Standardised tobacco packaging — removing the power of brands (17.05.2017)

This article was published on the 17th May, 2017


This week we are looking at the benefits of standardised “plain” tobacco packaging for public health (see our briefing for more information). Colourfully branded cigarettes are being confined to the dustbin of UK history on Saturday. Today we look at the power of branding.

The tobacco industry was one of the first to adopt the tools of modern marketing nearly a hundred years ago, by associating its products with positive attributes. None of these attributes, such as health, wealth and success were justified by the evidence, but getting doctors, film stars and athletes to promote your products did the trick. Marlboro has been the most successful at this and as a result since 1972 it has been the world’s biggest selling cigarette brand. [1] Manufactured by Philip Morris International (PMI) Marlboro is one of the world’s most valuable and recognisable brands, worth $86 billion worldwide in 2016. [2] [3] This ubiquity doesn’t happen by accident. It is the result of endless promotion, sponsorship and marketing.

The ubiquitous Marlboro branding will soon be no more in the UK.


Sponsorship of sporting events, product placement in films and television shows, glamorous looking people in magazines, all of these and more techniques have been used to promote smoking in general and the company’s own brand in particular. These are intended to create a sub-conscious association in the minds of consumers, and Marlboro’s use of Formula 1 is a good example. The message is simple: Formula 1 racing is glamorous and elite. Marlboro is intimately associated with Formula 1. Therefore, smoking Marlboro cigarettes gives me a chance to share in that glamour.

Philip Morris is still paying Ferrari an estimated US $160 million a year in sponsorship for its formula 1 team, even though it hasn’t been able to put its name on the cars since 2005. Why? Because the visual identity remained a strong link between the pack and the car. This is highly effective. Take a look at this video where children are discussing tobacco packaging. These children are primary school age, and brand names on cars had already been banned for 7 years by the time this video was filmed, yet they still associated Marlboro with Ferrari.

When children so young are associating a cigarette brand with a racing car — we have a serious problem. When a young boy sees a cigarette pack and thinks that it might be fun to play with, and another says that the colours make him happy, it is clear the packaging is an effective promoter of smoking.

When we understand this, we can see the critical importance of these new rules for public health, now and in the future. New regulations on standardised “plain” packaging for all cigarettes means that Marlboro and others can no longer use their instantly recognisable and long-established visual identity to seduce new customers, especially young people, or lead current smokers to switch. It will take time, but as children born today grow up they will never have seen the brightly coloured packs that create such associations.


From Saturday, all cigarettes will be sold in standardised “plain” packaging, like this


The UK is now what the tobacco industry calls a ‘dark market’ with all advertising promotion and sponsorship, even on the pack, prohibited. However, most countries are not so fortunate. As the regulatory framework becomes tighter in the UK, the focus of the industry moves to countries without such a strong framework. Increasingly, tobacco companies are concentrating their efforts in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs). The Marlboro brand can still be promoted in many countries around the globe using methods of advertising, promotion and sponsorship now illegal here. We must continue to #ActOnTobacco until the whole world is a dark market and stop the tobacco industry exploiting vulnerable people, especially children, with seductive and insidious marketing tactics.



See also article in Tobacco Control