What (bad) Cigarettes Can Teach You About (good) Branding

man smoking cigarette Most people have a difficult time understanding the concept of branding. Yet branding is the foundation for your business, the most crucial marketing aspect that lets you differentiate yourself from the competition.

Branding is the all-encompassing mental image that people perceive of your business. It collects the experiences and associations attached to your product or service. Branding creates the recognition, expectations and reactions of consumers to set your business apart.

Branding is very unique, too. Anyone can replicate your product or service – just look at your competitors. No one can identically reproduce your brand, though. If they could, they would be your business.

When considering what might make consumers lean towards one product or another, branding often plays into the equation. Proper branding can prompt a choice, increase conversion or sway people to provide word-of-mouth referrals. It can be the deciding factor between a sale and a loss.

Good branding creates demand, encouraging and enhancing the positive feelings and desirability of a product or service. Bad branding, or even no branding at all, can close businesses down.

Examining existing businesses and corporations lets us see the large role branding plays in reaching success. It's an integral element of business success and the foundation of essential marketing.

To show you just how important branding is to your small business, take a look at this success story.

The Biggest Cowboy Branding Success

Around 1955, Marlboro, a cigarette manufacturer, launched a branding campaign that became one of the biggest marketing success stories of the 20th century. The company's popularity soared in just eight months, sales increasing by 5,000% - all from branding.

Ask anyone over 30 if they've heard of the Marlboro man. Chances are that the first mental image that pops into their mind is the rugged, independent Marlboro cowboy who embodied masculine spirit.

The Marlboro man was just a man. But he was the man, the straight-shooter that helped promote sales for the company simply by representing a concept and image of male confidence.

Men everywhere desired that image and bought the cigarettes hoping to enhance their own impression on people. Women enjoyed the Marlboro man's handsome face and were attracted to the campaign. They bought cigarettes too.

By the mid-80s, everyone knew who the Marlboro man was. He became an American icon, a widely recognized cultural symbol still familiar to millions of people today.

And the company's payoffs? Marlboro became the best-selling brand of cigarettes in the United States and sold their product in over 180 countries around the world.

How Marlboro Pulled It Off

The Marlboro Company thought out their branding strategy very carefully. They brainstormed the campaign, the single-most focus on their target market: men. They concentrated on the ideal consumer they wanted to purchase their cigarettes.

To appeal to their target market, both smokers and non-smokers, Marlboro needed to create an extremely masculine association. They needed to create the perception that if you wanted to be a man, you smoked Marlboro cigarettes.

The most masculine symbol they could think of was the cowboy, and the Marlboro man was born.

The Marlboro man was everywhere. His face became a logo, and he featured on television ad campaigns. He was on posters and in magazine ads. Where Marlboro went, so did the Marlboro man.

The company chose reddish colors and brown clothing to tie the campaign together, and they gave it strong exposure. Boots, hats, western landscapes… the whole outdoorsman theme played into Marlboro's branding strategy.

Marlboro created every sensation possible to tie in that feeling of rugged western masculinity to their cigarettes. People thought they would be more confident, attract more women, get better jobs… all from smoking Marlboros.

Marlboro's branding built mental associations, pushed benefits (both tangible and intangible) and created a feeling. It enhanced consumer expectations and backed up its promises. Who wouldn't feel more confident, with this type of perception?

The company's branding sold the product and shot the Marlboro man to fame.

In fact, Marlboro's branding associations still live on today, despite laws against lighting up, campaigns to butt out and negative health effects caused by smoking.

Tomorrow we’ll be publishing the next article in our Marketing Essentials series, which will tell you how to create and benefit from a solid brand. Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss it.

Reader Comments

Jul. 9. 2008 7:58 PM
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Even those who don’t smoke or who have quit know all about that Marlboro man. He reached out and touched many more people than just smokers - hey, an American icon?

Branding doesn’t get any better than that ;)


Jul. 9. 2008 8:03 PM
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I second that one, James. As a non-smoker (and a young one at that) I’ve still seen the Marlboro Man all over the place.

I know someone who was so into it that they smoked enough Marlboro cigarettes to get a leather jacket, a few luggage bags, and several other large accessories. All brightly emblazoned with the Marlboro’s brand.


Jul. 10. 2008 2:24 AM
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What a great example of branding - I remember growing up those ads everywhere.  Great article.


Jul. 10. 2008 11:50 AM
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Same holds true for Virginia Slims. They used the socialite woman as their mascot, and it paid off pretty well as I understand it.

I remember smoking Camel Wides because they featured big guys - er, big camels - on the pack. Being a big fella myself, seeing the image of a hip big fella connected somehow.

Now, here’s an example of accidental branding. Take Pall Mall cigarettes. In recent years, about the only mention you see of Pall Malls is in the context of Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut’s “old man with my Pall Malls and my memories.” No real brand stuck for them, and the one mention in popular culture is a fairly negative one.

Sales lagged so bad that they reinvented the Pall Mall by putting filters on them (heresy!) and running them up against the generics.

Yes, as a (former) smoker, I’ve thought waaay too much about this.


Jul. 10. 2008 11:54 AM
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Ew. Cigarettes with no filters?


Jul. 10. 2008 3:32 PM
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Excellent post. I believe that cigarette branding is as powerful a drug as the nicotine. If you talk to smokers, every one has “their brand.”

One example of this is the “Truth” anti-smoking campaign that is sponsored by the settlement between attorney generals and the cigarette manufacturers.

On the outset of the campaign a few years back, the creative focused completely on the brands. Then Phillip Morris, who chips in the largest percentage of cash, pointed out that a key aspect to the settlement was prohibiting “brand assassination” in the anti-smoking campaigns.

You can say that smoking is bad, you can say that smoking companies are bad, but you can’t say that a specific brand, or brand strategy is bad. Now those commercials, while they’re shockingly excellent, are not nearly as effective.


Jul. 10. 2008 4:07 PM
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Here’s an interesting branding counterpart to the Marlboro Man in Vermont: Natural Spirits. This is additive-free tobacco and cigarettes, that feature a Native American as the icon (counterpart to the cowboy). This fits in with smokers’ self-image here as people enjoying an old-fashioned and natural indulgence. It’s a bit of a hippie vibe.

People buy the packs but by far the “cool” way to do it is to buy the bulk pouch or tin and roll your own—sans filter. That’s the Vermont way. I mention this because it shows how regional this can get, which may be highly relevant to some of your businesses.

Great job, James—no better branding can hardly be found other than the Marlboro Man.


Jul. 10. 2008 5:04 PM
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Cigarettes with no filters = just you and mother nature, dude.


Jul. 12. 2008 3:18 AM
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Great content, thank you for this.


Jul. 14. 2008 1:50 AM
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Good article. It should be noted though that the Marlboro Man wasn’t created by Marlboro itself, but by a Marketing company (like yours) that built the brand for them. Either way though, it’s definitely inspirational.


Jul. 16. 2008 12:35 AM
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I like this. I smoke and when I was a kid, I saw cool people like Don Johnson smoke cigarettes in Miami Vice, I wanted to smoke exactly what he did. Sad thing is I am still doing it and Marlboro is still it, even though now I´m old enough to know better.

If I get lung cancer, I will sue Don. Is all his fault ;)


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Jun. 23. 2009 1:49 AM
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Make it look cool, and even if it kills you slowly. You will still do it!
Marketing FTW!


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The marlboro cigarettes brand became iconic after the cowboy was used.


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