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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Brand Idea Failures: RJ Reynolds’ smokeless cigarettes

The ultimate bad idea

Cigarette manufacturers have often thought that the best way to build market share is to come up with new twists on the standard cigarette formula. For instance, Marlboro has had dozens of different varieties in its history, including Marlboro Menthol, Marlboro Lights and Marlboro Medium.

Normally, cigarettes produce new varieties based on different levels of tar. For instance, in the UK the Silk Cut brand produced various low-tar varieties – Mild, Low and Ultra Low. The popularities of such low-tar brands has caused cigarette companies to think of ever more ways to try and convince consumers that their unhealthy and anti-social products aren’t as unhealthy or as anti-social as they might have thought. Similar strategies have been deployed in the beer market, with brands such as Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite.

However, some of these strategies take an extreme form. For instance, in the alcohol market there was the case of the beer brand which tried to sell beer-branded mineral water. The brand was Coors. The water it produced was called Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water. It was launched in 1990 and survived only two years.

In the cigarette industry, the extreme strategy belonged to RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company known for brands such as Camel, Winston, Salem and Doral. In 1988, when the anti-smoking lobbyists could finally claim the majority of public opinion was behind them, and when passive smoking had been officially recognized as a serious danger to health, the company decided to conduct trials on a smokeless cigarette. In total, RJ Reynolds spent US $325 million on creating a smokeless cigarette which it branded as ‘Premier’.

However, problems became apparent straightaway. First, there was the taste issue. One person who ‘smoked’ Premier complained that it ‘tasted like shit’.

And he was RJ Reynolds’ chief executive. Then there was the difficulty of using the product in the first place, as Reporter Magazine (www.robmagazine.com) explains: ‘Inhaling the Premier required vacuum-powered lungs, lighting it virtually required a blowtorch, and, if successfully lit with a match, the sulphur reaction produced a smell and a flavour that left users retching.’

In addition, there was the damaging rumour that the smokeless cigarette could be used as a delivery device for crack cocaine. Hardly the kind of brand association RJ Reynolds had wanted to create.

One of the major forms of controversy was the brand’s possible appeal among younger people. Here is an extract from a statement by many leading US health organizations shortly after RJ Reynolds announced the new project:

The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Lung Association have filed a petition with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), asking that Premier be regulated as a drug. In filing this petition, we are not calling for an outright ban on Premier. We want simply for it to be properly tested before people use it.

We are especially concerned that Premier’s intriguing high-tech design will lure children and teenagers into the web of nicotine addiction.

RJR’s marketing emphasis on ‘clean enjoyment’ also may lull people who already smoke into a deceptive sense of safety when they really ought to give up the habit altogether.

According to the FDA, any product marketed that claims that it is healthier or safer, must be regulated by the FDA. Conventional cigarettes escape FDA scrutiny because they are promoted for the sheer pleasure of smoking and because the FDA does not consider them to be drugs or food.

In introducing Premier, RJR is stepping beyond that loophole. The RJR claim that Premier is ‘cleaner’ is a poorly disguised way to imply ‘safer’ to thousands of people concerned about the health risks of smoking.

RJR knows that if their ads said ‘safer’ in place of ‘cleaner’ the FDA would step in.

In the meantime, RJR promises that Premier is an improvement over conventional cigarettes that burn with foul-smelling smoke. But, we are skeptical. How can we trust the same industry that still refuses to admit that cigarette smoking is harmful?

The real problem though was that smokers didn’t enjoy using the smoke-free product, and non-smokers didn’t have a reason to. In short, there was no market. After four months of very slow sales, RJ Reynolds cut their losses and

Premier was withdrawn.

But the story doesn’t end there.

By the mid-1990s, concerns about passive smoking led the company to believe there was still a market for smokeless cigarettes. In 1996 it therefore spent a further US $125 million on developing an updated version, this time called Eclipse.

In a press statement, a company spokesman announced the potential appeal of the brand. ‘I think we can all agree that for many non-smokers and for many smokers, second-hand smoke is an annoyance, and to be able to reduce and almost eliminate that annoyance is a very positive step in the right direction.’

The new cigarette made less smoke than standard cigarettes because it didn’t burn. Instead charcoal was used to heat the tobacco. The user drew heated air over the tobacco to release a tobacco and nicotine vapour. As a result, the Eclipse cigarette caused only 10 per cent of the normal level of cigarette smoke, and promised lower levels of tar and nicotine.

However, whether the cigarette actually lowered the health risk of smoking – either for deliberate or passive inhalers – remains questionable. Sorrell Schwartz, a pharmacologist from Georgetown University who researched the tobacco industry, believed the cigarettes could be good news. ‘If it is as smokefree as it’s claimed to be, then clearly the individual’s risk of lung cancer, emphysema, bronchitis would be reduced,’ Schwartz told CNN. But Schwartz’s Georgetown colleague, Dr Naiyer Rizvi, was more sceptical.

‘There are risks that may be related to increasing carbon monoxide in this cigarette and heart disease,’ he told the CNN reporters.

