Thursday, April 29, 2010

Freedom to Brand?

This morning brought news that the latest attack on the cigarette industry has come from Australia. Here is the basic story as Al Jazeera English edited it from their wire sources:

Australia is set to ban branding, logos, promotional text and colourful images from all packets of cigarettes in attempt to dramatically cut the number of smokers in the country.

From 2012, all packets of cigarettes will look almost identical, carrying prominent, graphic health warnings while the brand will be relegated to a small, generic font at the bottom.

Yesterday I tried to frame the frustrated efforts of Senator Carl Levin to expose abusive practices by Goldman Sachs in terms of whether or not "Planet Washington" really "got" the "constructed reality" of "Planet Wall Street." In this case it appears that the Australian government really "got" how the cigarette industry works. More specifically, what they "got" is that the best way to control a product is to control the marketing of that product. This is not just my opinion. This is the position of an Australian "insider" involved with the imposition of the new ban:

Rob Moodie, chair of the government's National Preventative Health Taskforce, which recommended the legislation, said that stripping packages of their logos would effectively stamp out tobacco companies' marketing campaigns.

"The thing that tobacco companies fear second after price increases is plain packaging because it takes away their last real avenue for branding their cigarettes,'' he said.

"It also takes away their in-store presence."

This may turn out to be a case in which brains will overcome brawn. The move may have been so unexpected that the cigarette industry does not yet "get" what happened to them. Consider the feeble effort at rejoinder from Cathie Keogh, a spokeswoman for the Imperial Tobacco company:

It really affects the value of our business as a commercial enterprise and we will fight to support protecting our international property rights.

She got the first part right. The whole game is all about perceived value, and the Australians finally found the right handle to get their own grip on the consciousness industry. On the other hand her hip shot about international property rights may take off her own toes rather than wounding her opposition. At least as I understand it, international property rights protect you from others trying to use (hijack?) your brand; but they do not guarantee that you can use that brand in any situation of your choosing. The Australians probably are on pretty solid legal ground with their ban; and it will be interesting to see if any other countries (not to mention which ones) decide to follow their lead.

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