Why Tobacco Does Not Need Marketing to Sell

Tuesday 01st, March 2016
in B2C, Brand

A couple of days ago, an interesting news item was reported widely in a number of newspapers. The subject was a research study commissioned to estimate the number of smokers in India.

The key finding from the study was that the number of smokers in the country has actually gone up over the years. About 1.7 million new smokers have been added every year for the last 15+ years.

The projections suggest that there are now over a 100 million smokers all over the country. This is a sizeable number but not nearly so sizeable enough as China where the estimate is about 300 million.

A losing battle?

Think about this for a moment.

The Government of India has without exception raised the excise duty on cigarettes over the last five budgets. The idea is to ostensibly make cigarettes so expensive that it acts as a deterrent.

There is a huge amount of communication both from Central and State governments highlighting the malefic effects of cigarette smoking. There are interventions and outreach programmes of every imaginable kind.

From time to time, there are initiatives to print stronger graphical messages on cigarette packs to make it clear that smoking can kill.

And yet, the evidence seems to suggest that the Government and other organisations working in this field have not quite made much progress.

Too much at stake

Let us take another statistic. A breakdown of the numbers suggests that of the nearly 100+ million, just under half actually smoke cigarettes. (The rest consume smokeless tobacco and we’ll come to that in a moment).

Juxtapose these numbers against the production of cigarettes in the country. The estimate for 2013-14 suggests that nearly 100 billion cigarette sticks were sold in India during that year. Do the maths and you will find that this translates into an average smoker puffing approximately 200 cigarettes a year.

Less than half a cigarette a day on average. Not a sizable number perhaps, but large enough to keep the few companies still in the business solidly in the black.

I write this post the day after the 2016 Budget has been presented in Parliament and the stock market price movement for ITC, the largest producer of cigarettes showed a gain of approximately 10% over a single day.

The reason cited? That the increased cess in this year’s budget was not nearly as much as expected and the company could be expected to perform well!

A triumph of marketing

There has been little or no brand communication for tobacco products for many years now. Broadcast and sponsorship opportunities have been systematically denied to cigarette manufacturers.

And yet, the audience for these products just seems to naturally arise. In classic marketing theory, when a latent need is matched with a product that delivers on those expectations you have the making of a successful product category. Tobacco products are one such category, another is liquor.

It would be quite unnecessary for any tobacco manufacturer to consider launching a marketing/advertising programme – assuming they could do so, to begin with – because tobacco products appeal to something deep within all of us.

Call it coming of age, a rite of passage or even a more functional attribute like the need to relax or socialise with friends. The fact is, cigarettes are seen as cool. When you’re young and impressionable, the coolest thing to do is to hang out in college with a cigarette dangling from the edge of your lips eyeing the pretty girls!

So, in a sense the audience for tobacco products is already sold on what they hope to get out of them whether in terms of functional or emotional benefits.

A lack of focus

As the study points out, much of the consumption is happening in rural India. The product mix here is clearly skewed towards bidis and smokeless tobacco products. This is a far bigger threat because it seems like such consumption clearly cuts across the gender divide as well.

Most Government initiatives whether in the area of taxation or communication do not take the rural market into account. There is clear evidence in countries like the US that disincentivising the use of tobacco products can lead to their reduced usage over a period of time. However, a similar effort does not seem to be underway in India.

With illiteracy levels being what they are, it is a tougher challenge for anybody working in the area to convince audiences that tobacco is harmful. This is a habit that typically gets passed from one generation to the next

Stronger measures are needed if India is to realise the goal of eliminating tobacco products and the health risks such as cancer that are associated with its consumption.


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