Vape marketers combine big tobacco’s branding history with new strategies

by Dan Blacharski

Vape marketers combine big tobacco's branding history with new strategies

Since the very first vape product hit the market, something curious has happened as they managed to sneak in under the radar, using branding and advertising strategies that Big Tobacco has not been allowed to do for years. Eventually regulation may turn against them, but for now, marketing vape products is a little like the Wild West, and vape brands are combining some of the old tried-and-true tactics the cigarette companies used to use, with a newer digital twist.

“It’s a lot of the same dynamic. Everything from taking the right picture of the hot guy or sexy woman, to packaging design and product design,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a marketing and branding consultancy. Allen has held senior management positions at Ogilvy & Mather and DMB&B, and he is the author of BrandSimple, BrandDigital, the Edge and Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay relevant in a Fast Changing World. “It’s not just the product, it’s the whole lifestyle around it.”

“Lifestyle branding has always been a big part of this entire category of products,” said Todd Skezas, founder of San Diego-based Vapor Authority. “Just like in the beer commercials, the vape industry wants to have a ‘cool’ factor in their branding. But the industry also has the advantage of a second message, and that is, vaping is a legitimately useful product that can be used as a smoking cessation tool.”

Vape brands don’t need Madison Avenue to convey a message

“Most of the vape brands are smaller companies, many of which are startups,” said Skezas. “They don’t have Madison Avenue budgets, but the good news is, they don’t need to. They are digital marketers. They are doing product placement in rap and hip-hop music videos. It’s an industry targeted at an audience that is digitally savvy. That audience may not want to watch a television commercial, but they will look at an Instagram picture or a music video.”

“You want to have your product in an environment. Consumers don’t want to be interrupted for ads,” said Adamson. “But they are really good at observing context. It gives the marketer a chance to authentically show their product.” Adamson says that vape companies are not yet at the scale at which they can afford Madison Avenue, “But given that most marketing is digital and online, they don’t need a Madison Avenue agency. They need a couple of designers, and people who know how to use social media.”

Increasingly, the vape brands are doing their marketing and advertising, and creating their entire brand strategy, in-house. “They have grown up in the digital world,” said Adamson. “Most of these small companies are really powerful digital marketers, and most of the consumers are digital-first, and maybe digital-only.”

The regulation begins

Those of us who are of a certain age remember cigarette commercials on television, and claims that “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!”  And who can forget cartoon icon Fred Flintstone advertising Winstons. There was a time in tobacco’s advertising history where “anything goes” was the rule, but those days are long gone. In the vaping industry, we are already seeing some pushback against their flavored liquid offerings, with a claim that it caters to an underage audience, and some cities like San Francisco are banning those flavored liquids outright. According to Skezas, “It’s still a new industry, and there will be new regulations in the years to come. As for flavored liquids, this is simply what adult consumers are looking for, and it’s nothing new – flavors have always been a mainstay of the cigar and pipe tobacco offerings. For now, it’s often a challenge to pin down precisely what the rules are in terms of marketing. Most important to vape companies today is creating effective branding strategies in a digital world, and trying to anticipate what the future regulatory outlook will be and to create those strategies so that they will be compliant.”

According to Adamson, “Fortunately for these smaller companies, we are living in a time where any business regulation is seen as unnecessary. As Washington says ‘regulation is hurting business,’ that is to some extent good news for vape companies.”

Cigarettes are your father’s Oldsmobile

Most importantly, branding vape products in a digital world calls for a strategy that retains what was good about tobacco branding – the imagery, the lifestyle and the ‘cool’ factor – and bringing it into a digital world. “Founders of vape brands are right on target with their branding strategies,” said Skezas. “Cigarette ads were all about image, and that hasn’t changed today with vaping. What’s more important in today’s digital world than image? A television commercial gave you 60 seconds to create a memorable image, the Internet gives you two or three seconds. That first-look branding strategy is going to be light on text, if there is any text at all – and it’s going to convey a modern image that says it all without having to say a word.”

“The products are designed to look techy and cool,” said Adamson. “Cigarettes are your father’s Oldsmobile. Vaping is cool, it fits in with your smartphone and your headphones and your lifestyle.” Creating a vape brand requires a new strategy that combines a new digital reality, with a few of the principles of 1960s Madison Avenue. “They’re following the basic principles of successful old-time tobacco and old-time liquor advertising, which is, you don’t need a lot of words, you don’t need long ads, you just need the right image. The right model, the right photography, the right content, the right party scene, and the right ‘look.’ And you put that picture online, where word-of-eye is as important as word-of-mouth.”

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Dan-Blacharsk-small-150x150Dan Blacharski is a thought leader, advisor, industry observer and author of the book Dotcloud Boom. He has been widely published on subjects relating to customer-facing technology, fintech, cloud computing and crowdsourcing, and he is editor of NewsOrg.Org. Follow @Dan_Blacharski

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