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The former state-owned tobacco monopoly, now known as KT&G and fully privatised in 2002, dominates at home with 72% of the market, and is rapidly expanding abroad, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia, with an eye on the rich pickings to be gained in Russia and China. Since the drab days of state ownership, it has learned fast from its big, international competitors, and a marketing extravaganza at the end of last year showed just how far it has come in slick and sophisticated design.
Unusually, one of KT&G’s leading brands, with about 7% of the market, is called Raison D’Etre, and has no Korean name. This fact, and the name itself, the French phrase, often borrowed for use in English and meaning a reason for existence, suggest it is aimed at young—very young—urban, western-leaning consumers. Recent marketing developments amply confirm this.
Since its launch in 2002, Raison - as it is typically known - was already associated with clever presentational ploys. The main image on the pack was a cat in various colours, including blue and green, with regular variations such as a Father Christmas robe at the end of the year. New packs would appear in time to cash in on the country’s holiday seasons and be on sale for about two months. Last December, however, the seasonal marketing splash moved into a different league.
Gone was Raison’s cat, to be replaced with a variety of highly stylish and colourful designs, including, by the company’s proud admission, Indie band, B-boy and X-sports music references, as well as graffiti. Many are not just appealing to youth, but probably only understood by those young enough to put their bodies through the contortions required in South Korea’s most fashionable discos.
Unlike the brand’s name, the graffiti are in Korean, and plug into a rap lexicon probably more foreign than French or English to any South Korean past adolescence, riddled with teen desire for individuality and rejection of the uncomprehending world of stuffy adulthood. Each ends with the catchphrase that translates as, "It is the reason why I live".
Tobacco ads are banned on billboards and in news media in South Korea, with the exception of up to 60 per year in magazines with adult readerships. Thus pack design, which works at the time of smoking as well as at the point of sale, together with internet promotions, are obvious ways to go to aggressively promote cigarettes and recruit new, young smokers. It clearly works; apart from its high brand share, Raison’s popularity among teens speaks volumes.
The maximising of pack design as advertising will no doubt become more prevalent in all countries that fail to implement tough, graphic health warnings that destroy the highly misleading promotional potential of brands like Raison. Public health law makers have to stop precocious advertising that connects with rebellious teenagers seeking to express themselves - "It is the reason why I live." Otherwise, for many of the young people who respond, it may one day be the reason why they die.
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