U.S. Smokeless seeks smokers
NEW YORK, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The image of a lone cowboy or fisherman communing with nature, a wad of tobacco stuck in his cheek, doesn't cut it anymore. Unsociable doesn't sell.
So, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., the main unit of UST Inc., is trying to appeal to drinking buddies and golf foursomes in an effort to shed the association its key product has as an indulgence of loners.
For years its ads have implied that "this is a product to use by yourself," said Murray Kessler, president of U.S. Smokeless.
Its own research shows that use of smokeless tobacco is viewed overwhelmingly as a social faux-pas.
"That image of a guy with a pickup truck and a gun rack is kind of the image of this category that we've reinforced over time, and making the product more socially acceptable and more contemporary is an important element of growing the category," Kessler said.
The task of U.S. Smokeless' new ad agency -- Doe Anderson -- is to focus on promoting snuff as acceptable in group settings. The company is placing ads in magazines like Golf Digest to appeal to an upscale consumer, and plans an expanded roll-out of a spitless product as it examines ways to capitalize on smoking bans in restaurants and bars.
At stake is a nearly $2 billion-a-year U.S. industry with an anemic rate of growth. UST, with top-selling brands such as Copenhagen and Skoal, is the sector's undisputed king, controlling about three-quarters of the market, although its share has eroded in recent years.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an earlier ruling that UST used predatory marketing practices against a smaller rival, upholding a $1.05 billion verdict against it.
MOVING FROM TRACKS TO LINKS
UST long has seen motor races and the rodeo circuit as key advertising venues, sending marketing trucks to some 6,000 events a year to distribute information and product samples while promoting its own free magazine, Heartland USA.
U.S. Smokeless increased its commitment to drag racing when Skoal Racing became the primary sponsor of two Funny Car teams on the National Hot Rod Association circuit in 2001. And, only last month, it signed retired world-champion rodeo star Ty Murray to an endorsement deal for Copenhagen.
But the company realizes that a lot of the people it wants to attract are neither racing nor rodeo fans.
Some of them are golfers.
Roddy Babb, a professional golfer and Skoal user, started to use snuff about 10 years ago while on a golf course.
"A lot of golfers, I think, use it to calm themselves down", said Babb. "It kind of lowers the nerves, and if there's any sport you need the nerves lowered, it's golf."
U.S. Smokeless is planning an ad campaign using a "more contemporary image" to attract golf aficionados, Kessler said.
It recently hired Louisville, Kentucky, agency Doe Anderson after ending a long relationship with Earl Palmer Brown. Kessler said the new agency understands his current consumers and target audience as about a third of its creative staff are snuff users, while another 40 percent smoke.
Doe Anderson came up with the idea to show the smokeless products being used in more social settings.
Like cigarette companies, U.S. Smokeless walks a narrower path with its advertising since a 1998 agreement limiting ads that could be seen by minors. It was pressured to pull advertising from some mass-market magazines, such as Sports Illustrated, but has since added plans to advertise in Golf Digest and Time to broaden its appeal to smokers.
BUILDING SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE
About 98 percent of the company's volume comes from less than 3 percent of the U.S. population. And a tiny percentage of Americans -- only 2 percent -- view using the products as socially acceptable.
So it aims to go after other tobacco users -- cigarette smokers -- who are finding themselves with fewer public places that permit smoking.
"We are never going to walk away from rodeo. But as you move toward adult smokers ... they're not necessarily at the same events. In fact there are very few people smoking at the rodeo," Kessler said.
UST is considering making information about its products available in places like airport lounges where smokers congregate before smoke-free flights.
Bar promotions may be expanded, especially with New York City's ban on smoking expected to go into effect in the spring, and smokers seek out alternative ways for a nicotine fix.
"I think that Manhattan presents an opportunity for this company," Kessler said. "A lot of things have changed very quickly in regard to taxes and restrictions and I think our products offer a solution."
UST is also thinking of expanding distribution of Revel Tobacco Packs -- small packets of spitless tobacco. Revel, which was test-marketed in middle America's Topeka, Kansas, and Youngstown, Ohio, and could be brought into more U.S. areas this year, is seen as still another alternative for smokers.
Ultimately, U.S. Smokeless said it would like to have ads that highlight comparative risks between its products and cigarettes, but it is looking for government clearance first.
It asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission last February for an advisory opinion on whether it can promote its products as safer than cigarettes. In August, it asked the regulators to delay making a decision until more data was available.
U.S. Smokeless plans to resubmit its petition, probably during the first quarter of the year, said U.S. Smokeless General Counsel Richard Verheij.
"We want to put as much together to make the most compelling case before we resubmit it to the FTC," he said.