#111 Marlboro Man – Mild as May to Rugged Cowboy

Smoking trends started to shift with men smoking more allowing Marlboro County to become Marlboro Country. Strong, confident and independent.

Dave Young:

Welcome to The Empire Builders Podcast, teaching business owners the not so secret techniques that took famous businesses from mom and pop to major brands. Stephen Semple is a marketing consultant, story collector, and storyteller. I’m Stephen’s sidekick and business partner, Dave Young. Before we get into today’s episode, a word from our sponsor, which is… Well, it’s us. But we’re highlighting ads we’ve written and produced for our clients. So here’s one of those.

[Travis Crawford Ad]

Dave Young:

Gosh, Stephen, you shared the topic with me here on The Empire Builders Podcast, and you’ve got me kind of stumped. Oh, by the way, you’re listening to The Empire Builders Podcast.

Stephen Semple:

FYI.

Dave Young:

I forgot to say that, but that’s okay. Leave this in. This is-

Stephen Semple:

This is reality.

Dave Young:

This is reality. This is how this actually works. No, Dave got stumped. So it’s not that I haven’t heard of today’s topic, but it’s not what I thought. You said that today’s topic is the Marlboro Man. It’s not Marlboro’s cigarettes. It’s not the tobacco industry. It’s the Marlboro Man.

Stephen Semple:

The man. Yes.

Dave Young:

The man. Awesome. So basically we’re talking about advertising and marketing.

Stephen Semple:

Yes.

Dave Young:

It’s core.

Stephen Semple:

That is core. Yes, we are.

Dave Young:

Because the Marlboro Man was not just… There’s no historical figure, I don’t believe.

Stephen Semple:

Well, there is a guy who played the Marlboro Man. And we’ll talk a little bit about him, but no-

Dave Young:

Let’s hear it.

Stephen Semple:

… it’s really more about the advertisement. Yes.

Dave Young:

Do tell.

Stephen Semple:

Well, the thing that’s really interesting about the whole character of the Marlboro Man, it was created by Leo Burnett Agency in Chicago, and the campaign ran from 1954 to 1999, and it turned a struggling brand into a market leader by the 1960s. Marlboro became the most successful cigarette brand in the world, and by the late 1960s, it had 25% market share, and by 1970, it was selling $20 billion worldwide. That’s-

Dave Young:

Amazing.

Stephen Semple:

… a big, big number.

Dave Young:

To me, the story is what were they doing before the Marlboro Man that wasn’t working?

Stephen Semple:

Well, and that’s the thing, because historically speaking, the Marlboro Man was one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time, and it’s often cited as a great example of how advertising can also shape cultural values and perceptions. It’s amazing how Marlboro Man hasn’t been around since 1999, and yet we can say to people, Marlboro Man, and we can all recall those ads.

Dave Young:

Especially before, I forget what year, ’77, whenever they outlawed cigarette advertising on TV and radio.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah, because then it was the billboard campaigns.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah. So it’s widely considered one of the most successful campaigns of all time. But what also people don’t realize, it was not an overnight success. This campaign almost got pulled. In 1955, 1 year after launch, it was almost canceled due to poor sales. One year into this campaign, they’re going, you know what, this isn’t working. Maybe we should do something different. The other thing that’s interesting is that this campaign was actually a major repositioning of the product. Marlboro started off as a female centric brand. You’re asking what they did before the Marlboro Man?

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

They marketed Marlboro’s to women. So talk about that pivot. They went from marketing it to women to marketing it to men. In 1924, when Marlboro was launched, it was originally marketed as a brand for women. The filter tip design was popular with women, and the tagline was “Mild as May.”

Dave Young:

Mild as May.

Stephen Semple:

And it included lines like ivory tips to protect the lips. And there was one famous ad from the early 1950s, which featured a woman in a pink dress holding a cigarette, gazing wistfully out the window, and the tagline read, “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro County.”

Dave Young:

Marlboro County.

Stephen Semple:

Marlboro County

Dave Young:

County.

Stephen Semple:

Started off as Marlboro County rather than Marlboro Country. So the print ads showed glamorous women smoking Marlboro’s, and the challenge was that in the 1950s, the number of women smoking started to decline, but the number of men smoking was rising in terms of smoking cigarettes. So it’s this shift in consumer trend that made them want to reposition Marlboro as a man’s cigarette. So the idea for the Marble Man campaign is generally attributed to Leo Burnett, the founder of the advertising agency, Leo Burnett Worldwide. And according to legend, Burnett came up with the idea for the campaign while he was on a business trip to Richmond, Virginia, where he saw a group of cowboys herding cattle along the side of the road, and he was struck by the image of these rugged, self-reliant men, and he saw an opportunity to use this image to reposition the Marlboro brand.

Dave Young:

You’ve used an iconic touchpoint in traditions in history of Americana in the West.

Stephen Semple:

Correct. Yes. And attached that to the brand. And Burnett believed that the Marlboro brand could be transformed from a brand associated with women into a brand associated with men if it was marketed as a cigarette for rugged, independent men. And he saw the cowboy as the perfect embodiment of this. So he began to develop the Marlboro Man campaign around this concept, and the campaign was based upon an emotional appeal, rugged, individual, tough cowboy. Who doesn’t want to be a cowboy?

