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It’s hard to grow a socially unpopular core business

The Wall Street Journal yesterday reported that Altria had, after a three-year trial, pulled the plug on a whole line of Marlboro products intended to be safer for smokers than the conventional cigarettes.  As the story reports:

Marlboro Ultra Smooth, which had been sold in Atlanta, Tampa, Fla., and Salt Lake City for more than three years, drew little attention from consumers. Philip Morris USA, which had hoped to market the cigarette as a reduced-risk smoke, stopped making new shipments to its wholesalers April 1. Remaining stock is still on sale. Its other cigarettes with the new activated-carbon filters—the Marlboro Ultra Lights in Phoenix and North Dakota, and Basic Ultra Lights in Washington state—also were just discontinued, the company said.

It’s pretty clear that Philip Morris, USA, is going to have to find some other pathways to growth, as this one doesn’t seem to be working.  With aggressive marketing also unpopular, it sure does seem to leave the company in a bind.  So what could we suggest might represent new growth opportunities, even in a market that doesn’t seem to be allowed to grow (and to which the company is confined, now that it has spun off its international division)?

Well, if we follow the guidelines from MarketBusters, here are some ideas they might try.

First, perhaps there is something about the customers’ total experience that could be changed.  It does seem as though a lot of these innovations focus squarely on the product, and in the traditional attributes, not on something about the customers’ total experience.  For instance, maybe they could add in featues that improve the purchasing, usage, or disposal experiences.  Or sell cigarettes with a different model—I could see brands that are used for different experiences and settings, for instance.

Or perhaps they need to think about a whole different business model.  Maybe they could develop a subscription like model, or figure out how to sell cigarettes using an entirely different methodology.

Or perhaps it’s an attribute play.  Unfortunately, one of the reasons that many young women (particularly dancers, as a colleague of mine has famously documented) appears to be to maintain their weight at what they consider to be acceptable levels.  So given that the company is largely prohibited from promoting such attributes directly, a viral campaign might be in order.

I’m not a huge fan of smoking, by the way, and don’t smoke myself, but as a strategy challenge this one is very interesting. 

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