• Transform magazine
  • August 07, 2020


Racing toward a smoke-free future

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Altering its corporate narrative while changing the societal perception of its products has required Philip Morris International to go all in on R&D, brand positioning and communications. Brittany Golob reports from Neuchâtel

Gizelle Baker worked in cancer research. An epidemiologist and statistician by trade, Baker spent several years fighting the good fight against cancer on behalf of pharmaceuticals and research companies. But, in 2012, she joined Philip Morris International (PMI).

The multinational behind Marlboro and Benson & Hedges, PMI is widely known for its tobacco products. Yet, for Baker and hundreds of other scientists, engineers and technologists, it has become an attractive place to work.

Baker – the director of scientific engagement at PMI – recognised that despite advancements in oncology research, there was no large-scale change that could address the problem at its root. Curing cancer would be easier if cancer was prevented in the first place. She joined PMI’s research and development operation in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

The centre is a massive glass-enclosed complex on the banks of Lake Neuchâtel, with views of the Alps across the water. It’s a serene, distinctly Swiss setting, yet there are leafy, delicate tobacco plants growing in the building’s many sunlit atria. These worlds are seemingly at odds with each other: cancer research and tobacco brands, crisp alpine air and combustible smoking products. Add to that the celebration of a partnership between PMI and Ducati Corse.

Yet, PMI plans to move away from its tar-filled, carcinogenic past. Through its science and research it is developing noncombustible tobacco products designed to encourage smokers to switch to non-carcinogenic alternatives. This is a shift being embraced across the industry, and PMI holds 4,300 patents and has 6,000 pending applications for patents. It is also a top 100 patent filer in the EU. Consumers, too, are changing; sales of noncombustible products are up, year-on-year.

However, the company has encountered criticism and skepticism for its smoke-free programme, not least of which from the World Health Organisation (WHO). The organisation released a scathing response to the launch of Philip Morris’ Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. The WHO says its regulatory efforts should be supported by PMI in order to make a real impact in achieving a smoke-free society. “If PMI were truly committed to a smoke-free world, the company would support these policies. Instead, PMI opposes them,” the statement says.

PMI still makes a good deal of money from shilling smokes worldwide. But it has at least begun the difficult process of changing a societal norm it helped put into place. It is increasing shipments of noncombustibles across all its markets. It has also doubled its commercial expenditure on smoke-free products every year since 2015. ‘Commercial expenditure’ includes marketing costs, consumer engagement and promotions. That metric has been steadily shifting in favour of noncombustibles and was projected to overtake spend on combustibles by 2018, as per its latest sustainability report. It has hired nearly 450 scientists and R&D specialists and invested $4.5bn into smoke-free products.

There is a key distinction however, for PMI’s smoke-free commitment. “Our products are not for people to start with, they’re for people to switch to,” Baker says. “We want to prevent initiation.”

But achieving change at scale requires a bigger commitment to communications than PMI had devoted to noncombustibles in the past. The company has always focused heavily on advertising, but it is now turning to the power of partnerships to reposition its brand.

To do so it has harnessed its existing relationship with the Ducati Corse racing team. The partnership dates to 2003 and was supported by the Marlboro brand. However, “a couple of years ago we totally moved the focus of our company to the smoke-free concept,” says Riccardo Parino, VP of global event partnerships at PMI. The company has marketing nous, but focused largely on products. This shift has a wider scope, Parino says, “which is to promote Philip Morris and showcase what Philip Morris is today and what it’s going to be in the future.”

The partnership is thus supported by a new brand, Mission Winnow, designed to tell the story of PMI’s smoke-free commitment. Maroslaw Zielinski, president of science and innovation, says, “Mission Winnow encapsulates our dedication to strive for better in everything we do.” He says the Mission Winnow brand will help PMI to learn from the mistakes of the past and continuously improve the company and its products. The shift toward a corporate, storytelling-based brand is intentional. “This is not about PMI-branded products,” he adds. “It is about our people and their dedication to leveraging the power of science, innovation and technology to transform not only our company, but an entire industry for the benefit of the world’s 1.1bn smokers and society as a whole.”

PMI’s commitment to research into ‘tobacco harm reduction’ goes deeper than the surface. The massive research centre on the banks of Lake Neuchâtel offers one proof point. “We know it’s going to be a long process,” Baker says. “People will question our motives.” But through a commitment to developing noncombustible products and now, to telling that story, it may challenge perceptions about its corporate brand. “Our goal is to be out of the cigarette business altogether,” says Baker.

“This is about our people and their dedication to leveraging the power of science, innovation and technology to transform not only our company, but an entire industry”

Working in partnership with Ducati means PMI will be able to reach a global audience through the medium of the MotoGP. The grand prix season takes racing teams around the world and uses emotive brand ambassadors – the riders themselves – to communicate with fans. PMI is pushing to get more out of this partnership than it has in the past. The relationship had been transactional – as with many sports sponsorships – but the message developed by the Mission Winnow brand will allow PMI to tell a different story. Parino hopes to engender an open dialogue about noncombustibles.

PMI – which operates in over 80 markets – has significant overlaps with the MotoGP circuit. It will work with Ducati in each city, communicating about its new brand positioning and sharing messages of scientific progress and a smoke-free future. The Mission Winnow branding is racing-ready. Crafted by Italian architect and designer Fabio Novembre, it uses a mirror image effect to communicate motion while mimicking the shape of a motorcycle on the track.

Ducati was on board with this commitment largely because its brand values align with Mission Winnow’s. Ducati has a history of scientific and technological innovation through its development of distinctive valve systems that allow its motorcycles to succeed on the track. Zielinski says, “We are inspired by the way Ducati works and the way Ducati behaves and acts and everyday it is trying to find solutions. As a company, with innovation, technology and design aiming at producing products that are providing safer, more reliable and better bikes for consumers.”

PMI is not the first to work through sports partnerships to shift its brand image, but its use of a non-corporate, non-product brand to do so is unusual. It requires a deep-rooted commitment to communications. The very fact that PMI is using a new brand for a high-profile partnership shows its commitment to its repositioning.

Baker’s work on scientific development in the tobacco industry is reflected by the world-class laboratories and extensive clinical studies PMI is undertaking to create a smoke-free society. The company will face challenges, though, in achieving these goals. It will have to change the narrative around its own brand to discourage scepticism about its noncombustible work. It will also have to communicate the nuanced positioning of the new products. They’re designed for existing smokers to adopt in lieu of combustibles, thereby reducing their harmful exposure to carcinogens. However, PMI will have to redouble its efforts in discouraging young people from taking up smoking – or vaping.

Public Health England produced a report on vaping in March 2018 that found young people were not habitually purchasing e-cigarette products. That complements an EY report in which nearly half of the 3,000 respondents say they use vaping products to avoid the harmful effects of smoking. PMI’s noncombustibles show a 90% decrease in toxicity levels compared to traditional cigarettes.

The makings of a change are there.

But for Philip Morris International, it all comes down to communications and brand positioning. If it can successfully change the conversation around its corporate brand, its research and development and the benefits of a noncombustibles, it may achieve what Baker dreamt of: a future free from smoking-induced cancer.