Dave Young:

The beauty of making a shift like this in the 1950s is none of the new target audience has probably ever seen one of these ads of the lady in the dress that was probably in what, Good Housekeeping or Women’s Magazine? So you start shifting, and today it would be all over Twitter. Oh, they’re trying to sell this lady a cigarette to these macho guys.

Stephen Semple:

Well, case in point, look what’s happening with Bud right now.

Dave Young:

Well, I was thinking Bud Light, yeah.

Stephen Semple:

In terms of the repositioning they’re trying to do right now.

Dave Young:

The first ads for Marlboro were not a cowboy in a dress. That’s not how you shift into this.

Stephen Semple:

And I don’t know, but that also may be part of the reason why the first year it was not successful. When you do a repositioning or you’re moving something from one market to another market, success does not happen right away. It is slower and it takes time. And as I said, this campaign, one of the most iconic and most successful of all time was almost pulled.

Leo Burnett fought hard to get a second year for this campaign. They really wanted to pull it, and he was like, no, guys, stick with this. Now, the original Marlboro Man, what’s interesting, this guy by the name of Robert Norris… And he was a real life cowboy. They actually went and they found a real life cowboy. But guess what he was not? He was not a smoker. He had never smoked a cigarette in his life, and he remained a non-smoker, and he was a vocal non-smoker advocate because he actually unfortunately died from lung cancer, but-

Dave Young:

Oh, wow.

Stephen Semple:

… he was a real live cowboy, Robert Norris.

Dave Young:

So that’s interesting. I don’t know whether he was a real life cowboy has a whole lot to do with the success because he matched that image. Did they play that up, that they actually found a guy and then they paraded him around as part of the whole deal?

Stephen Semple:

I don’t believe that they played it up, but the research I did do on it, Leo Burnett was very big on there had to be… It was kind of funny. On one hand, he was very big on authenticity. For people to buy this, it has to be real. And he felt that there was this subtle thing that happened, so he wanted to find a real life cowboy. Now, on the other hand, he was okay with the fact that the person was a non-smoker. So on one hand it’s got to be authentic, but on the other hand, really doesn’t need to be.

Dave Young:

As long as he’s holding a cigarette, we don’t care.

Stephen Semple:

Right. But I think there’s this subtle thing that he felt that people would connect better if it was a real life cowboy. And look, today in the world, that becomes even more important because when things are not authentic, it gets found out and it gets spread out all over the world.

Dave Young:

Yeah. I also am just curious, and I don’t know if you have any details on this, but in the year that it took to get going, I know traditionally in the tobacco industry, man, they do a whole… At least they did until they got their hands tied a little bit. But they used to do a whole lot of things like samples and venue types of things, like getting people to experience it. It’s almost the traditional drug dealer kind of business model. Hey, the first one’s free, here’s a little sample pack kind of thing, and you go to rodeos and you go to events and you just pass out little packs. Do you know if that was a part of this? Because that can accelerate the experience of people with the brand.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah, I don’t know about that. I hadn’t come across anything on that, and I had not dug into that. The part that I found that was the most interesting when I was researching this was the fact that Marlboro started off as a woman’s brand, and then they did this very successful pivot. And in fact, the one thing I did notice is when you look at the earlier ads versus the later ads, over time, the ads became more and more rugged. This whole idea of Marlboro and the tagline, Marlboro Country, Welcome the Marlboro Country. But over time, they leaned more and more into this rugged individual, tough imagery.

Dave Young:

You start trying to tie your brand to affinity groups that identify the same way, so of course you’re going to be sponsoring professional rodeos and you’re going to sponsor motor sports and all the things that guys are into, you’re going to be there. You’re going to have your name and your brand on all of that stuff. And I would say that takes a little while to gear up. There’s a lot of moving pieces there.

Stephen Semple:

Yes. And you also got to remember, this was happening in the ’60s and ’70s and things like that, where these things were much more segregated than they are today, right?

Dave Young:

Yeah. It’s almost a Red Bull play. You’re just tying your brand to adventure, and in this case, to rugged individualism, cowboy life, he-man kind of stuff.

Stephen Semple:

It’s that whole self-identification. I’m not a cowboy, but I’m my own rugged individual who’s forging his own path and is tough and reliable and all these other things, and so therefore you identify and you end up smoking this cigarette that frankly used to be favored by women.

Dave Young:

Yeah. Amazing story. You can repoint a brand and start identifying it with another group if you’re trying to breathe new life into it.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah. But, it takes time.

Dave Young:

It takes time. And man, I think it’d be harder today than it was in the 1950s.

Stay tuned. We’re going to wrap up this story and tell you how to apply this lesson to your business right after this.

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Dave Young:

Book your starter session on this podcast website. Just visit theempirebuilderspodcast.com and click on get started.

Let’s pick up our story where we left off. And trust me, you haven’t missed a thing.

