What role does branding play in the smoking experience?

Today marks National No Smoking Day, an annual health awareness day in the United Kingdom which is intended to help smokers who want to kick the habit. In nations that have introduced plain packaging to help this cause, brand variant names are some of the few remaining features that distinguish cigarette products. Below we highlight a study just published in BMC Public Health which examines the role that branding plays in the experience of smoking cigarettes.

In a study recently published in BMC Public Health, Melanie Wakefield et al. from the Cancer Council Victoria employed a within-subjects design to test their hypothesis that the presence of a premium brand name would enhance perceived smoking experience and result in higher purchase intent, compared to when that same cigarette was presented with the brand name masked. The study was carried out in 2015, approximately 2.5 years after the introduction of plain packaging in Australia.

Using a sample of 75 Australian smokers aged 18-39 years, the researchers asked participants to smoke (take four puffs of) two identical cigarettes (1) with the brand variant name (branded) and (2) without the brand variant name (masked), the order of which was randomized. Only premium brands/more expensive mainstream brands were chosen and participants were required to be familiar with one of the eligible brand variants in order to be selected for the study.

“Masked” cigarettes were presented to participants on a plain white, ceramic dish whereas “Branded” cigarettes were presented to participants in their premium/upper-mainstream branded pack. All packs displayed the same “Smoking causes blindness” health warning in circulation at the time of the study.

Participants perceived that the branded cigarette tasted better and was less stale than the masked cigarette. Furthermore, fewer participants reported that they would be likely to purchase the masked cigarette compared to the branded cigarette.  The authors also found that expected enjoyment of the brand variant and objective enjoyment of the cigarette (assessed through the masked condition) both significantly predicted perceived enjoyment of the cigarette when the brand variant name was known. However, objective cigarette quality did not predict perceived quality when the brand variant name was known.

The results of the study indicate that, even in a plain packaging marketplace, branding can still influence smokers’ perceptions and that smokers may still associate particular brands with advertising even after the introduction of plain packaging. Countries which are considering the implementation of plain packaging should therefore also consider the effects of the remaining brand variant names.

The researchers caution that the high proportion of participants who were not considering quitting in the next 6 months may have influenced the study results, as it is possible that smokers with no desire to quit have more favorable expectations of cigarette brands. Furthermore, participants were only asked to take four puffs of each cigarette within a single testing session. Future studies which allow smokers to experience the full cigarette, in their own time and in their regular environment, may clarify findings and strengthen conclusions.

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