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Smoke titans spend big dollars on a tiny market

Smoke titans spend big dollars on a tiny market

C

IGARETTE companies are spending millions of dollars in advertising and promotional

campaigns in Cambodia. Yet the market is small - five to seven billion sticks sold

per year - and annual growth, at roughly three percent, is not spectacular. Why are

these companies investing huge sums?

Getting new smokers is not the issue. According to studies by Phnom Penh-based consultants

IMIC, 70 percent of all males smoke, while cultural taboos suggest that the cigarette

industry will not be able to make inroads among females: only one female in ten smokes,

and nearly all of them are above 40 years old.

Instead, companies are spending millions building brand loyalty in a country where

consumers seem to switch brands on a whim. This means targeting the 18 to 35-year-old

smoker and also depending on the aspiring middle class to move from their medium-priced

cigarettes to higher-priced brands.

The battlefield for the cigarette wars is the premium-priced segment which constitutes

only 15 percent of the industry. Four pricing segments comprise the cigarette industry,

ranging from the low-priced brands selling for 400 riel, up to 2500 riel ($1) per

pack for premium brands. The top segment is comprised of British American Tobacco's

(BAT) 555, Philip Morris's Marlboro, Japan Tobacco's Mild 7, and Dunhill.

Exactly how much companies are devoting to advertising and promotional campaigns

is unknown. No company was willing to provide expenditure figures, but one industry

executive estimated promotional expenses at above $5 million. Indeed, the evidence

lies everywhere, from Mild 7's ubiquitous parasols, Marlboro's billboards, and 555's

painted logo. In what may be a sign of the competitive future, bands and entertainers

from Marlboro and Mild 7 battle it out 100 meters from each other every Sunday in

Hun Sen Park.

Television and print advertising will nearly double this year, from last year's figure

of $1.5 million, according to Paul Guymon, General Manager of IMIC Research. Cigarettes

constitute 20 percent of total TV and newspaper advertising. Unlike other countries

in Southeast Asia, Cambodia allows cigarette advertising. In addition, brands are

not required to print health warnings.

BAT is investing in several promotional campaigns for 555 - Second Prime Minister

Hun Sen's brand, and the country's top selling - but it is devoting most of its resources

strengthening its distribution network and ensure consistency in quality. "We

need to maintain our market share, not buy it, as the other brands are trying to

do," said Mohammad A. Aleem, Managing Director of BAT Cambodia.

"Smoking 555s means you have arrived," he said. BAT is counting on this

image of success and high quality to help maintain its position in the premium segment.

In June of this year, BAT signed a $25 million joint venture agreement with Cambodia

Tobacco Co (CTC). Under the agreement, BAT will upgrade and expand CTC's cigarette

factory and provide technical training for local farmers to increase their tobacco

yields.

BAT is Cambodia's largest company that uses local tobacco, according to Aleem. Marlboro

and Mild 7 are imported brands, while the other brands import cut tobacco and roll

their cigarettes here. BAT also distributes local brands Ara and Victory and may

introduce a medium-priced brand in the future, depending on opportunities, said Aleem.

Although Mild 7 has less than one percent of the premium market, it is by far the

biggest spender for ads and promotional campaigns, according to IMIC. Eric Wong,

Regional Manager of Japan Tobacco International explains: "Cambodia is part

of our Indochina strategy. We know we won't make any money for the next couple of

years. But we will be Number One in the premium segment by 2000."

Mild 7 has a clean, smooth - a soft - image, according to Wong. "Therefore,

we are promoting soft sports, such as snooker and Motorcross to portray our image,"

he said.

Cambodian smokers prefer strength and taste, according to IMIC studies, which may

bode poorly for Mild 7. Wong hopes consumer preferences will change. "We are

the best selling mild cigarette in the world and we are counting on Indochina to

follow that route... give it time," he said.

Marlboro is trying to impart an image of excitement to appeal to the 18-35-year-old

smoker. Its promotional campaigns stress excitement through motorcycle racing; its

soccer league has an image of teamwork and sports; and it offers consumers promotion

such as concerts which involve and entertain Cambodians.

In the future, more promotional campaigns are likely to bombard Cambodians. When

one international brand sees its competitor initiate a campaign, it will most likely

follow suit and raise the stakes.

Wong explains the power of promotional campaigns: "If smokers perceive [a particular

brand] tastes good, they will say it does, even if it tastes lousy."

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