How the EU clampdown will reshape e-cigarette marketing
A view from Simon Gwynn

How the EU clampdown will reshape e-cigarette marketing

From 20 May, the Tobacco Products Directive will bring into force stricter rules on the manufacture and marketing of vaping products. What does this mean...

It considered e-cigarettes to be 95% less harmful than smoking

In the 1940s, cigarette brand Camel ran ads declaring: "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette." It wasn’t the only brand to go after the medical sell – physicians purportedly claimed that Lucky Strike cigarettes were "less irritating", while dentists apparently recommended Viceroys.

Looking at these vintage ads today can feel like staring through a telescope at an alien civilisation. Anyone younger than 51 has never seen an ad for cigarettes on TV in the UK, while those younger than 11 will not have been exposed to mainstream tobacco marketing of any type, after the last forms, such as the sponsorship of certain global sports events, were banned in 2005. 

Now e-cigarettes face similar restrictions

Vaping is big business, and could become far bigger. According to Nielsen data for the year to 27 February, the UK market is worth £158m and has doubled in two years; there are now about 3m e-cigarette users in the UK. There has already been some back-and-forth on advertising the products: the Committee of Advertising Practice liberalised its rules in 2014, allowing people to be shown vaping on screen. That November, VIP ran the first TV ad for almost 50 years depicting someone who appeared to be breathing out smoke.

Nonetheless, from 20 May, much stricter rules are coming into force as part of the EU Tobacco Products Directive, which will affect e-cigarettes for the first time. There are two stages: marketing restrictions start immediately, while manufacturing rules take effect from November.

Some details of the directive’s implementation are still to be finalised, but the main thrust is that advertising and promotion of e-cigarettes will no longer be allowed across TV, radio, print (except for trade publications), and online display. This will leave several channels still available for use. Cinema, out of home and point of sale will be unaffected and sales promotions will be allowed, but not on-pack promotions.

Altered parameters

The changes will have an immediate impact on brands. Blu launched its first worldwide campaign, ‘Just You & Blu’, only weeks ago, after appointing The Corner to handle its unified global account in January. Its ad, showing a helicopter-piloting cattle-herder, has been on TV in the UK, but this will stop on 20 May. 

In any category, word of mouth is probably your strongest marketing tool

John Wardley, chief marketing officer at Fontem Ventures, the Imperial Tobacco subsidiary that owns the Blu brand, says the restrictions will not fundamentally change his strategy. "Certain media in certain markets are going to be cut off to us," he says. "We acknowledge and respect that. But our vision is that ‘Just You & Blu’ is a long-term campaign, so we’re looking for other ways to bring it to life."

Wardley thinks vaping brands still face a big challenge to educate the public about their products – a belief backed up by findings from the review into e-cigarettes published by Public Health England last August. It considered e-cigarettes to be 95% less harmful than smoking, but highlighted a 2015 survey from anti-smoking campaign ASH that found 22% of the public believed e-cigarettes to be either as harmful as cigarettes, or more so – a figure that had almost tripled since 2013.

Lateral thinking

"What we need to do as a category is increase the educational debate," says Wardley. "We need to let consumers know what is in e-cigarettes, that they’re less harmful than cigarettes, and the science behind it." 

Wardley says the social-media platforms of vaping brands – which can continue to operate – will be key to communicating this message. Consumer advocates will also remain vital, especially as Wardley thinks many smokers’ perceptions were formed on the basis of early, poorer-quality models. "In any category, word of mouth is probably your strongest marketing tool," he says, "but that’s probably even more pronounced in ours."

Another area likely to become a higher priority for brands is point-of-sale marketing, according to Sarah Green, chief executive of creative shopper-marketing and brand-activation agency Grey Shopper. 

"With e-cigarettes seen as one of the growth areas for the tobacco industry, these restrictions will mean in-store communication will take on significant importance in driving this growth," she says. "Brands will want to consider the channel, the shopper and the shopper mission, then ensure strength in the communication: does it grab my attention? Is it clear why this brand is better than another?"

New limits, new opportunities

It’s the product regulations, though, that may have the greatest impact on the category. There are two dates to note: manufacturers must stop making non-compliant products by 20 November, and retailers must stop selling them by 20 May 2017. The restrictions include limits on the size and strength of products; specifications for manufacturing quality, labelling and packaging; and a requirement that products are pre-approved. Wardley believes this will significantly reshape the category.

"There are thousands of players right now, and the landscape will definitely change when these restrictions come into play," he says. "As far as we are concerned, the product restrictions will increase trust among consumers. Those brands that are serious about quality control and being transparent about their manufacturing practices will have the upper hand."