Brand Death It’s been a long, dismal downhill for tobacco branding. First came the ban on TV and radio ads in 1970. Since then, tobacco companies have been banned from sponsoring sports and cultural events, advertising on billboards in 46 states, and printing their logos on tshirts. Over time, regulatory incursions have made their way to the packs themselves in the form of increasingly dire warnings from the Surgeon General. Cigarettes in Australia must now be sold in plain, standardized packaging, effectively destroying the last vestiges of branding available to manufacturers.

Though some design studios have furnished creative responses to these packaging challenges, it’s clear that combustible cigarette branding is in its twilight.

 

Not so for e-cigs. What might seem like an academic distinction–the switch from smoke to vapor–is actually the key to their elusiveness. As we’ll cover below, the e-cig industry is wide open and full of contradictions. The FDA doesn’t know how to regulate them, traditional media outlets don’t know how to talk about them, and branding? It’s an open question.

Don’t Call Them Smokers

This article in Forbes is particularly instructive in its wrongheadedness. Writing on an e-cig venture by a tobacco giant, a baffled Charles Sizemore notes “nowhere on the packaging will there be any prominent mention of Altria or its best-known brand, Marlboro.”

Never mind that parent company Altria (ex-Phillip Morris) is a product of brand-laundering that exists only to interact with regulators and investors. The mistake here is thinking that smokers will stick to the Marlboro brand in vape territory, when the reality is that they’re running in the other direction. Let’s not confuse addiction with brand loyalty: Big Tobacco still looks evil with a cigarette in your mouth. Switching to e-cigs is the perfect opportunity for consumers to differentiate.

The blunders don’t stop. “[Altria’s] market is existing smokers, not nonsmokers,” Sizemore continues, noting that  “it’s hard to imagine this product appealing to a young, unbiased consumer.” This despite the fact that a third of the e-cig market are nonsmokers, and young people are a plurality.

The fact of the matter is that the e-cig market isn’t evolving along with the tobacco market. It doesn’t even resemble it.

There Is No There There

A cigarette is one of the most standardized consumer products imaginable. Their design and dimensions are identical, not because they have to be but because of decades of brutal market logic. Even the quantity they’re shipped and sold in is controlled. A man was killed, recently, for selling them in a form inconsistent with these requirements.

What does an e-cig look like? It’s a harder question to answer given the range of shapes they take. But we can group electronic cigarettes into two primary forms: Replica Smokes and Vape Pens.

Replica Smokes (Blu, NJOY) are designed to closely resemble cigarettes, and are usually disposable. They sometimes sport a blue or gold ember on the tip which glows when you take a drag: gas station Blade Runner. Vape Pens (OpenVape, Cloud), cigar-length tubes that look like they came from a chemistry set, can be filled with the vapor flavor of your choice.

Marketing for Replica Smokes harkens back to the golden age of cigarette ads. Glamorous subjects strike candid poses, foregrounded by their favorite packs. There are even celebrity endorsements. Nobody A-list, but The View’s Jenny McCarthy and Stephen Dorf of Blade “fame” have stepped up to back brands. It’s as if, suddenly freed from half a century of advertising restrictions, ad execs picked up where their parents might have left off and doubled down on nostalgia, Mad Men style.

Vape Pens are a heterogenous bunch. There are svelte pens and bulky contraptions, entry-level models and highbrow devices with features like customizable temperature control. Good quality pens will vaporize anything, so there’s some overlap with weed culture here, manifested in the rampant, winking use of the word “herbal.” Buying one is a little like going to a small-town headshop where you’re supposed to call a bong a “water pipe.”

By and large, vape pen branding concentrates on the product out of context. There’s no model taking a puff, just a sharp focus on industrial design. The product photography makes it clear that this is a device we are dealing with, with specifications and customizable features.

Above all, branding requires knowing your audience. So who are e-cigs for? With Replica Smokes, the answer is clear: smokers who don’t want to smoke (strictly speaking) anymore. Branding focuses on claims to quality, presenting a similarity to traditional smoking while stressing that the transition from smoke to vapor won’t suck too badly.

Vape Pen users aren’t as easily corralled. Some are early adopters and device nerds who want to the agency that comes from mixing flavors and setting atomization temperatures. Some just want a discreet way to smoke hash oil. This disparate consumer base makes branding not about what Vape Pens signify but about what they can do. Thus the emphasis on features, capabilities, benchmarks. Is it surprising that Vape Pen websites, in their slick minimalism, resemble splash pages for apps? There’s plenty of similarity between the industry and tech, in its broadest, zeitgeisty sense. Both are novel. Both are virtual, not the real thing but perhaps an improvement over it. Both are nebulous, concerned with literal or figurative clouds. Both inhabit a legal grey area. Both are of dubious actual utility.

But there’s a third market, if it exists at all, comprising bored teenagers looking to blow smoke rings of exotic-tasting air. It’s a fascinating decoupling of smoke from substance ingestion, harkening back to cigar parlors but also suggesting the beginning of a new, socially constructed category of user. E-cigs’ ability to dodge federal regulation and moral condemnation originate in this concept. If the product isn’t toxic or psychoactive, then what separates it from a child’s toy? “Disruption” is an awful buzzword, but e-cigs embody it utterly. The technology doesn’t just threaten to unseat Big Tobacco. It might change the way smoking happens.

The hammer may soon come down hard on e-cig manufacturers. Or maybe it never will. Or maybe the industry will slip under regulation indefinitely. But if there’s a branding lesson to be learned here, it’s that new products inhabit shifting ground. Using proven tactics to tell their story can work, as it clearly has for Blu. Keeping up with the bleeding edge, though, is never easy.