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Anti-smoking Group Turns to Social Branding for Millennials


December 14, 2016

Many companies today engage in “social branding,” or using ideals of luxury or success or comfort to sell a lifestyle to customers. It’s particularly effective in the marketing of luxury goods such as designer fashion, expensive alcohol or perfume. Tobacco companies were the pioneers of social branding, since there was little product differentiation from the competition. While tobacco marketing has largely gone the way of the dodo in the United States and Western European nations, one group is beginning to use its successful tactics for another purpose: to get young people to quit smoking.

Fast Company’s Christina Farr recently profiled a project called Commune, which has been organized by a marketing-science agency called Rescue. The project is about creative marketing that employs the same social branding strategies used in years past by cigarette makers. The campaign, which operates on $5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other groups, begins in nightclubs and bars frequented by the younger “hipster” demographic. It’s currently operating in Minnesota, but it has completed campaigns in San Francisco and San Diego. It targets young people in the 18 to 24 year age range.

                  Image via Bigstock

The trick, according to the people who created Commune, is to appeal to hipsters’ strong sense of social consciousness.

“A typical night out might involve an art show or pop-up shop, and some live music where ambassadors for the anti-smoking often include designers, bartenders, or artists,” wrote Farr. “The messaging is subtle, rather than overt: Artists, for instance, might showcase posters or other works to highlight issues that hipsters care about, like how smoking leads to deforestation.”

The problem with campaigns against drugs and smoking in the past is that the efforts are often perceived as “dorky” by the target audience. (Most of us recall how ineffective anti-drugs and smoking campaigns were in high school, and how widely they were mocked by students.) Commune aims to be edgy and trendy.

"The most important thing we want is for people to think our events are cool," Jeff Jordan, executive director of Rescue, told Fast Company.

Millennial Americans are conscious of social responsibilities: this is a demographic that is more likely than previous ones to put things like “make a difference” and “have a good work/life balance” at the top of their career wish lists over “making money.” Presenting a bulleted list of the negative health effects of smoking hasn’t worked very well, so Rescue believes that another approach is necessary: one that provides young people with information that is layered together with their beliefs, values and social identity, in the same way cigarette companies once did.

“In recent decades, Rescue has encouraged public health departments to take a page right out of Big Tobacco's social branding playbook,” wrote Farr. 




Edited by Maurice Nagle

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