Stephen Semple:

You brought up an interesting point that I hadn’t considered. There’s a reasonable chance that men seeing the Marlboro Man ad for the first time may not have ever seen the Mild as May ads focused at women. Where today, the reality is we would’ve been exposed to both. Case in point, is the Bud Light repositioning going on, right?

Dave Young:

Yeah, exactly. So if Marlboro or let’s say Bud Light, if they had found another affinity group in the 1950s and decided to market to the trans community, the core audience of Marlboro might never even noticed. These affinity groups could maintain some separation, and often you just didn’t know what other people that didn’t share all of your activities were doing.

Stephen Semple:

For background, let’s share with people what the Bud Light thing is that’s happening right now, where that’s exactly what’s going on. Let’s face it, Bud Light, when we think about Bud Light, we think about it as being a [inaudible 00:15:07] beer that’s drunk by guys at NASCAR. And right now they ran a campaign and who knows where this campaign goes, but where it was very much targeted to alternative lifestyle.

Dave Young:

And it was a very limited thing. They did a little promotional bit with a, I don’t know, influencer that-

Stephen Semple:

Yeah, transgender influencer.

Dave Young:

… is in that community. And then the haters got ahold of that and decided that, well, this doesn’t fit the brand image because I’m part of the brand image and it doesn’t fit me. And so it threatened their identity. Honestly, most of these brands, Marlboro back then, Bud Light now, it’s like they’re part of a giant mindless corporation and all they care about is the bottom line. So I don’t think Anheuser-Busch InBev global corporation gives a rip either way.

Stephen Semple:

And this is what always creates the opportunity for someone to emerge and garner market share, is by appealing to a community and providing that self-identification and being authentic. Authenticity does count. But the Marlboro Man, I felt, as a campaign deserved some recognition just because, again, you think about how iconic it has been in our lexicon and our ideals and the success of the campaign, and it was all built around this idea of self-identification, and they were able to pivot a brand from it being a woman’s cigarette to a man’s rugged cigarette.

Dave Young:

And then continue to hold onto that. If they hadn’t taken Leo Burnett’s advice and stuck it out past the year mark, it might be a brand that we’ve just never heard of today, but they identified their audience, they leaned hard on it, and they did it for the next 40 or 50 years. They’re still doing it, they just can’t do it in some of the public ways that they used to be able to do it.

Stephen Semple:

And what we know is if they could. It was tribute to Leo Burnett and the team at Marlboro that they stuck with it through that one year chickening out period. Because it’s tough.

Dave Young:

Yeah. It is tough. I think that’s a good lesson for any of our listeners is you don’t know what your chickening out period is, depending on a lot of factors, one of the most important being product purchase cycle, you could make the case that product purchase cycle of cigarettes is pretty darn short.

Stephen Semple:

It’s very short.

Dave Young:

You smoke a pack. I remember back in the day, my dad was a one pack a day guy. At the very minimum, he could switch at the end of a carton.

Stephen Semple:

But the thing that we forget is people have a favored one that they’re doing, so you’ve got to get them to leave what they’re doing now to come to yours. And that’s always hard.

Dave Young:

That’s why I think sampling probably played a pretty big role because man, if you’re spending money on a pack a day and somebody offers you, hey, here’s six free cigarettes, are you going to take them?

Stephen Semple:

Yeah, probably.

Dave Young:

Heck yeah. Oh, maybe I’ll just smoke while I drive. Nobody will see me.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah. You’re probably-

Dave Young:

Is it a lady cigarette? I’ll smoke it while I drive. I’ll pull out something else when I get to the office.

Stephen Semple:

I wouldn’t be surprised if sampling was part of the campaign. Wouldn’t surprise me.

Dave Young:

Yeah. But to lean hard on it and continue to identify with that audience, I think that’s the lesson here. And I’ve had clients where, man, a year in, and they think the needle ought to be moving a lot quicker than it is, but they’re in a business like agricultural real estate, for example. That’s a long, long product. Some of those properties haven’t changed hands in a lifetime.

Stephen Semple:

Right.

Dave Young:

Right. Roofing. You don’t roof your house every year you hope. So how long do you have to wait till that your new marketing plan is working? Sometimes you have to wait a long time.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah, so you think about it, 1954 they start the campaign. A year later, it’s hardly working. They almost bail on it. And by the late 1960s, they’ve got 25% market share and by 1970, $20 billion worldwide. So what we also know is when these things start to work, they really work big.

Dave Young:

Yeah. And then you really want to make sure you’re sticking to the message.

Stephen Semple:

No kidding.

Dave Young:

Absolutely. The campaign is working, not the individual ad.

Stephen Semple:

That’s right.

Dave Young:

Absolutely. [inaudible 00:19:40] a fun conversation even thought it’s about cigarettes.

Stephen Semple:

There you go. Well, we’ve had a couple of others about cigarettes, so had to cover this one.

Dave Young:

Marlboro Man. Thanks, Stephen.

Stephen Semple:

All right, thanks David.

Dave Young:

Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please share us. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app and leave us a big fat juicy five star rating and review. And if you have any questions about this or any other podcast episode, email to questions at theempirebuilderspodcast.com.

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