Brown & Williamson Tobacco has begun promoting new versions of Kool cigarettes that are likely to draw attention not just for their high-design packages but also for their flavors: Caribbean Chill, Midnight Berry, Mocha Taboo and Mintrigue.
"Flavored products are a trend in many categories," said Ludo Cremers, divisional vice president for brand marketing at Brown & Williamson, in Louisville, Ky. "From beverages to chewing gums, this is a universal trend with broad interest."
As much as the new Kools may bolster the company's bottom line, their sugary names seem certain to raise the voltage further in the already charged debate on cigarette marketing and teenagers.
"The flavored cigarettes are clearly designed to appeal to nonsmokers," said Matthew L. Myers, president at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, arguing that flavors like berry help mask the taste of tobacco. "Virtually all new smokers are adolescent."
Cheryl G. Healton, president and chief executive at the antismoking American Legacy Foundation, also in Washington, echoed that charge. "It's all the same basic notion, which is that 90 percent of smoking initiation is among those who are under the age of 19." The more products that can be introduced to appeal to young people, she said, the better for the tobacco companies.
Executives at Brown & Williamson say that they promote their cigarettes only to adults and that they intend the new Kools to lure current smokers from other menthol brands, not generate new smokers.
"We only test our products among adult smokers," said Theresa Burch, senior manager for youth smoking prevention at the company. "This is a cigarette that's designed to take the place of their standard smoke."
By selling new versions of existing products under a well-established name like Kool, Brown & Williamson is following the time-honored strategy of brand extension, a phenomenon that consumers can thank for everything from Ralph Lauren sheets to the NPR Vintage Collection of wines sold by National Public Radio.
It also closely traces the steps of a competitor, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, which since 1999 has been selling exotic blends of Camels that add unusual notes of flavor to the traditional tobacco blend: Crema, which hints at the taste of cream; Dark Mint, a chocolate and mint flavor; Izmir Stinger, inspired by cocktails that mix brandy and crème de menthe; and two citrus blends, Mandarin Mint and Twist. Reynolds complements the flavors with limited-edition versions, like the berry-tinged Bayou Blast now available nationwide as a tie-in with Mardi Gras.
The companies may not be competitors for long: R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings is on schedule to buy Brown & Williamson, the United States unit of British American Tobacco, this summer.
"All of our Camel Exotic Blends are developed for and tested on adult smokers," said Ellen Matthews, a spokeswoman at R. J. Reynolds, in Winston-Salem, S.C. Their development was not a play for new, young smokers, Ms. Matthews said. "We wanted to highlight the basic blend, offer adult smokers something new to try and also to try to differentiate the Camel brand from others."
Similar reasoning led to the new Kools, called Smooth Fusions, said Mr. Cremers, the executive at Brown & Williamson. "We're giving consumers some interesting menthol experiences, where you get the traditional menthol with something new," Mr. Cremers said. That gives smokers of competing brands a reason to try Kools and provides Kool smokers a way to branch out without leaving the brand, he said.
The Smooth Fusions packaging is strikingly different from standard Kool boxes, not to mention that of other companies. The corners are rounded, the colors are vivid and the pack opens like a book to reveal marketing copy. "The legendary smoothness of the House of Menthol is energetically fused with hints of the unexpected," they read, "perfectly balanced, yet intriguing refreshment that bonds with any special occasion."
"The response from consumers is, 'this is a pack to be seen with,' " Mr. Cremers said.
To prevent advertising the new Kool Caribbean Chill and the other Smooth Fusions to teenagers who cannot legally smoke, Brown & Williamson relies on marketing channels where children are scarce: 21-and-over bars and clubs, magazines like Playboy and Vanity Fair whose readership is at least 85 percent adult and direct mail to smokers whose ages have been established by the company. The ads are by 141 Worldwide, part of the WPP Group.
The new Kools and the Camel Exotic Blends cost more than regular cigarettes, which some argue will help keep them out of young hands. Kool Smooth Fusions will sell for about 65 cents to $1 more than packs of the original flavor. They are a limited-edition offering, available only from March through about October. The limited-edition label could disappear, though, if sales prove strong enough.
Such measures are not enough to protect high school and middle school children, critics said. "Over all, the higher the price, the lower the consumption among young people," said Ms. Healton, the American Legacy executive. "But there are market segments even among young people that are not price sensitive. My kids, if they were smoking, could afford premium cigarettes."
Moreover, she said, cigarette brands that aim at 21-to-30-year-olds, as Kool Smooth Fusions are intended to do, have an influence on those even younger. "Who are the 12-to-17-year olds aspiring to be like? The next group up, of course."
One analyst defended the brand extensions of Kool and Camel. "If Camel's advertising its blends, it does let you advertise your parent brand as well," said David J. Adelman, managing director at Morgan Stanley. "You have to really want to smoke if you're a youngster experimenting with tobacco - it is an unpleasant experience. All cigarettes to new smokers are harsh."
Even so, Mr. Adelman said that the critics' questions could not be ignored. "The 'kid issue' is incredibly important for the industry," he said. "As long as the industry is perceived to be marketing their products to adults while people are aware of the risks, everything else will take care of itself."
Posted on aef.com: March 12, 2004
Nat Ives, The New York Times. March 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.