How the stripping away of branding in cigarettes teaches us a valuable lesson

May 20th 2017 marked a date that changed the way the cigarette industry is perceived in the UK. No longer can packs be sold with the individual companies branding. Retailers have one year to remove all branded packs from shelves, after which they’ll face hefty fines. The packaging will be replaced with standardised fonts, all brands sold with the same dull green colour packets and 65% of the packaging covered with health warnings.

This is all an attempt to lower smoking rates, especially amongst teenagers and children, who it has been argued, get attracted to the colours of the packaging. Whether that is the case or not from a branding perspective what becomes pivotal is how all this impacts competition between cigarette brands.

In fact the major argument that the tobacco companies have made is that the stripping back of packaging won’t really affect smoking rates, as evidenced in Australia and that there are better methods to reduce underage smoking. What it will do though is normalise competition. For me as a non-smoker and a branding guy, I kind of have to agree. Where this standardised packaging really affects the tobacco industry is that it becomes next to impossible to differentiate between all the players in the field.

In the brand game the coating or the packaging and covering of something is where brand really plays out. So without a shadow of doubt the packaging does create attraction. Where I think anti-smoking campaigners gets it slightly wrong is that it is not because of the packaging someone get attracted to smoking, the actual role the packaging plays is that it creates a preference in the mind of a consumer to a certain brand, and what that brand symbolises.

Regardless of the intricacies of this case, what all business owners should take from this lesson is the importance of the packaging and on what grounds the tobacco companies are fighting. They are battling on the unlawful nature of their intellectual property being taken away by governments.

British American Tobacco made this statement “A properly functioning consumer goods market relies on having clearly differentiated brands with different quality and price positioning. These differentiating features are all provided by brand trademarks, which enable existing adult smokers to differentiate between brands.”

As you see this statement is all about competition and the crucial role brand plays in creating that sense of differentiation in competitive markets. So any business should understand that the ‘packaging’ around their business is so important, whether that be their website, offices, brochures. All of these elements and many more are the instances where impressions about your business are made and where you can fundamentally differentiate yourself from your competitors. More companies need to think like these tobacco ones and leverage their ‘packaging’ to the extreme, after all you have no government restrictions in being able to demonstrate your brand, unless of course you are in the cigarette game too.