How Marketing Has Evolved In The Tobacco Industry Over The Decades

Humans have been consuming tobacco for centuries. In that time, we’ve chewed its leaves, stuffed them into pipes, and rolled them up into cigarettes. Today, there are also multiple alternatives to traditional tobacco products that are “heating up” the market, ranging from e-cigarettes and heated tobacco devices to nicotine pouches to lozenges, and gum. Some of these alternatives have become big business unto themselves, with Business Wire reporting that the global vapor product market alone is worth $34.80 billion.

As tobacco products and other alternatives have evolved in this way, so too have the marketing strategies used to advance them. Interestingly enough, they’ve not just changed to account for new innovations in the industry. Shifts in society, technology, and history as a whole can also help to explain why marketing in the tobacco industry has developed over time.

Below, we’ll briefly cover a timeline of this evolution.

The First Tobacco Ads

Early on, the most prominent tobacco product was pure tobacco leaf. This could be chewed, smoked in pipes, or consumed as snuff. Like chewed tobacco leaf, snuff is smokeless and consists of either ground or shredded tobacco. 

It could be moist, in which case it was placed inside the mouth — between the gum and the cheek or lip. Or it could be dry, which as a BBC look back on snuff boxes noted, meant that it would be inhaled through the nose.

These products dominated in the years before the 19th century, when most tobacco sellers were small, nondescript local businesses. There was not much market competition to speak of; tobacco users simply headed to the local shop and requested whatever quantity of the product they desired. 

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that brand names came to be associated with different kinds of tobacco. That’s probably why America’s first tobacco advertisement, which was published in a New York daily in 1789, stood out upon release.

Cigars also became popular at the beginning of the 1800s. Cigarettes followed, earning their name from the fact that they were initially made from cigar scraps. 

By the late 1800s, the invention of color lithography meant that cigarette cards, which were previously only a part of cigarette packaging, could be made of better quality while also being more aesthetically appealing. They thus became tradable and collectible cards that further increased the cigarette’s popularity.

This cigarette card of Crow’s Breast (1888), chief of Gros Ventre, is an installment in Allen & Ginter Cigarettes’ American Indian Chiefs series.

Entering The Mainstream

By the turn of the century, multiple brands had established themselves in the tobacco industry, and the competition was heating up. In 1913, the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company successfully advertised cigarettes on a national scale for the first time in history, largely by claiming its products were milder than those of its competitors.

This race to reach customers intensified during the World Wars. Demand for cigarettes rose among American soldiers as army officials sought to calm their nerves and relieve boredom on the battlefront. By the end of World War I, Americans were going through more than 45 billion cigarettes annually — nearly triple the amount of pre-war consumption.

With a larger audience, tobacco companies began going all-out with advertising, even employing celebrity endorsements and product placement in films. Tobacco products were subsequently advertised on radio and TV in the 1950s. Celebrities like Lucille Ball, Ronald Reagan, and even athletes like Lenny Lyles — who broke football color barriers in the ’50s and ’60s — could be seen advertising brands like Philip Morris, Viceroy, and Chesterfield.

Product Innovation

Beginning in the ’70s, government regulators began to restrict where tobacco companies could advertise. Prohibited from airing commercials on TV anymore, tobacco ads moved to newspapers, magazines, tabloids, and other print media. 

They were eventually banned there as well, precipitating a move to sponsorships in F1 racing, football, and other sports. Once they were also restricted from promoting in this manner, tobacco companies landed on another solution: innovating through products rather than just new ads.

To date, multiple alternative tobacco products have emerged, all designed to be “cleaner” or “healthier” than traditional cigars, cigarettes, and snuff. The most prominent among these is undeniably the e-cigarette. 

This direct “anti-cigarette” uses water vapor to deliver nicotine into the user’s system. Heated tobacco products have also emerged as smokeless cigarette alternatives. These heat the tobacco leaf gently, allowing users to inhale nicotine without the smoke or smell.

Another smokeless competitor has more recently arrived in the form of nicotine pouches. Prilla describes how these tiny, tobacco-free packages can fit between the gum and the upper lip without inducing excess salivation or staining the mouth (as chewing tobacco is known to do). 

Their sleek nature makes them arguably the most discreet nicotine products on the market today. Meanwhile. lozenges and sticks of gum containing nicotine are still on the market as well, and also challenge the traditional alternative tobacco market by supplying nicotine without tobacco. 

Due to the appeal of the cleaner experience they provide, many of these tobacco alternatives market themselves quite well on the basis of their innovative nature. Today, you may hear of them by word of mouth or online –– especially via social media.

Credit: @zyn_us on Instagram

The tobacco industry has come a long way since the 1700s, to the point that it is now, in a sense, progressing beyond tobacco! The evolution of the marketing techniques in the industry reflects all of this change. 

Indeed, the strategies listed here all effectively revolve around consideration of consumer trends and existing technology — and used that information to make these products pop. It’s a lesson all marketers can take to heart.

Liked this article? You may like our other pieces on the Quantum Marketer marketing archives.

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