Tuesday, 3 June 2014

What's in a name: To what extent are new efforts to unbrand cigarettes going to reduce the number of smokers?

This article was written by Sofia Fionda and Alex Zaleski, both Research Executives at Branding Science, whose keen interest in blogging keeps them extra busy in between projects.

As people who work in branding and the healthcare industry, we at Branding Science found it interesting to hear that the UK Government is moving towards a ban on branded cigarette packets.


A few statistics:

If you are smoking 20 a day premium cigarettes, you are spending £2900 a year.

The total cost of treating diseases caused by smoking is £2.7 billion a year, while the total cost to society is £13.74 billion (this includes cleaning up the cigarette butts; the loss of productivity from cigarette breaks as well as increased sick time taken).

The treasury actually makes £9.5 billion from UK sales of cigarettes. Doing some simple math you can easily see that it costs more to deal with the problems associated with smoking than the government earns in tax from the tobacco industry. Clearly it is a financial imperative for the government to find a way to cut smoking rates.

But is there any evidence that de-branding cigarettes reduces the number of smokers?

Studies from Australia, where the ban has been in place since last year, have worrying results. Findings show that the amount of tobacco delivered to retailers has actually gone up since the ban because of a higher demand for roll up cigarettes due to ‘generic’ manufacturers producing cheaper tobacco. This means that the market now has a hole being filled with cheaper tobacco, and it may actually be increasing accessibility to cigarettes.

However, these studies should be taken with a pinch of salt for two main reasons. First, the data is short term. Second, according to how they’re presented in the British media, the studies appear to be sponsored by the tobacco industry.

But why would branding have any influence on cigarette usage in the first place, if all people want to do is smoke and get their nicotine hit?

Let’s look at Johnny, our hypothetical smoker. He had his first cigarette the day after his sixteenth birthday. His father was a smoker. He’d grown up handing the Marlboro man over to him and watching as his father puffed away. He was the youngest of three brothers who also smoked. Smoking was normal to Johnny. He knew from health classes that cigarettes were bad for you and even cringed over the blackened lungs his science teacher brought into class. But Johnny didn’t believe that could ever actually happen to him.

Why do kids like Johnny take up smoking, even though they are taught the risks associated with cigarettes? Why do adults who are also aware of the risks continue to smoke up to two packs a day?

While there are many socioeconomic reasons behind smoking, for the purposes of this article we will be examining the psychological theories behind why people choose to take up smoking, and how important brands are in driving people to start the habit.

Branding is one of the core forces that drives sales of any product. A branded product is immeasurably more valuable to a company than an unbranded one because it adds an emotional element to its physical and functional benefits.

So why do we like brands?

One theory is that brands help convey our own self-conceptions. For example, when you use your Apple laptop over a traditional PC computer, you feel innovative and forward thinking, almost like a Steve Jobs 2.0.

You might not actively praise yourself with these traits, but the undercurrent of meaning is nonetheless present. Interestingly, positive associations with brands is associated with psychological wellbeing.

Brands are not only important for perception of the self, but also to see how you belong in the larger social sphere. If you are the only one in your friendship group with a Samsung smartphone while everyone else has iPhones, you naturally feel like an outsider. If your aspiration is to belong to the group, then switching to an iPhone is going to meet those aspirations.

In Johnny’s case, the pack of Marlboro lights in his hand means that his aspiration of belonging to his family and friends is validated.

With this in mind, however, we ask you to open the discussion on the implications of unbranded cigarettes on smoking behaviour.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this post!

No comments: