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Politically Incorrect

They were huddled in a cell-like enclosure off of the main walkway like a crew of captured humans from Planet of the Apes.

The enclosure was made of glass and so the people walking by could look at them, though some refused to look. Others looked in and then turned away in disgust, while others looked upon them as lepers and shook their heads piteously and walked on.

The little glassed-in room off the terminal walkway at LAX was for smokers.

This once diverse and carefree group whose hair smelled perpetually of cigarette smoke and whose index fingers sported  disgusting nicotine stains made up about 50% of the U.S. population. Today they are found shivering on sidewalks outside of bars and restaurants and shunted to back yards at bar mitzvahs and weddings.  The target of a colossal, and very effective, public relations campaign, the smoking public in the U.S. has been reduced to 21% of the population and is still falling.

The once ubiquitous American smoker, has been turned into some kind of quasi health criminal, positioned in the public’s mind only slightly above pedophiles.

Me? I enjoyed smoking.

I quit – long before it was righteous to do so. It had nothing to do with considerations of health, however. I was running 2-3 miles a day and smoking a pack and half a day, as well.

Then, one morning I awoke, swung my feet over on to the floor and reached for the pack of menthol Kools sitting on the night stand.

Picking up the package of cigarettes, I had the thought that it was too early to light up, and tossed the pack back on to the nightstand. At which point my nervous system got angry – very, very angry, and then afraid. And I realized at that point…I was addicted to nicotine.

I know. I know.  You’d think this was a foregone conclusion. But I had never looked at it quite that way before and I hated the thought of being addicted to anything.

So, I quit. Wasn’t easy, but I got through it.

This subject comes to mind because I just returned from a week in Tokyo and my marketing attention was drawn to the subject by an occurrence at the Tokyo airport.

Japan, it seems, has gone through a similar devolution, with cigarette sales plummeting to about 21% of the population from nearly twice that number in 1996. Still there are 30 million smokers in Japan and the country’s leading cigarette manufacturer, Japan Tobacco, (JT), dominates the Japanese cigarette market and is a major player in world cigarette sales, as well.

JT owns two of the biggest international brands – Winston and Camels. But its flagship brand in Japan is Mild Seven, which owns 30% of the Japanese cigarette market. No idea where they got the name for this brand, but it has been a market leader in Japan for more than 3 decades.

So what does Japan Tobacco do?

My flight home is delayed and I am strolling down the passenger walkway to my gate at Japan’s Narita International Airport. It is lined with a typical assortment of retail and duty-free shops selling liquor, perfume, cosmetics, books, magazines and all manner of souvenirs from the land of the rising sun.

The shop on my left, before entering the circular spur in which my gate was located, catches my attention. It is a haunting blue with a background of silver shading. There were two attractive Japanese women in the space, which was empty except for the women and two pedestals. Upon the top of each was perched a singular blue box about the size of half a loaf of bread. They were being displayed as if in the jewelry counter at Tiffany’s.

The word Mevius appeared in large letters across the back wall. With an hour to kill, I am easy prey for the mystifying brand, the exotic women, the eerie space and the strange packages on top of the pedestals.

I approach the woman standing closest to the hallway. She is stunning – tall and slender, with ivory skin and a demur smile.

Still, there is nothing in the space that indicates what it is they are promoting other than the word Mevius. Besides its mounting in large silver letters on the back wall, it is on the packages as well. I look closely at the blue box in her hand, which she has picked up from the pedestal.

“What are you selling?” I ask.

But as soon as I ask, I see a small picture of a cigarette on the blue box, which I now determine is a carton of several packs of Mevius smokes. I’m a little stunned by the realization that the manufacturer designed this entire presentation without letting the passers-by know that Mevius is a cigarette brand.

Even if this is a popular Japanese brand, I think, many of those walking by the display are foreigners.

But it is not a popular Japanese brand – at least not yet. My curiosity would not permit me to abandon the matter. And a bit of research turns up the fact that earlier in the year, Japan Tobacco abandoned their market share leading brand Mild Seven and renamed the cigarette Mevius in order to,  “Expand their global market.”

