Visual Branding is not effective (suggests the Tobacco Industry)
JTI, the company behind cigarette brands such as Camel, Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut has taken out full page adverts in the British press to inform readers that the potential move to enforce plain packaging for cigarettes is not backed by evidence – suggesting that plain packs will only increase illicit trade.
Could they be right? Well, apart from the obvious circumstantial question to ask (i.e. “Why do these companies spend millions on building their brand if really the visual representation on the pack is not important? Are they suggesting they are wasting money?”), what evidence is there that the claims by the JTI are true?
Firstly let‘s look at the idea that plain packs are easier to fake, and therefore could result in more illicit trade. While, on the surface, this argument may seem true, it does assume that the packs do not contain any other security elements. For example, a tax seal which may include (and does include in some countries) holograms etc to ensure it is the “real thing” (aka the tax has been paid). Of course, a plain pack itself is a little easier to fake than printing a more colourful one, but, given that there are no real banknote type security elements on the “main” packages now, I seriously doubt that even with full on branding these packs are exceedingly difficult to fake.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, JTI makes the implicit assumption that visual brand representation is irrelevant – at least when it comes to purchasing the product (i.e. changing the “on pack” visual identity has no effect). Proving or disproving this is, of course, a bit more tricky. JTI’s argument seems to suggest that consumers do not care how the brand looks – as long as the product is good. This seems inherently logical (especially for those people that think advertising and branding never ever influences them even one bit), but as Walsh, Mitterich and Mittal (2010, 2011) showed in two studies, consumers are remarkably “attached” to the logos of the brands they consume. Even relatively small changes to the visual identity of a brand can create negative brand assumptions. Of course, importantly, it is not just grown-ups who “attach” to the visual brand identity. Children, even before they can read or write, learn to recognise brands by their logo (Kinsky & Bichard, 2011). Of course, there are plenty more studies who confirm the importance of logos and visual identity. In other words, the evidence suggest that visual identity is essential – and there is categorically no evidence available to support the implicit claim by JTI that “removing branding” would have no or only a very small effect.
So what is the evidence in terms of cigarettes? Well, there is plenty of evidence available, much more than “would fit on a back of a cigarette pack“, as the advert claims …unless you put it on minuscule microfiches! Take, for example, this study by Wakefield, Germain and Durkin (2008). It shows “cigarette packs that displayed progressively fewer branding design elements were perceived increasingly unfavourably in terms of smokers‘ appraisals of the packs, the smokers who might smoke such packs, and the inferred experience of smoking a cigarette from these packs.” It concludes “Plain packaging policies that remove most brand design elements are likely to be most successful in removing cigarette brand image associations.” – which would be quite the opposite of what JTI seems to suggest. Moreover, this effect is especially strong for “young smokers” – as this study by Moodie, Mackintosh, Hastings and Ford (2011) shows. All of these studies have added to the evidence base that was presented in 2008 – although the advert claims there is no new evidence. Of course, the evidence can not be based on actual sales figures in “the real word“, as plain packaging is not yet reality. Thus, it relies on experiments and consumer surveys – something that actually most marketing research, including research by commercial companies, relies on. In fact, prelaunch research can never be anything else but surveys, focus groups and experiments – as the product simply does not exist in the general market. Does that mean the evidence from such studies is always right? Well, no. But let‘s face it, those methods are the gold standard to estimate what will happen if something “goes live“.
So what can we say about the advert: I think it is a tremendous shame that JTI has made this advert. It claims that there is little evidence to suggest that plain packaging will negatively impact brand attitudes and by extension behavioural intentions, when there is plenty of high quality evidence. More over, while the advert claims this “non existing” evidence is a reason not the introduce plain packing, the advert actually fails to present any evidence that plain packaging would not work. Of course, plain packing is not going to make every smoker stop smoking overnight. But the evidence seems to suggest that it certainly would have some (negative) effect on brand attitude and intention to smoke.