It was a Sunday morning and I was reading about the dispute brewing in the Modi family. No, I am not talking about the Prime Minister’s family. I am only talking about the IPL guy Mr. Lalit Modi and his family.

You may not know but they have a city named Modinagar in Uttar Pradesh named after them. So as I read on I came across Godfrey Phillips India (GPI), one of India’s largest tobacco companies. Just to build the connection GPI is the flagship company of Modi Enterprises, one of the largest cigarette manufacturers. Lalit Modi is the Executive Director of GPI.

Additionally, the company also manufactures and distributes Marlboro in India under a license agreement with Philip Morris. Philip Morris International owns the brand Marlboro. This brand has such a strong presence that an image was created, The Iconic Marlboro man. And I reached to our topic for the day.

If someone knows the tobacco business they would know the brand Marlboro. It is the most valuable and best-selling tobacco brand in the world. In 2019 the brand was valued at a whopping US$33 billion. It is valued more than 5 times the nearest competition. As per Forbes, Marlboro commanded 43.1% of the U.S. cigarette market in 2018, bigger than the next 10 brands combined. 

You need to keep in mind it does cause cancer. And thus I asked myself what’s so special about the brand Marlboro? This article will provide you all the answers.

BEFORE MOVING FORWARD A WARNING – This article in no way encourages smoking. SMOKING IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH.

Here is a brief introduction about Marlboro and its history.

Introduction and History of Marlboro

The iconic Marlboro brand is owned by the largest tobacco company in the world, Philips Morris. The brand was launched in 1924 after being registered in 1908. The brand also holds the distinction of being the number 1 brand since 1972. Godfrey Phillips has been in a licensing deal for the brand in India.

Initial Positioning

The brand upon its initial launch in 1924 positioned itself as a filter cigarette brand for women. The tagline was ‘Mild as May’. The advertisements highlighted and targeted the bold strong yet elegant women as cigarette smokers. They also highlighted in the advertisements how the ivory tips would protect the lipsticks the women would be worried about.

This carried for the next couple of decades till in 1954 the positioning and situation changed. It was proved that cigarette smoking caused cancer by then and the competition was increasing. To take advantage a new campaign came into existence. This is what made Marlboro iconic and created imagery that to date remains intact.

The Iconic Marlboro Man

Source: Buzzfeed

In the 1950s, the Marlboro man was introduced with a push that filter cigarettes were safer. Now men also wanted it after the cancer studies. The initial advertisements transformed Marlboro to a rugged brand from a feminine one.

Various cowboys who were weightlifters, veterans, etc. were used which positioned Marlboro as a rugged manly brand. This imagery worked and made a mark on the minds of the targeted audiences. Marlboro went onto become the legendary brand it is today and became the bestselling brand in 1972. 

Marketing under restrictions

As in India there have been restrictions all over the globe to prevent cigarette manufacturers to market their products. But Marlboro has overcome all these to hold onto its brand value. The major efforts that have led to such a success are –

  • Sponsorships – Marlboro has spent a lot of money on sponsoring events that are consistent with its brand positioning. The company has been a consistent sponsor in sponsor events particularly in racing events ranging from Formula 1 to Grand Prix. It has also sponsored badminton tournaments over the years. In 2006 Formula 1 banned tobacco advertising but companies like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have found a way.
  • Merchandise – Marlboro has taken a step further in consolidating brand loyalty. Merchandise items ranging from lighters, ashtrays, t-shirts are available for loyal customers to change them into advocates for the brand.

  • Sampling – To target the youth, Marlboro samples free cigarette packs at parties. It is a controversial practice but has been carried out by Marlboro in India itself to spread the brand in metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Read: Red Bull Marketing Strategy: Sampling & Extreme Sports

  • Philanthropy – The owner of Marlboro in 2017 pledged US$ 1 billion towards anti-smoking. It sounds really hypocritical but it’s like saying I will quit smoking soon while taking in the last puff. Such efforts give these sin product manufacturers a way to sidestep a lot of difficult questions and create better positive positioning for the brand.

These marketing strategies may have been controversial and not always straight forward. Yet they have established the Marlboro brand as an iconic brand that transcends borders, users, and demographics.

It just highlights how in the right way the most difficult of brand positioning can be achieved successfully. Marlboro is almost a century-old brand that continues to hold sway. Hope the brand can last another century but for a healthier product this time. Till that time remember cigarette smoking is injurious to health.

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Harsh Tuli is a strategy enthusiast who teaches and is being taught (pursuing a doctorate in strategy) at the same time. With a wide array of work experience ranging from project management to research analyst to now teaching post graduate students he has had an adventurous work stint. He loves to write, learn and read.

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