Commentary on Kotnowski and Hammond (2013): The importance of cigarette packaging innovation


Packaging is an important and multi-functional marketing tool for consumer goods manufacturers. It can help capture consumer attention, create brand awareness, foster positive brand attitudes and perceptions, promote the product, link to and reinforce other marketing activities, and communicate product attributes [1, 2]. While media fragmentation has narrowed the reach of traditional promotional tools, such as advertising, packaging remains perfectly positioned to capture most, if not all, of the target market [3]. As the only part of marketing communication that a consumer takes home post-purchase, packaging can also help build relationships with consumers through possession and usage [3, 4]. Packaging is, therefore, a unique marketing tool that plays a key role in how consumers are attracted to and experience a product. Packaging is particularly important for tobacco companies given the very high level of exposure for smokers, and the fact that the comprehensive advertising and promotion bans now introduced in many markets give tobacco companies few ways to market their products and communicate with consumers.

Package design is generally understood to comprise two basic components: the pack graphics and the pack structure [5]. While the importance of pack graphics has been recognised by tobacco companies since the 19th century [6, 7], the pack structure (e.g. shape, size and opening style) has received comparatively less attention, at least until more recently. Kotnowski and Hammond [8] use document analysis to provide an interesting insight into the potential benefits of structural packaging innovation from the perspective of tobacco companies. It can help to differentiate brands, add value, gain competitive advantage, change product perceptions, create new market positions, increase the complexity of counterfeiting, and positively affect sales and market share. Highlighting how successful packaging innovation can be, global volume sales (excluding China) of the top 10 multinational cigarette brands, which have seen the most innovation, are reported to have increased from 22% to 26% between 2006 and 2011 [9].

It is not just structural innovation that is used to enhance appeal and promote brands however—although this generally requires the most significant investment—but other elements of the pack, including the cellophane, tear-tape, inner foil and inserts [10]. In addition, while visual appeal is paramount in pack design [11], tactile, olfactory and auditory cues can also be used to attract consumers and enhance the brand experience [12] and cigarette packs that are textured, fragranced or that make a sound when opened have recently appeared on the European market [10]. Also available in some Central and Eastern European markets is ‘interactive’ cigarette packaging, where Quick Response (QR) barcodes incorporated into the pack design can be scanned by smartphones to direct users to mobile-friendly web pages [13], thus opening up new promotional and communications possibilities for tobacco companies.

Tobacco companies do not have a free rein over packaging, however. In a growing number of markets they are banned from using certain potentially misleading descriptors on packs (e.g. ‘Light’, ‘Low-tar’) and from selling packs containing less than a predefined number of cigarettes (usually 10 or 20). They are also required, in most of the world, to display tax stamps, information on emissions and health warnings on packs. For the latter, tobacco companies are now legally required to display pictorial health warnings on packs in more than 60 countries [14]—a figure that will rise to at least 80 by 2016 given that the revised Tobacco Products Directive announced by the European Commission in 2012 stipulates the use of pictorial health warnings in all European Union member countries [15]. From a public health perspective the use of pictorial warnings on packs helps to enhance warning salience, reduce pack appeal and disrupt the ability of tobacco companies to communicate with consumers [16]. They do not, however, prevent packaging innovation.

Australia remains the only country to have effectively put an end to tobacco packaging innovation by implementing plain packaging in 2012. Tobacco companies remain free to use the brand variant name to attempt to capture attention (albeit this has to appear on the pack in a standardised font), and evidence from Australia since plain packaging has been introduced suggests that pack size has been modified in a bid to aid brand differentiation, e.g. packs containing 21, 22 or 23 cigarettes, rather than the traditional 20 or 25 cigarettes. However, the options available for using the packaging to create favourable perceptions of the brand and of smoking are clearly limited. While Australia is a small market with low smoking prevalence, tobacco companies will be concerned about a potential domino effect. Ironically, with tobacco packaging design evolving so rapidly and packaging innovation helping to drive sales [9], this may influence governments to follow Australia's lead.

Declaration of interests