An independent study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that when it was compared to ultra-low tar cigarettes, the Eclipse cigarette had higher levels of several toxins, especially when the charcoal tip burned very hot from heavy smoking.

This information was clearly damaging to the Eclipse brand, because from the start the marketing activity was designed to accentuate the health angle. Indeed, the original campaign was to include this pitch. ‘The best choice for smokers who worry about their health is to quit. But Eclipse is the next best choice for those who have decided to continue smoking.’

This marketing message provoked opposition from many leading US health organizations. The American Lung Association issued a statement saying, ‘we fear that RJR’s health claims that this device is “safe” or “safer than cigarettes” may discourage smokers from quitting.’

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids joined the attack, with the organization’s president, Matthew L Myers releasing the following statement: ‘RJR’s announcement that it plans to market a safer Eclipse cigarette is taking advantage of the regulation gap created by the US Supreme Court’s decision to remove FDA authority to regulate tobacco. Without FDA oversight, there is no scientific corroboration of these claims by an independent government agency.’

Particularly controversial was the fact that many of the medical experts who had suggested that these cigarettes were less dangerous than standard brands had been doing research paid for by the tobacco company itself. Furthermore, independent medical analysts soon discovered that Eclipse cigarettes presented one health risk which was actually worse than standard cigarettes –glass fibres. John Pauly, from the Department of Molecular Immunology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, discovered that 99 out of every 100 Eclipse cigarettes have glass fibres within their filters. These fibres, he told ABC News, were ‘invariably’ inhaled or ingested when smokers took a drag from an Eclipse.

However, despite this massive outcry from health authorities, including the US Surgeon General, the real reason Eclipse failed to ignite the market was because consumers still felt absolutely no desire for a smokeless cigarette.

Lessons from smokeless cigarettes

  • Don’t baffle consumers with research. RJ Reynolds spent a great deal of money researching the health aspects of its two brands of smokeless cigarettes. However, this only resulted in mixed messages. Although RJ Reynolds’ research concluded that in many ways the brands were safer, they couldn’t be considered entirely safe. ‘As we all know, no cigarette is safe,’ admitted RJ Reynolds’ CEO Andrew J Schindler. Furthermore, RJ Reynolds’ research prompted opposition from other health authorities who published their own independent findings. Rather than end up looking as if it was acting in the public’s health interests, the tobacco firm only ended up looking manipulative.
  • Don’t sell ice cubes to cocker spaniels. Smokeless cigarettes appealed to people who didn’t like the smell of smoke. These people are called non-smokers, and generally tend not to buy cigarettes. Robert McMath in Business 2.0 likened this approach to ‘trying to sell ice cubes to cocker spaniels,’ and asked the seemingly obvious question: ‘Why create a product for a consumer who wants nothing to do with you?’
  • Realize that if it has failed once, it will fail again. RJ Reynolds should have abandoned the whole idea once the Premier cigarette failed.

22 comments:

Your nickname said...

I know this post is kind of old, but I'd like to let you know that Eclipse can't be too much of a failure. I've been smoking them since 2003 and just bought three packs of Eclipse Menthol today at my local Speedway. It's now October 2007. So yeah, they're still making them and it doesn't look like they are going anywhere....which good as I personally enjoy them.

lavernm said...

I have been smoking Eclipse since they were introduced and enjoy the fact that I do not smell of smoke however I only smoke at home in my office only. One good thing about Eclipse is that once you get through the first pack, the smell of regular cigarettes will be quite offensive. This has been tried and proven. I once ordered Eclipse from RJ Reynolds by the carton but a few months ago, they sent me coupons with a notice that online orders would be discontinued. I soon found that I had no where to use the coupons. Quite a few other people in Savannah happen to like the Eclipse cigarettes so much that we have traveled outside the city to purchase them when all the CVS stores stopped carrying them. No one had answers why we could not find them anywhere not even RJ Reynolds as early as last week would give me answers when I wrote to find out what happened but now I know. I just want to say that RJ Reynolds let too many fears hinder them from seeing this project through. It can still be successful if they took the time to find out who is still smoking them instead of just quitting. I would not let all that research money go down the drain without a fight. There are numerous people who went back to regular cigarettes just because they could not find them anywhere. If RJ Reynolds truly has discontinued the brand, sooner or later all of the areas with Eclipse will be as dry as this area and there will be no more around. The closest place I know to purchase now is Atlanta. There is a market here but no cigarettes. I personally enjoy them too whenever I can find them.

yayarea_raider said...

I can't find them anywhere here in the bay area, CA. I bought one pack of them over 6 months ago...and it just happened to be their lasy pack. That was at 7-eleven, who no longer has it, including all other gas stations and markets. I really like thses ciggaretes, but hope they aren't as bad in different ways as I have read. I enjoy them, and hopefully they get released again if what R.J. was saying is true. It just might be that he realized his brand does more harm than good, and is cutting production. I hope to see another RECENT (LIKE 2008) article on this and see the latest on what is happening.


-AJ, Haf Moon Bay CA

Bob said...

