusations of “staggering hypocrisy” and sharp questions about why – if Phil Morris is so serious about improving public health – the company doesn’t stop making cigarettes completely.

Maybe Philip Morris believes the short-term discomfort is worth a bigger long-term share of the British e-cigarette market. But it’s a big risk.

Maybe the company is adhering to the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. After all, we’re talking about them. But it’s a big risk.

This strategy has hit choppy waters from the outset because it just doesn’t ring true. When Philip Morris says it wants to achieve a “smoke-free” future, people don’t trust it.

A brand is shaped by the values shown and the experience of its customers and other stakeholders over time. A few high-profile ads aren’t going to make us forget the years of aggressive marketing of tobacco products, way beyond the point when they were proven to be harmful. Because Phil Morris was long ago pigeonholed as a company which puts profit before health.

There are clear lessons to be learned here:

  1. You can’t manufacture a brand with words alone
  2. You certainly cannot change a brand overnight
  3. Messaging out of tune with perception and experience will fail
  4. People aren’t daft – when they smell a rat, they turn up their nose

Money can buy influence, up to a point. Only time will tell whether Philip Morris are being very clever, or just the opposite.

But it’s worth remembering that the truly successful brands are consistent, honest and believable, because the marketing of them matches reality. Everything else is just words.