When it comes to branding and advertising, much of what we are exposed to creates only marginal differences. But small differences can build into larger differences. Even small differences can tip the balance toward a particular choice. And in marketing, it is all about increments, rather than dramatic changes in behaviour.
So, if we are serious about reducing the number of smokers amongst our population, the removal of branding, logos and promotion on cigarette packages is a small step in the right direction.
The role of branding and, more broadly, marketing has never been about making-non customers of a product become instant customers. The process of marketing is more subtle and complex than assuming that the only thing marketers need to do is show a couple of ads, and then sit back and wait for the customers to buy their products.
It’s the same with trying to get smokers to change their behaviour. The process is incremental, rather than immediate.
Marketing is more than advertising. All marketing activity relies heavily on a range of tactics to move you toward purchasing particular products and brands. In 2008, marketing professors Janet Hoek, Phillip Gendall and Jordan Louviere presented a paper at the Australia and New Zealand Marketing Academy Conference where they said that “tobacco brand imagery functions via respondent conditioning, where brand names, colours and other imagery become paired with psychological and emotional attributes. These peripheral cues act as heuristics that do not require systematic processing, but are implicitly relied on by smokers to move from their actual self to their desired self.”
That said, for any “persuasive” technique to work, we already have to be goal-oriented. In other words, for a smoker to be converted into a non-smoker (or vice-versa), there has to be an initial desire for that behaviour before marketing activity will work.
The problem we encounter is that the factors that lead to that desire are also quite complex. That desire to change can be influenced by a whole bunch of factors, but perhaps one of the strongest motivator is when a behaviour becomes normalised.
In 1945, 72 per cent of Australian men were smokers. If nearly everybody around you is a smoker, then taking up smoking is difficult to resist. But when Robert Menzies’ government introduced a voluntary tobacco advertising code for television in 1966, and then the Fraser government introduced legislation that banned cigarette advertising in 1976, the normalisation of non-smoking began.
With the introduction of smoke-free public sector workplaces in the late 80s, and private industry in the 90s, it has become more and more difficult for people to smoke, and for new consumers to take up smoking. This is not just because it has been banned in work and public places, but also because of the social pressure that comes with the removal of smoking from everyday life. In 2007, 21 per cent of men and 18 per cent of women were smokers.
The introduction of plain paper packaging removes the capacity of the cigarette companies to brand their product. On its own, it is unlikely to make hard-core smokers give up (I do find it hilarious when news programs ask smokers if they will now give up smoking because of the new packaging), but as part of the continuing shift that discourages smoking in general, what we are observing is simply another kink in the marketing armour. Having been banned from undertaking any advertising, the major concern of the tobacco companies is that they are running out of promotion options.
And this is where the narrative becomes a bit silly.
On one hand, the cigarette companies are saying that the removal of branding will have no effect on consumer behaviour, while on the other they are fighting to maintain the branding on their cigarette packaging. Although, they argue that there is no evidence that the plain packaging will have any impact on smokers, there is rigorous research that suggests otherwise. Since 2005, a number of studies in the area of consumer behaviour have shown that generic packaging of cigarettes stimulate cessation attempts and deter smoking initiation.
Perhaps the tobacco companies only read research that they commission.
But there is also a bit of a strange contradiction in their arguments. If packaging (plain or otherwise) doesn’t influence consumer behaviour, why are they threatening legal action against the government so they can keep their branding? What’s the point? If it’s not important, and doesn’t contribute to the corporate bottom line, then they shouldn’t be spending shareholder dollars fighting it.
But the tobacco companies have given $5 million to underpin the Alliance of Australian Retailers to fight the proposals. Their arguments that the proposals infringe international trademark and intellectual property laws also seem a little desperate.
The reason is plain – packaging does influence consumer behaviour, and the tobacco companies knows this. They are just not able to admit it.
But, then again, the tobacco industry has always struggled to say it like it is.