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Thank you for smoking: Why e-cigarettes are the new brand Wild West

Jazz. Rock n Roll. Punk. Hip hop. Disco. Electronica: the 20th century was packed with musical innovation, as forward thinking artists pushed the boundaries of what was possible. But what about the 21st century? It’s debatable, but has there been a defining sound of the millennium? The sounds you hear today are mostly iterations of well developed genres but ‘new’?

The world of Fast Moving Consumer Goods suffers the same problem. Today, even the most innovative brands spend much of their time reshaping heritage products into new formats.

Rarely are whole new categories created. Which is why the rise of e-cigarettes might be the most exciting thing to hit FMCG since corner yoghurts.

Generation Vape

E-cigarettes, or vaporisers, have controversial cross-generation appeal. 4.9 million of us in the UK have tried them, with the value of the e-cigarette market set to hit almost $28m by 2022.

Originally developed as a cigarette replacement product, e-cigs appeal to smokers and ex-smokers looking for a way out of smoking tobacco. Vaporisers cost less, are less harmful and can be used indoors. As cigarettes become less attractive, more expensive and hidden from view, the pendulum is swinging slowly to e-cigs as a lifestyle choice. In fact, many regular e-cig users have never smoked traditional cigarettes.

Recent Office National Statistics data shows there are 2.3 million vapers across England, Scotland, and Wales – around 4% of the population. Half of these people said they were using vaping as an aid to quit cigarettes which leaves more than a million users who use vapes as a lifestyle choice. In the US, the number of high-school students experimenting with e-cigarettes jumped from 1.5% to 16% between 2011 and 2015,

Vaporisers have a rich opportunity to attract both longstanding smokers and tobacco virgins. Brands can design products rooted in cigarette design and culture or forge new lines that exist outside traditional boundaries – taking advantage of a product that is unfixed and still relatively underdeveloped.

Product potential

To date, the e-cigarette category remains unrestricted in most of the world. While governments seek to shrink the tobacco cigarette market with restrictions on packaging, pricing and point of sale, vape manufacturers and suppliers can advertise and brand themselves as they choose. Which makes for a bewildering amount of consumer choice, as demonstrated by the exhibitor list for The Vaper Expo UK.

Partly, this diversity comes from the fact that the definition of ‘e-cigarette’ is unfixed. The first generation of vaping devices were designed to look and feel like tobacco cigarettes, and while many new e-cig users start by using these products, many go on to buy specialised devices offering a deeper hit plus more control over everything from battery power to intensity and more.. Many of these more expensive vaporisers look nothing like a cigarette, increasing their appeal further. Consider the Pebble, ePen and eBox by specialist manufacturer Vype – each of which looks more like a smart device than a smoking tool.

Only the building blocks of the vaporiser are the same: a heating element which vaporises the e-liquid, a battery and an e-liquid tank. Beyond this, product look and feel is subject to the manufacturer’s imagination, and today a DIY culture of users building their own devices also exists. Customisation extends to the e-liquid itself, which can be altered in terms of flavour and nicotine content to appeal to different markets. As well as a new category, vaping has developed its own niche culture and language; but this has happened organically. No brand has successfully guided the market. Yet.

Brand opportunities

An unregulated marketplace and a malleable, low-cost product mean brands entering the e-cig market have a blank slate to work from.

Packaging and product design can be manipulated for accessible or premium brand positioning. Castle Long Reserve e-liquids retail for almost £30 per bottle; LiQuid bottles cost (you guessed it) £1. Other suppliers have staked their claims on offering low-nicotine e-cigarettes for those quitting traditional smoking, or those who perceive vaping to be less harmful than smoking tobacco. The fact that e-cigarettes offer a nicotine hit with far lower toxicity levels than cigarettes will continue to drive their popularity, in line with rising sales of healthy and sustainable food and drink. In this way, e-cigarettes are in the unusual position of offering both a perceived health benefit and a chemical buzz. Just like exercise. (Right?)

The fact that e-cigarettes are substantially different from tobacco ones also mean that occasions for vaping have yet to be fixed in consumers’ minds. Vaporisers can be used inside and outside; when working, driving and socialising – even when eating in some restaurants. Brands, therefore, have a rich opportunity to define the vaping ‘moment’, as they did for After Eight Mints – which themselves created the concept of ‘after dinner’ confectionery.

And beyond the product itself, the retailers themselves – vaping shops – offer a real real mix in terms of what they look like and feel like. From light and airy with a traditional clean retail feel to the dark and mysterious with an almost underground vibe, the field of play is wide open and undefined.

Finally, vaping culture is still only in its infancy and feels fairly heterogenous. Several influencers are working hard to align vaping with their sub-culture, including would-be hip hop impresario DJ Khaled. But if a brand can step forward with a seductive idea of what e-cigarettes mean and for who, the category will grow even faster. Tobacco cigarettes were perhaps the most successful lifestyle products in history, simultaneously promising motorcycle masculinity and Audrey Hepburn insouciance. What will the Marlboro Man look like when he rises from the dead?

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