Marketing a Smoke-Free Future

If you’re a LinkedIn user, you may have been surprised to see a recent anti-cigarette ad — paid for by Philip Morris International. The tobacco company is promoting a self-proclaimed “manifesto” online declaring their commitment to a smoke-free future. The company sees itself “replacing cigarettes with a portfolio of revolutionary products.” The manifesto notes that the company’s success has given it the resources to pursue a new vision, and to meet an ethical responsibility. It states, “Society expects us to act responsibly. And we are doing just that by designing a smoke-free future.”

Industry trends are changing, but some consumers are reluctant to adopt new products, such as “alternative devices” and e-cigarettes. Additionally, health risks remain. A study published in the journal Pedriatics noted that the presence of harmful ingredients in e-cigarette vapor has been established. The study concluded, “Our findings can be used to challenge the idea that e-cigarette vapor is safe, because many of the volatile organic compounds we identified are carcinogenic.”

PMI is promoting a device called IQOS, which heats tobacco without combustion, fire, ash, or smoke. Although news outlets have erroneously referred to IQOS as an acronym, the name is simply intended to convey the impression of new technology and a new product category. The company says that the product reduces the level of harmful chemicals because the tobacco is heated, not combusted. The difference between IQOS and e-cigarettes is that IQOS produces vapor by heating actual tobacco, while e-cigarettes convert a liquid solution containing nicotine into a vapor.

Reporting in other news outlets suggested that PMI could take IQOS data about smoking behavior, such as numbers of puffs, and use it to optimize marketing, and to fine tune devices. Corey Henry, a media relations manager at Philip Morris International, told DMN, “We do not use data for marketing purposes.”

The company says that it uses device data to address warranty claims and better understand how a device may have malfunctioned. “And we do that download with the permission of the consumer, under the terms of the warranty that they would sign at the time of device registration and purchase,” said Henry.

Although the IQOS product is considered to be smoke-free, it does release a flavorful nicotine-containing vapor. Scientific studies have found that nicotine is a highly addictive substance, which negatively affects brain development.

“IQOS is for adult smokers who want to continue enjoying tobacco products but are looking for an alternative to conventional cigarettes. Now obviously nicotine is a big part of why people smoke,” said Henry, explaining that IQOS is marketed as a transitional product.

“Nicotine is a naturally occurring substance in tobacco. People smoke for the nicotine. They are often looking for an alternative way to continue using nicotine. So, some people will switch to, let’s say, an e-vapor product that you’re probably familiar with. Others aren’t able to make that switch to an e-vapor product because it doesn’t provide them with the same level of, you know, ritual satisfaction, experience,” said Henry.

He added, “And also to be clear, IQOS is not an alternative to quitting nicotine altogether. It’s an alternative for people who want to use a different type of nicotine product. You know, the best choice for a consumer who’s concerned about the health risks of smoking is to quit using tobacco altogether.”

According to PMI, when consumers walk into IQOS stores, they are asked if they are current, former, or non-smokers. Former or non-smokers are actively discouraged from buying the IQOS product.

“From our company perspective, our goal is to convert every adult smoker who would otherwise continue to smoke cigarettes to our smoke-free products such as IQOS,” said Henry.

When asked if the online manifesto is intended to combat negative PR from the past, Henry explained, “It’s really all about a recognition of where consumers are right now.”

The company is attempting to meet a consumer demand and expectation for alternatives to conventional cigarettes. As part of this shift in business strategy, the company must first raise awareness about their new heat-not-burn product. “You need to explain that to a consumer. And then you need to get them used to a slightly different ritual and a slightly different experience,” said Henry.

Henry said that although IQOS aims to deliver nicotine in a fashion that is similar to a conventional cigarette, with comparable flavor, taste and aroma, it is different. It also requires users to actively charge and clean an electronic device. He said that if an adult smoker tries IQOS and stays with it for two weeks, then they are very unlikely to go back to smoking conventional cigarettes. The product is on the market in about forty countries and is most popular in Japan, where IQOS is close to 16% market share of the tobacco category as of Q1 2018.

PMI has invested over 4.5 billion USD in the development of its new products. More than 5 million adult smokers have switched to IQOS from cigarettes. The company currently has two applications pending with the FDA regarding the sale of IQOS and what the company characterizes as modified risk properties.

Mary Cochran, co-founder of Launching Labs Marketing, told DMN that the company also has to overcome the perception of distrust.

“PMI has an uphill battle of changing a core belief that they tried to hurt their customers,” she commented. “The soda industry is having a hard time with this too, right now, with regard to dealing with the perception of empty calories. People in the U.S. have the right to do something bad for themselves, if they want to, as long as it’s not hurting others, but overcoming the perception of distrust is going to be tough for PMI.”

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