Eclipse are awesome! Yes, they still make them. Register on their site and type in your zip code. In MN they are only available at Super America. Until recently, they were in other stores, but so what? Good for Super America, now they get my gas purchaes and Eclipse purchases. Smart for them. Once you smoke Eclipse, like a non-smoker, you will hate the smell and smoke of 'antique' smokes.

pramod said...

babu from india
for every innovation there is risk but idea of smokeless in amazing

adelen said...

There is now a new quit smoking drug available in the market. This latest breakthrough is known as Chantix. It is able to help smokers snub out their addiction by working on the brain.

taff said...

I worked as an RJR area sales manager for many years. The introduction of the Premier line was both exciting and ultimately embarrasing. I found the smoke to be enjoyable. Good taste in my opinion, however with a hard draw required. I got a kick out of the responses from people that would see what appeared to be unused cigarettes in an ashtray. I believe my employer gave up too quickly on this idea/brand when the media jumped on initial negative reactions.

Roge' said...

I would agree with TAFF. I was a consultant on the Premier project. Most every smoker who tried them disliked them. My observation was not so much the taste but the lack of an instant hit on the first draw. Think about it, you strick a match, light up and get that first instant hit. With a Premier one had to start slowly and nurse the system up to operating temperature and then enjoy. Trying to get that first nicotine hit resulted in gross overheating and a gross taste. If you took your time, they were great!

jakes said...

Smokeless cigarettes are still around, just not Premier.

Go to http://www.e-cigarette-forum.com to read all about them!

Eric said...

I am definately finding it difficult to find Eclipse anymore. They aren't popular but they are awesome. No bad smell, I don't feel like I'm gonna cough up a lung after smoking one, and they have a pretty good taste to them.

It's basically the same principle as a hookah if you think about it, minus the water filtration.

It really is a cigarette you have to "learn" how to smoke. I can see how people did not like it when they overheated the cigarette and it tasted like crap. I've done it once. That charcoal can get extremely hot and burn the tip up.

It doesn't smoke like a regular cigarette since the tobacco is not being burned, only vaporized.

I think the true failure of the smokeless cigarettes hasn't been one of general dislike, but that it requires a bit of trial and error to smoke them right and people don't want to take the time. They want a quick fix. The problem is with the people who lack patience.

bbd said...

I've been smoking Eclipse for years now. I've gotten so used to Eclipse that I don't like the smell of regular cigarettes anymore. I like the fact that I can smoke and not have my clothes, hair, car, etc.. not smell like an ashtray.
As a matter of fact, I'm getting ready to walk out the door and drive 7 miles to another town to buy a few cartons.

████ said...

u can still get these here in alabama, although i had never heard of them until today when i bought a pack

Omkar said...

Accepting defeat is easier said than done. So much money was waster on Premier, that they must have hoped for a miracle and launched Eclipse.

Deegii said...

I've smoked Eclipse for 7 years now. Love it! Clearly it gives less nicotine etc. you can see that after party night, sometimes you get more hangovers from smoking than drinking, but that's not the case with eclipse. Also when I smoke regular sigarettes specially if I smoke 2-3 in short period of time ( which happens rarely ) I get this bad feeling in my throat . With E clipse I don't have that problem. with taste it definitely takes a little time to get used to it. Regular cigarette smokers expect to get nicotine with their first puff as much as with regular sigarettes , which doesn't happen of course, because of less nicotine they get with Eclipse !!! Sucking too much gets you not nicotine but this bad hot taste. Gotta learn ow to smoke Eclipse and you'll realize it's much better than regular cigarettes !!!!

nobody in particular said...

I wouldn't label them as a failure because they are still selling them so they are obviously making money.

They are hard to find so call RJR and ask for a retailer near you.

I could never go back to smoking "conventional" cigarettes. They were a bit hard to get used to, but well worth it IMO.

I truly believe that if all cigarettes were as innocuous as these smoking bans would never been implemented in bars. People are surprised to find out I smoke because....wait for it....I don't smell like smoke! If I don't smell like smoke then sitting in a barroom full of other Eclipse smokers would not make your clothes and hair smell like smoke which seems to be the major complaint of many non-smokers (and even some smokers).

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
outofoffice said...

I'm amazed I found this article and comment thread. I've been an eclipse smoker since it launched and have been amazed by the lack of information you can find about eclipse on the internet the past few years, including from RJ Reynolds.

With the popularity of smokeless cigarettes and vaporizers the past few years, I am dumbfounded why RJ Reynolds hasn't picked up on the trend and at least re-launched Eclipse in target markets.

I have honestly have no idea if eclipse lowers or even raises my risk of cancer. However, I breath better, smoke much less and keep a healthy lifestyle with no offending smoke odor as a bonus.

Anyway, in my opinion as far as a form of harm mitigation, eclipse doesn't have to be a brand failure.

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Diane Knight said...

April 2014 and I'm still buying Eclipse. They weren't discontinued. They're not difficult to find in both Durham and Wake County, North Carolina. I currently get mine from Tobacco Road Outlet. A couple of years ago I simply asked the store manager to order them for me through their RJR vendor. Three days later, they carried them and have been ever since. So, if you want them and can't find them, go to your local smoke shop, like TRO, and ask whoever does the ordering to contact their RJR vendor.