Sunday, 29 May 2011

No branding, no brainer?

One of the big discussions in the Australian marketing world at the moment is the cigarette plain-packaging legislation which comes into effect next year, forcing the tobacco companies to replace their uniquely identifiable packs with a uniform olivey-greeny-brown pack with a simple text brand name.

There's been plenty of comment and debate about whether this is a step too far (cigarettes are already hidden from view in shops in Australia). Of course the pro-tobacco lobbyists have been out in force with various arguments against it, most farcically the one that says that it shouldn't be adopted because it won't work... which naturally begs the questions "why argue against it then?"

The 'restraint of trade' angle has also been raised, and not always from those who are in any way pro-tobacco. Rowan Dean's piece in the Sydney Morning Herald is a good example. One of the central facets of his argument is that the government has "no right whatsoever to actively seek the destruction of brands that are legally traded in the marketplace". I do have some sympathy with this "either it's legal or it's not" argument, but there's something else that concerns me more with this legislation.

What I'm puzzled about is the emphasis the government has placed on the research that shows that plain packs are less desirable than the branded packs. I'm not questioning if this is true (it may be, it may not be), what I'm questioning is whether this actually matters. If none of the packs are branded then people won't have a choice. Or rather their only choice will be whether to buy cigarettes at all. And I'm not sure that this is what was tested.

Regardless of how carefully you control the context in the test, the context in the respondent's head is always going to be influenced (if not generated entirely) by what happens in real life. Asking people whether they'd rather purchase and carry around something plain and (notionally) unappealing or something bright and colourful is a bit of a no brainer (unless you're a hipster perhaps). But that's not the choice people will be making.

It's like asking people whether they'd prefer a free Paul Smith suit or a free French Connection suit, and concluding that because people prefer the Paul Smith suit, if you took this option away they wouldn't want the free French Connection suit. Silly example perhaps, but no more silly than the conclusions the government is drawing from the pack-test research.

I should make it clear that I'm not necessarily against plain-pack legislation, or anything else that limits the abilities of the cigarette companies to market their toxic goods. In the long term these limitations may push the cigarette companies to just give up (and yes I appreciate the irony of that statement) as they can't do anything to ensure they maximise their share of an inevitably shrinking market. Or with 'brand' being a smaller part of the consumer decision process, it may result in a more price led market, which would erode tobacco company profits (at the macro level), and lead to a race to the bottom.

It's more that I feel the arguments the government are making for their introduction are flawed. And more specifically that it sounds like they are based on poor research.

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