Despite some almost inevitable elements of negative press coverage,
the announcement of the BAT and Rothmans merger has been a success. That
said, the success was probably due less to the actual announcement
strategy than to the strength of the corporate position that tobacco
companies have been able to engineer for themselves in the last ten or
The tobacco sector has been hugely successful in building a protective
firewall between corporate and brand image - such that the companies can
sustain heavy fire on their corporate reputations without this having
any significant impact on sales or brand marketing strategies.
They have therefore been able to dismiss most of the conventional
audiences from their corporate communications strategies and focus
almost exclusively on analysts and government. Analysts loved this
particular announcement because the deal will boost short-to-medium term
profitability, and therefore, from a corporate point of view, BAT and
Rothmans were home and dry.
The fact that the issue of exploiting third world markets has been
brought up only shows that the pressure groups are doing their job. The
media will always be prepared to give space to credible argument which
challenges tobacco companies. Therefore any announcement provides a good
opportunity to get stuck in on the health issues, Third World
exploitation and smuggling.
The desperately frustrating thing, from the pressure groups point of
view, is that this has about the same level of impact as water dripping
on a stone.
Another reason for this is the strange nature of cigarette brands. Their
appeal is largely founded on elements of rebellion and challenge. They
occupy a territory which is anti-control, anti-government,
anti-parental; perhaps even anti-patriarchal which may explain the rise
in smoking among young women. The message and tone of voice that
pressure groups use does not find sympathy with cigarette brands’ key
target - the young adult urban smoker. Indeed, while the shots of the
pressure groups may well be landing on the corporate citadels, out in
the brand hinterland they may actually be assisting sales.
The BAT and Rothmans merger announcement was definitely a success for
the two companies involved, however, the tobacco sector has been able to
manoeuvre itself into a position of such defensive strength that even a
corporate disaster of Bhopal proportions would be unlikely to have a
significant impact on its bottom line.