How can tobacco brands prepare for the worst?
I'm one of those people who doesn't obey signs.
If a sign says 'Keep off the Grass' I'll do my very best to at least set a toe on it. I see 'Wet Paint' as an invitation to test it and of course 'Don't Touch' may as well read 'Caress the hell out of me, I'm worth it.'
So when I heard about The Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill, my first thoughts weren't around its merits, but how tobacco brand owners might get around it.
I’ve never been a smoker. But I support the ability of any manufacturer to distinguish their product from a competitor’s. With the proposed removal of most branding, the only elements of differentiation may be the brand name and product variant.
As a namer and copywriter, it’s looking like I might just be one of the few people who'll get the chance to if the legislation goes through.
So if it happens, what tricks might cigarette manufacturers have up their sleeves? Here are some off-the-cuff bill-bending ideas of varying plausibility.
Despite stipulations on font, size and colour, there doesn't appear to be any guidance on the brand name itself.
With smokers forced together outside, word of mouth will be the number one promotional vehicle. A catchy or memorable name will make all the difference.
Most cigarette brands hang onto a heritage of denial or name themselves after suggestive people or places. A brand name created around an attitude could cause quite a stir.
'Death' branded cigarettes tried to shake things up in the UK in 1991. With a skull and crossbones emblazoned across the pack and communications lines like 'Let us be the nail in your coffin' they squared up to the truth and appealed to the rebels in doing so.
Another idea could be to create a name that subverts the disturbing on-pack photos. Something like 'Die Tomorrow', 'That Tickles' or 'Whatever'. There's something playful about going up to a shopkeeper and asking "Can I have a packet of Whatever?".
If there’s no stipulation on length of name, could you get away with a very long one? Consumers would need a way of shortening it to ask for the product – perhaps an acronym? The name could even change regularly, while the initials remain the same. A brand could be known as RBT, but rotate names used on pack such as - "Remembering Better Times", "Raw But True", "Real Bad Trip" , "Rather Boring Typography" or "Renegade Blood Toxin". Extra-shiftily, could the (fictional) owners of RBT launch and market a non-tobacco product with a long name that becomes the acronym RBT, this new product sharing the personality of the cigarette brand.
Tone of Voice
If all you can feature on pack is name and variant, then it pays to make the variant descriptor as evocative as possible. Are they just Slims, or could there be different styles of slim? A Chicago Slim, The Vegas Strip, The Sydney Slim? Or could a brand trademark and communicate a particular drying technique, provenance or style of manufacture? However it's described, the variant should echo the personality of the brand.
It's likely any Fair Trade logos wouldn't be allowed, but making a product Fair Trade would enable extra information to be added to the variant descriptor giving an extra layer of communication. I'm guessing Carbon Neutrality would be too big an ask.
The current 94 page draft bill is vague and tries to cover all loopholes, so the following ideas may, or may not, fall foul of any actual bill.
It’s stated that packaging rules apply to ‘any thing (other than a tobacco product) placed inside the packaging of tobacco products’. This could leave manufacturers free to brand the actual cigarettes. A distinctive butt could act as a mini billboard in an ash tray - the perfect place for the target market to see it. Watermarking the cigarettes would also help combat the increased chances of counterfeiting the new bill will encourage.
Extra sneakily, should ‘tobacco products’ themselves be excluded from the packaging rules, you could actually lace or impregnate promotional material in pack with tobacco, turning it into a tobacco product and potentially making it exempt.
There could be a nice brand idea around 'The Last Stand' - It's the end of the world, have a cigarette. The last cigarette in the pack could have very little tobacco in it, but have a paper sleeve that unrolls like a scroll to feature an 'end of the world' story.
Reversible packs? Fancy foil? Origami opening? Slip-covers? Until the bill is more precisely worded, it's hard to know what might fly.
Right now tobacco companies should be doing all they can to give their brands a final boost going into a potential ban, to help them last a little longer. One way may be by getting long-lasting promotional cigarette cases (or objects that can be used as cases) with some hint of branding into user’s hands, a lasting memento of a dying brand.
Finally, a thought on colour. The dirty olive green of proposed new packs has been chosen for being the least appealing to young people.
But what if a cigarette brand could own that colour before everyone else was forced to use it? Redesigning all their packs and promotional materials into it ahead of the change. They could give the colour a sexier name, much in the way that British Racing Green is just a shade of myrtle. By the time everyone else has been forced into using it, the shade will already be synonymous with a single brand.
Anyway, enough theorizing. There's a very good chance the tobacco companies will prove the Plain Packaging Bill to be illegal. Rather than risk millions of dollars of tax-payers money in lawyers fees, the government will just back down and nail a big 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door. No doubt that’ll be my cue to become a lobbyist.
John Kerswell is Senior Writer at Brand Voice Consultancy XXVI
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