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Can Big Tobacco credibly lead the charge to give up smoking?

Last week Philip Morris International (PMI) launched a campaign in the UK called Hold My Light, encouraging people to go smoke free for 30 days. The campaign, unsurprisingly, was met with cynicism and negativity. After all, what gives a company who profits from selling cigarettes, the right to tell people to stop smoking cigarettes? Cancer Research UK called it “staggering hypocrisy” and it has a point.

But this wasn’t a one-off campaign. In January, PMI took out full page adverts in the UK press, announcing, incredibly, that it was giving up smoking. In fact, creating a “smoke-free future” is now PMI’s global mission. Imagine that. A cigarette company on a mission to rid the world of cigarettes or at least replace those cigarettes with its smoke-free alternatives. It’s big, it’s bold, but is it believable? Can a company that still sells cigarettes, have us believe that it is serious about giving up? Can it succeed in changing deep-rooted beliefs about the motives and morals of the tobacco industry? What will it take for PMI, or indeed any brand, to prove that its purpose is deep rooted and not just a PR campaign?

A clear rallying cry

Having a clear and simple rallying cry that everyone, internally and externally, can understand and get behind is of course the first step. And the more audacious and memorable that rallying cry, the better. You can’t argue that PMI’s “smoke-free future” rallying cry isn’t bold. It also might also be completely bonkers. Time will tell.

Leadership in the driving seat

It’s not enough for leadership to simply pay lip service to a mission statement, they need to believe it and act on it. And if the leadership team isn’t completely invested, it’s never going to fly. It will never ever be authentic and will probably do more harm than good. PMI’s CEO André Calantzopoulos does seem to be leading the smoke-free future charge, even in the face of massive cynicism. It remains to be seen if the rest of the management team or PMI’s 81,000 employees will also take it to heart.

On board everywhere

Powerful brands live and breathe their mission everywhere and certainly don’t tweak it to suit the market. The fact that PMI still advertises cigarettes in markets where it can, reeks of hypocrisy. If PMI wants anyone to believe it is serious, then it needs its smoke-free future mission to be consistent everywhere.

Action not just words

You could argue that PMI is doing a terrific PR job. You could also argue it is doing a terrible PR job. But it is certainly generating publicity. In fact, you could argue that it is all one big PR exercise designed to get around the UK’s strict advertising regulations. Maybe. Maybe not. But if PMI is to gain any real credibility, there comes a point when its brand building needs to stop looking like an opportunistic PR campaign and it needs to get on with actually delivering on its smoke-free mission.

In it for the long haul

Campaigns might come and go, but changing brand perceptions, especially when your name is Philip Morris is never going to happen overnight. PMI would probably be the first to agree that transformative change takes time. PMI has committed itself to a smoke-free future and time will tell if it has the patience, determination and commitment to see it through.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

To build awareness and to establish credibility of a brand’s purpose, repetition is a necessity. PMI is never going to convince people over overnight that it is serious, but by staying true to its smoke-free future mission and emphasizing its commitment again and again it can at least start to build awareness.

Influence the influencers

There are influencers and then there are real influencers whose opinions can’t be bought or changed overnight. But it’s these people or organisations that will ultimately help accelerate or derail any kind of credibility. There are loads of influencers that PMI needs to win over in order to give its mission the credibility it needs. From NGOs to government bodies, from health practitioners to politicians, building long term relationships and partnerships will be key.

Bigger, better, more disruptive brand activations

A brand’s mission comes to life everywhere of course, not just via the Marketing department. But when the Marketing team does get involved, brand building activations should be memorable for all the right reasons. For a company with such deep pockets, the execution of PMI’s latest Marketing campaign wasn’t great to be honest. For a company that is clearly not scared of ruffling feathers, it could go much, much further and be much more innovative and disruptive in bringing its smoke-free mission to life.

Whether PMI’s smoke-free future mission is truly authentic remains to be seen. But let’s not forget, tobacco causes six million deaths per year. That's one death every five seconds. So, if PMI is really serious about giving up smoking, let’s just hope it seriously starts to give up cigarettes very soon.

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