May 7th, 2007

For Some In Tobacco Industry, The Future Is Translucent

By Mike Beirne

RJR goes open source; a Brazilian cellulose maker lucks out

It can’t be easy being a tobacco marketer these days.

You’re barred from most forms of advertising, much of the public thinks you’re a pariah and there’s not much to do, innovation-wise, to improve upon the cigarette.

But that doesn’t stop them from trying. As Wired magazine advocates business transparency on its front page, the formerly secretive R.J. Reynolds, for instance, has embraced the concept by opening up its marketing research process to net a new cigarette, Camel Signature. At the same time, the category’s small-frys are embracing the trend du jour: clear rolling papers.

The effort to create Signature began last June when RJR tapped its database of adult smokers and invited them through direct mail to become part of the Camel brand team. Rick Stevens, senior director for Camel brand marketing, said he thought the project would be lucky to get 6,000 responses. It netted 30,000.

Consumers were mailed-two packs at a time: cigarettes in white packs simply labeled Blend A, Blend B and so on. Sixteen samples were tested in all, and smokers were asked to save some sticks so they could compare blends that arrived later.

Each participant was assigned a PIN for logging onto a closed Web site. There they graded a blend’s taste and aroma by registering their opinion on a thermometer graphic with a scale of 1 to 100. Smokers also rated pack designs and logos; many of the choices were inspired by variations that consumers found appealing during previous ballots.

“Before we started, we had lots of hard conversation about whether we would be willing to go with whatever the consumer decided even if it was a choice that we weren’t particularly sure of, Stevens said. “But if enough people voted for it, we said, ‘Yeah. Let’s do it.’”

The results include a crisp menthol dubbed Frost, sun cured Mellow, nutty and burley tasting Robust and a spiced-up blend called Infused.

Print, via Kaart Marketing, Chicago, and sampling at adult venues are rolling out this month. The pack back explains briefly that smokers created the new extension.

RJR and Philip Morris USA sat out the Tobacco Plus Expo in Las Vegas (April 26-27), but it’s fair to say that both were quietly staking out the show for ideas that may at some point filter down into an actual product.

A PM chemist, for instance, was seen at the booth for Clear Choice Worldwide, Gardena, Calif., which was exhibiting cellulose cigarette rolling papers (for use in tobacco, of course). The chemist asked sales rep Joe Lige for samples of Prizm, Randy’s and aLeda papers to bring back to the R&D lab in Richmond, Va.

ClearChoice claims aLeda is the original clear rolling paper by virtue of hitting the market last September.

Other brands, which go by names like Smokin’ Clean, Glass, Crystal, Blade and Klear, launched either during the first quarter or during the show. There was very little product distinction evident since most are made by the same Brazilian manufacturer. Aside from the novelty factor, most tout their paper as slow-burning, gum free, glue free, natural, biodegradable, extra slim and even nonplastic.

Unlike fruit-flavored smokes and chewing tobacco, there’s no logical argument that clear papers are geared towards kids, but there is a murkier argument that such papers are healthier. Like light and ultra light cigarette manufacturers, no one explicitly claims that clear papers reduce the risks of smoking leaf or weed. But the connotation exists.

SmokeClear’s Web site flags a vague “chemical free” advantage, and packaging asks, “Do you smoke clear?” However, vendors explain the true benefit of cellulose paper is taste. There’s less material separating the smoker from whatever they’re rolling. Consumers also like the novelty of seeing the draw of their smoke as they inhale. But perhaps the best reason in the name of smoking fellowship is that clear paper resists moisture. So when tokers share a smoke, their saliva will dry before the next person takes a drag. Don’t let it be said that tobacco accessory vendors don’t understand their consumers. 


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