Marketing:Breathing new life into death: In a further attempt to win over the British smoking public, the 'honest' cigarette brand is spending pounds 1.5m

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DEATH stared the British public in the face in 1991 and the British public turned the other cheek. Now the ghoulishly named cigarette brand from the Enlightened Tobacco Company has embarked on another campaign to claim hearts and lungs, and ETC has raised pounds 1.5m in the City to relaunch and reposition the product.

Unlike Death itself, the brand's marketing is intended as a breath of fresh air. ETC believes the product - emblazoned with a skull-and-crossbones logo - will strike a chord with intelligent adults who know their habit is potentially life-threatening. Full-page advertisements in magazines and broadsheet newspapers make no bones about the damage caused by smoking.

'The name alone leaves you in no doubt as to the risks you're taking. And neither does the pack,' the ad runs.

Billboard posters began appearing earlier this month and there are plans for black cabs to advertise the brand. Meanwhile, the company's compliments slips substitute 'with deepest sympathy' for the usual message.

Getting talked about is part of the marketing strategy. But Death has already died once, so why should it succeed now?

BJ Cunningham, ETC's managing director and a 40-a- day man, said: 'We are no longer pitching ourselves as a novelty brand. We switched to Virginia tobacco, which accounts for 96 per cent of the UK cigarette market. We ditched soft packs and have gone for flip-top packs, and launched Death Lights. We scaled down the skull-and- crossbones logo, we've got sales teams out on the road, and convenience stores and independent retailers can buy at the cash and carry.'

Mr Cunningham, a libertarian free marketeer, is upbeat about the product's prospects. 'When Death launched in Britain first time, it did so from my bedroom in Lewisham with pounds 20,000. Last year, ETC had a turnover of pounds 185,000. Last week, it had a turnover of pounds 200,000.'

ETC forecasts a 0.42 per cent market share by 1998. This would amount to pounds 45m in turnover, taking into account a projected decline of 3 per cent in the cigarette market.

To succeed, Death must break into standard newsagents and tobacconists. A push to persuade pubs and clubs to install Death Trap vending machines is also under way.

Then there is the merchandising: Death lighters and Death T-shirts, with more products in the pipeline if Death takes off. 'We plan more brands of cigarettes following the principle of honesty. That ethos will run through the company,' Mr Cunningham said.

Taking a drag on a Death cigarette, Mr Cunningham defended his product against charges of bad taste: 'In my view, the truth is never in bad taste, and the truth is that people die of smoking. Death is a taboo and taboos are there to be broken. Breaking the taboo about death and smoking is our unique selling point. There's nothing bad taste about saying smoking kills; it's the truth. There's nothing bad taste about saying choose Death if you want to smoke. 'People say it's a cynical marketing ploy. Well, it's not cynical, but it is a marketing ploy. If you are in the marketplace, you either use marketing ploys or you go out of business.'

The company relishes controversy. Recently it called a press conference to announce it was paying for a smoker to have a quadruple heart bypass operation at a private clinic. The man claimed he was unable to get adequate treatment on the National Health Service because of his habit.

It is written into ETC's Articles of Association that the company donates 10 per cent of pre-tax profits to non-vivisection cancer research and related charities. Not surprisingly, charities have been in no rush to sign up, and the cash will be paid into an account administered by the Charities Aid Foundation; recipients need not know the source of the money. But Mr Cunningham says any charity that took the money publicly 'would probably get a lot more of it'.

The target market is people aged between 25 and 35, but Mr Cunningham denies that the relaunch is based on a fashion gimmick. 'The skull and crossbones is an international symbol of death and disease. Smoking kills. We are being ethical, we are being honest.'

Stephen Woodward, spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health, concedes that honesty from a tobacco company is 'refreshing'. But he adds: The 'marketing veneer is really quite thin. The appeal for these cigarettes will be at the younger end of the market, regardless of the target group. The brand will accentuate the dare element of smoking that occurs when children begin to smoke, as will the gallows humour. We can't abide anything that could encourage young people to take up smoking.'

Mr Cunningham gives the anti-smoking lobby short shrift, banging the drum of personal choice. Smokers are becoming 'disenfranchised outcasts', he claims. 'ETC is calling for tolerance and acknowledging it is part of the health problem. We are prepared to put something back.' He thinks the time is right for ETC's 'honest approach' in a 'market place dominated by cynics who are uncomfortable with the truth'. So far, he says, big league tobacco companies have been 'silent as the grave'.

ETC owns the worldwide rights to Death, so there is a chance it could inflame the anti-smoking movement still further by pushing tobacco to the Third World as the home market for cigarettes declines. 'I don't actually think the brand would sell in the Third World, because they know what death means,' Mr Cunningham said. But he added: 'Our business is selling cigarettes, and if somebody in Asia or Africa wanted to buy then we'd sell. We want to make money, make profits and make our shareholders very rich.'

(Photographs omitted)