Though some They just don’t make ’em like they used to
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 Look familiar?
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.