Smoking debate: to brand or not to brand

By Joseph Katete

Reports that the World Health Organisation is considering to evoke a ban on the branding of tobacco and cigarettes made interesting reading for me.

Not that I am a chain smoker who will be affected as I would not know which of the cigarettes on the markets will be most satisfying to me. Nor am I a shareholder in one of the most thriving cigarette manufacturing companies whose branding strategies have been its backbone of success.

I am also not one of the “new” tobacco farmers who have been looking forward to the opening of the tobacco auction floors for the past few years that I have ventured into farming. Communal farmers and beneficiaries of the Government land distribution programme now constitute the majority of tobacco farmers.

In fact, I am an observer, who would want to stir the waters further and include the critical voices of marketers, admittedly my newly found passion in the last few years.

Proponents for the banning of tobacco branding reason that the move will lessen the consumption of tobacco whose healthy hazards are undisputed to almost everyone.

Irish Minister for Health, James Reilly, said the ban would help to save lives. His country, The Republic of Ireland, became the first country in Europe to try to pass a law banning the sale of branded cigarettes and tobacco packets.

The proposed legislation would force tobacco firms to use plain packaging, removing all logos and trademark colours’ from cigarette packets.

Dr Reilly said the introduction of plain packaging legislation was “a significant step forward” towards reducing smoking.

“Given all we know about the dangers of smoking, it is not acceptable to allow the tobacco industry to use deceptive marketing gimmicks to lure our children into this deadly addiction and to deceive current smokers about the impact of their addiction.

“The introduction of standardised packaging will remove the final way for tobacco companies to promote their deadly product in Ireland. Cigarette packets will no longer be a mobile advertisement for the tobacco industry,” he was quoted by the BBC.

But really, if the problem that the world is grappling on is on the hazards of tobacco smoking, why the focus on branding?

A marketing lecturer with a Harare-based college, Mr Maxwell Mudimu, views this as an onslaught to the marketing profession.

“Honestly, how does plain packaging reduce the risks of smoking when in our case in Zimbabwe an old granny down in Binga satisfies her craving for smoking by folding the tobacco on a newspaper or khaki paper that is unbranded.

“Smoking is an addiction so the answer does not lie in packaging or branding but lies in educating smokers on the effects of their actions,” argued Mudimu.

He added that if the law is brought into effect globally, the marketing profession will be the unfortunate casualty.

Marketers, said Mudimu, are there to satisfy the varying needs of consumers including those of smokers. According to law, consumers also have the right to choice. The choice for consumers is made easier through marketing efforts such as branding and packaging.

Branding involves giving a name, term, sign, symbol, design or a combination of these with the intention to identify the goods or services of one seller or group from those of competitors.

So apart from differentiating for example cigarettes’ from BAT to those from Savanna, branding also brings visibility of these products. Imagine how dull and uninteresting shopping would be without the attractive packaging that we currently have.

Also imagine the effects of people in the creative industries such as advertising agencies that are going to lose revenues or even close shop if the proposed ban is brought to effect.

How boring it will be for marketing observers and practitioners in Zimbabwe to have the seemingly cold war between established cigarette manufacturer BAT and emerging giant Savanna Tobacco brought to a halt not because of their liking or failure to measure up to each other’s marketing strategies?

For those who might not be in the know, Savanna Tobacco recently erected a huge billboard along Harare’s Simon Mazorodze Way – a few metres from BAT’s own billboards and premises. The Savanna billboard which features pictures of its Pacific Cigarrette brands reads: “Not British, Not American But Zimbabwe’s Finest Cigarrette”.

“The reasons for branding include differentiating products, easy identification and easing the decision making for consumers when they purchase the product. We can honestly not say let us stop this when branding through inclusion of the health alert warning on tobacco packaging, marketers are playing their part in communicating the effects of smoking,” said Mudimu.

On the other hand, packaging refers to the technology or art of enclosing products for distribution, storage, sell and use.

A number of people are involved in the packaging industry. These include those in plastic manufacturing, bottling and paper/ card box industry.

If effected, the ban on cigarette branding will affect this industry at a time when the country is grappling with high levels of unemployment.

Zimbabwe Tobacco Association president, Mr Gavin Foster is of the opinion that Africa should collectively resist misplaced calls that would disadvantage the economies of these countries through measures such as banning of tobacco marketing.

“People in the West need to understand (that) their view of tobacco is totally different from ours and, therefore, cannot set rules for everyone without knowledge of how tobacco works here,” Mr Foster was quoted by the media on the sidelines of the ITGA regional conference held in Harare last year.

Zimbabwe is the world’s fourth-largest tobacco producer after China, Brazil and the USA.

Tobacco is a major revenue earner in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho and Tanzania. In Zimbabwe tobacco growers last year pocketed about US$600 million from the sale of 153 million kg of the golden leaf, almost two-thirds of the country’s total agricultural exports.

Downstream, more money is made through the marketing efforts of branding and packaging.

The conspiracy theory that the onslaught on the tobacco industry by mostly Western nations are meant to popularise and promote their own product, electronic-cigarettes (e-cigarettes), can be ignored at the African region’s own peril.

An e-cigarette is a tobacco-free smoking stick with false smoke that is able to satisfy the nicotine cravings for smokers. One can smoke the e-cigarette and put in the pocket while “burning” without harm. The light mimics the burning from the traditional cigarette.

Moreso, if the Westerners call for the total ban on tobacco or its marketing related activities are genuine and sincere, what is their take on the banning of guns and all armourments that are produced in their countries? The world over, millions of people are dying at the hands of criminals and civilians who are using guns as well as during wars – some of them sponsored by powerful conglomerates in the armaments industry.

So for argument’s sake, the world’s agenda should be on banning the manufacturing of guns and related warfare before tackling the banning of cigarette marketing related activities such as branding and packaging.

 

Joseph Katete is a qualified journalist, certified marketing practitioner and a public relations practitioner.

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