Having created hundreds of variants of the iconic Marlboro cigarette brand in a range of markets over the last three years, Philip Morris has announced a relaunch of its UK sub-brand, Marlboro Bright Leaf which unprecedently removes the M-word prefix and introduces a distinctly un-Marlboro-like orange into the livery. In reality though, this is not so much a reconfiguration of the brand as the spinning off of a fully fledged, standalone product. From January 2013, it will be branded as ‘Bright Leaf - from the makers of Marlboro’, a formula of external association which clearly seeks to continue to confer a halo of credibility and approval but if not quite severs, undoubtedly weakens, the direct link to the overarching brand umbrella. Indeed, in time it is likely that the associative phrase will disappear altogether, leaving Bright Leaf to operate completely independently.
It is an intriguing, hugely significant move, the first of its kind for Marlboro, indeed for any major international brand of Marlboro's stature and the question is why? Is this the first indication of PMI accepting that its Marlboro brand building activity may have limits, thresholds of tension beyond which the foundations of its equity are undermined? Or is it simply a logical next step for a sub-brand which has gained an autonomous identity of its own?
A product for a Virginia blend market
The Bright Leaf sub-brand was launched by Philip Morris in 2009 (initially as a 10mg cigarette, with the 7mg Platinum variant introduced in 2010), having been created specifically for the UK market to cater for its overwhelming disposition towards Virginia blend cigarettes (92% of all cigarettes sold in 2011). The company lacked a mid-priced alternative in the downtrading-led UK market to perform a role similar to those of Philip Morris and L&M in other regions and the logic of launching a Marlboro sub-brand rather than a standalone offering was straightforward in such a heavily restricted marketing environment. Since then Bright Leaf has gained a share of market of almost 2% and its detachment from Marlboro along with the heavy promotion and discounting of Chesterfield means that PMI will have distinct presences at each UK price positioning.
PMI has made much of its global brand building work with Marlboro, adverting to over 500 ‘launches and revamps’ since 2009. Ostensibly, this is just one more such exercise to add to the litany but it is inescapable that it is of a significantly different character precisely because it is not brand building, but a brand divestment of sorts. The frantic pace of innovation within the Marlboro brand umbrella always risked diluting the equity of the core offering and it could be that the Bright Leaf development is a concrete acceptance of such a phenomenon in the UK. It appears that Bright Leaf’s relative success has been achieved at the expense of that core offering as the brand umbrella has done little more than maintain its share between 8-9% in the UK since 2009. The current partial and impending full retail display ban in the UK also means that there is a limited window of opportunity for companies to de-clutter product lines and establish the type of individuated brand identity which will be so vital in a market of virtual total eclipse.
But from local tactic to international strategy?
There are no indications that PMI’s focus for Bright Leaf is set to shift beyond the borders of the UK and ostensibly it remains a product tailored for that market in much the same way as Marlboro Clear Taste, with its four chamber activated carbon filter, is designed to appeal to the local taste profile of Russian smokers, however there are some tantalising possibilities for the brand. A number of large, emerging markets display a strong preference for Virginia blend cigarettes, including Malaysia, Vietnam, South Africa and particularly Pakistan (with 86% Virginia dominance). Notably, in the case of Malaysia, Vietnam and South Africa, these are markets where PMI is struggling to establish a market presence and in which it has no Virginia blend offering. Establishing a functional brand infrastructure for Bright Leaf in the UK would afford the company the option of exporting it into markets where through a combination of blend and price positioning, established brands are either in decline (such as Morven Gold in Pakistan) or making little headway (Marlboro in Malaysia and South Africa).
When the prevailing trend amongst all major tobacco manufacturers is to focus on international brands, PMI’s Bright Leaf manoeuvres appear contradictory, especially when compared directly with their December 2012 announcement that it is to migrate all but one variant of the popular German f6 brand into the Chesterfield portfolio. However, viewed another way the development may well establish a template which the company uses in other markets. For example, PMI is quite open about the reputational and taste impediments attached to the Marlboro brand name in Russia and minimising the aforementioned Clear Taste’s association with it would be a highly beneficial strategy.
Is it even so fanciful to imagine that Bright Leaf could become an international brand (albeit of sorts) in its own right? It has numerous developing markets, with little established brand equity to disrupt, available to it, most of which have much more marketing-friendly environments. Bright Leaf dropping Marlboro constitutes the most high profile rebrand from a major tobacco company since Japan Tobacco’s 2012 announcement of Mild Seven’s relaunch as Mevius and it may not be so inconceivable to think that they will meet each other in the near future, as the one goes east and the other, west.