Of course everybody knows that Mevius means…eh, it means…

The Japanese press couldn’t figure it out either until the company issued a statement clarifying the meaning of the brand.

Here’s the company’s explanation of the new brand name as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“The “EV” represents the brand’s “evolution” over its 35-year history and what lies ahead….
The “I” is the brand’s connection to “U” — yes, that means “yoU,” the customer.
Finally, not forgetting the brand’s long history and popularity, the “M” and “S” are borrowed from “Mild Seven” to bookend the new name.”


These guys are drinking way too much sake.

To drive their new brand into the mind of the Japanese smoking public, Japan Tobacco is spending quadrillions of dollars to tell them that Mevius is really Mild Seven with a different name.

To do that, they have defaulted to that old standby positioning … scantily clad nymphets.

Go figure. Take a brand that has a three-decade-long track record of being a market leader, and change it.

Maybe the Chairman of JT needed a new game, or perhaps he just wanted to direct those photo shoots. Whatever the reason, he’s got his game now because sales and revenues have declined over the last several months.

Media reports say JT’s conversion of Mild Seven to Mevius is driven by the desire to overtake Marlboro as the world’s leading cigarette brand.

Good luck.

If that is really the agenda, what they should have done is leave the Japanese market-leading Mild Seven brand alone and rolled out a new global brand with a surveyed name and position – one with a powerful image.

Mevius has no positioning unless they are going to stay with the little bikini babes. But those girls are for the Japanese public, and kewpie dolls with 14” waists are not going to take down the quintessential American cowboy.

If you want to understand the power of a visual icon, read Laura Ries’ Visual Hammer(http://www.amazon.com/Visual-Hammer-Al-Ries-ebook/dp/B007P56MK0)

Which is a stronger global cigarette brand?

Even though the Marlboro Man retired in 1999,  he had a run of nearly half a century wherein the iconic image drove the brand to the top of the cigarette world and into the minds of the planet’s smokers.

When I was in Moscow in ’92, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, a carton of Marlboros traded as currency.

Advertising Age, had this to say when reviewing the top brands of the twentieth century.

The most powerful — and in some quarters, most hated — brand image of the century, the Marlboro Man stands worldwide as the ultimate American cowboy and masculine trademark, helping establish Marlboro as the best-selling cigarette in the world.
Today, even a mention of the Marlboro Man as an effective ad icon brings protests from healthcare workers who see first-hand the devastation wrought by decades of cigarette smoking. More than any other issue, the ethics of tobacco advertising — both morally and legally — have divided the advertising industry.
But even those ad professionals who abhor the tobacco industry will, when pressed, agree that the Marlboro Man has had unprecedented success as a global marketing tool for selling Philip Morris Cos.’ brand.

Japan Tobacco is committed to spending huge amounts of money to overtake Marlboro. My prediction, unless they conduct some surveys in order to position the brand, they don’t have a prayer. They shouldn’t try to go head to head with Marlboro. They should find a unique and focused position and stake it out. The narrower the focus, the stronger the brand.

The lessons?

1- Ideally, your brand should be descriptive of your product. But if not, it must communicate and be understood outside of the corporate boardroom: American Express, Microsoft, Kelloggs.

2- Use an image to communicate your position: The Playboy bunny, Apple’s apple , Nike’s swoosh, the Golden Arches, or the Starbucks mermaid.

Yes, sometimes it’s just a name like Coca Cola, IBM or Disney. But theses brands mean something, they aren’t a bunch of letters thrown together as some secret corporate code.

3- Your brand’s position (whether a new product or rebranding an existing one) should come from the mind of your public. That way your marketing communicates to them instantly – you are giving them a message that is already tied to something in their mind.

This is done with special kinds of surveys, something we have been doing for a quarter of a century.

If your product or brand needs a position, call us or send us an email.  We’ll help you make 2014 a spectacular success.