Opinion

E-cigarette firms must pursue brand 'intimacy' to counter lack of customer loyalty

The boom in e-cigarettes has brought a rush of new and previously unknown brands to this fast developing market. All are anxious to make hay while the sun shines, and it's no wonder. Apparently around 2.1m Brits have already 'vaped', writes David Atkinson, managing partner at Space.

In 2013, British American Tobacco spent £3.6m in just two months to promote Vype
In 2013, British American Tobacco spent £3.6m in just two months to promote Vype

At a time when cigarette consumption is in long-term decline in this country, e-cigarettes present a new and untapped market.

For the first time in years we have seen smoking advertised on TV, albeit it in a new and updated guise, one that is touted as less harmful, more sociable and even less expensive. Brands such as Vype, Njoy and E-Lites have been quick to go down a route that has been closed to their non-electronic counterparts for years.

According to the British Medical Journal, UK advertising and promotional spending on related smoking materials, including e-cigarettes increased from £1.7m in 2010 to £13.1m in 2012. In 2013, British American Tobacco spent £3.6m in just two months to promote Vype.

Regulatory framework

The regulatory framework in the UK remains relatively open for e-cigarettes, so while the government ponders how it will regulate the market, the timing is ripe for brands to entrench customer loyalty. But with more marketing heat than light to guide the way, this is easier said than done.

At the moment there is little to differentiate the advertising of the various players in the market. It is bland, generic and fairly forgettable – hardly money well spent. Classic tobacco advertisers became expert at skirting the increasingly restrictive advertising rules, but what should not be forgotten is that they also created powerful brands that could outlive these strictures.

Think of Silk Cut and its flash of purple, and Marlboro’s iconic cowboy. Advertising played a role, but they already were powerful brands in their own right.

Think of Silk Cut and its flash of purple, Benson & Hedges’ gold box ads, and Marlboro’s iconic cowboy. Advertising played an important role in supporting these brands, but they already were powerful brands in their own right. By the time the shutters came down on TV, they had established powerful equity among smokers.

Can today’s e-cigarettes make a similar claim? I doubt it. 

Advertising has its place, but in an emerging market where trade distribution remains a key battle, e-cigarette players are putting all of their eggs in one basket. Patchy distribution is skewing consumer choice so when an advertised brand is unavailable in-store, there is little brand loyalty built up with consumers to prevent them simply picking up another brand.

Manufacturers risk advertising the sector rather than their own brands via an ATL-only approach. They need to take a step back and heed the lessons of history – brand first, advertising second. They must create their own iconic brands that will stand the test of time, should regulations restrict their ability to promote themselves.

This means setting out to build an intimate brand relationship with their audience at the right moment. To truly connect, brands need to close the physical and emotional space between themselves and the consumer and the best way to that is through allowing them to really experience the brand through sampling.

Moments of truth

At Space, we focus upon the three key "moments of truth" in the relationship between brand and consumer:

1 - When they experience a brand first-hand

2 - When they buy a brand

3 - When they talk about a brand, hopefully in a positive light given the "recommendation age" in which we now live, where social sharing  is a critical part of the next consumer’s ’experience’ of a brand.

The savviest e-cigarette brands will ensure that they are sampling the brand, not the category. Rather than take a scattergun approach brands will need to focus on careful targeting. That means ‘smart bombing’ key geographies at key periods. Brands have to test and learn quickly what works best and build this learning into a flexible approach to work around emerging restrictions.

In this dynamic market brands can’t afford to overinvest in any one communication channel. Advertising will have a role to play but it will work best when allied to a more nuanced approach that acknowledges the importance of really creating an intimate direct relationship based on a tangible experience.

E-cigarette brands have an exciting opportunity to ignite the aforementioned three key moments of truth in the brand-consumer relationship, but they will need to think beyond the moment to create impact over time. Experiential, promotional, shopper and digital marketing in particular offer tangible points of access to persuade people to build long-term brand intimacy.

This way lies brand loyalty and not a fleeting relationship that will disappear in a puff of smoke.