Monday, July 14, 2008

Camel Redesign

A redesign of the Camel Lights packaging (the first since the brand's inception in 1913), coupled with a remix of the cigarette's long-standing recipe, poses a challenge to consumer brand loyalty.

The graphics on the package have been streamlined and stylized with bolder metallic colors and the cigarette has been enhanced with a blue stripe. It's still too early to tell what, if any effect the rebranding, launched in March, will have on sales, says RJ Reynolds Tobacco spokesperson David Howard. Camel Lights sell higher than all other Camel styles but Howard says, "part of the push behind this packaging refresh" was that the Lights' share of the market had become relatively flat. "In our focus group testing with adult smokers, both franchise smokers—current Camel smokers—as well as smokers of competitive brands, the response was very positive. Franchise smokers said that they liked the packaging as much if not more than the current packaging, they also liked the blend as much and found it at parity with Camel."

Rosie, a 22 year old from Allston and a Camel Lights smoker, was confused by the under-the-radar switch. "I thought I had mistakenly been sold a package of Camel Turkish Golds." The new design may have colored her impression of the cigarette's flavor at first. "I checked the package and thought maybe the taste was in my head, like I had just gotten a stale pack."

Elizabeth Miller, assistant professor of marketing at Boston College, says history has proven such switches risky. "There is always a danger when you change your formula when you're trying to attract new people, that you might make loyal users upset," she explains. "The classic example, of course, is Coke, when they changed their formula in the 80s. People were extraordinarily upset and they had to change it back."

Retaining the base of their franchise smokers was a priority for the Winston-Salem, North Carolina tobacco company, as was catching the attention of smokers of competitive brands. Whether either goal is ultimately achievable, particularly with smokers—who are, perhaps more than any other type of consumer, drawn to the predictability of ritual and the familiarity of their brand of choice—is debatable.

Susan Fournier, associate professor of marketing at Boston University, conducted six months of research on consumers' reactions to change. Products like cigarettes or caffeine tend to breed more resistance. "These are literally addicted people, and brand-addicted people," she says.

The experiment found that the stronger the subject's relationship was with the brand—"people who had a metaphoric relationship more akin to a partnership"—the more jarring the reaction when a product was altered. People with weaker relationships to brands, what Fournier calls "flings," were more open to change. "For people who were in flings, they thought of changes as exciting, because it brought new vitality to the brand," Fournier says. "Whereas the other people felt betrayal, like, 'Oh! You're not the brand I married!'"

As with romantic relationships, many react to perceived scorn by acting out. "I will definitely try out new brands," says Rosie. "I'll probably switch at least for a while, in the hopes that other folks do too and the new Camel Lights end up losing them money."

Joshua Sheppard, 21, used to buy Camel Lights by the carton. "But now I am hesitant to even pick up another pack," he says. "Even though it breaks my heart, I've been favoring Parliament Lights lately."

These reactions seem incongruous with the intent of Camel Lights' redesign and the new "higher end" recipe which calls for "premium" tobacco, using more leaves from higher on the tobacco plant's stalk.

"It doesn't taste like higher grade tobacco at all," says Rosie. "I suppose it's more 'flavorful,' but personally I think less is more. It's harsher, and the smell is way more intense."

Howard acknowledges iconic branding creates resistance to change, but insists, "Innovation cannot be restricted to brand new things. You've got to be willing to even take something as iconic as your Camel base and say, 'Hey, can we take something that's already great and utilize innovation to make it even better.'"