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The wolf changes its sheepskin
  1. Simon Chapman,
  2. Anne Landman,
  3. Stan Shatenstein,
  4. Bert Hirschorn,
  5. Steve Hamman

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    Last November, Philip Morris (PM) announced that it was going to ask its shareholders' approval to change the company's name to the Altria Group, Inc. PM is the world's 48th largest economic entity with a market capitalisation value of $105 billion, placing it ahead of the value of all stock combined in nations such as Greece, Ireland, and Chile. The company produces Miller beer, Kraft, and other well known food products in addition to its cigarettes mainstay. Chairman and chief executive officer, Australian born Geoffrey C Bible, said he proposed the change for two reasons. One was “a need for clarity” and the other reason was “the evolution of Philip Morris Companies Inc”.

    PM's internal documents, however, reveal very different reasons for the company seeking to change its name. A corporate marketing strategy document written for PM in December 1993 by an “identity consultant”, as part of PM's “Identity Development Program”, shows that PM was attempting to escape the stigma of selling tobacco products by attempting to “re-position” its image in consumers' minds.

    The document concludes that the key to escaping the damaging association with tobacco is changing the name of the company. Among the problems caused by PM's close identification with cigarettes were the following: “As awareness of tobacco issues increase, Philip Morris increasingly reacts/defends.” “As `tobacco' image of Philip Morris increases, market value of Philip Morris decreases.” Australian research conducted for PM by the Wirthlin Group paints a similar picture, with tobacco companies rated lowest on “truthfulness and credibility”.

    Interestingly, the first target audience listed for this corporate repositioning is employees, suggesting that PM's employee morale suffers from the shame of working for PM, a comment echoed by an Australian recruitment company executive interviewed by the Financial Review: “I don't think there's any doubt that it's harder to get enthusiasm for tobacco companies. There is a trend. If you have 10 qualified candidates and you tell them it's a tobacco company, five might say they don't want the job.”

    Mr Bible's press release says the proposal to change the company's identity “ . . .comes two years after a successful effort to improve the image of the Philip Morris family of companies. Research indicates that the companies are viewed as changing for the better and becoming a more responsible corporate citizen, among other indicators of favourable public opinion.”


    The logo for the new name of Philip Morris.

    My public health colleagues are intrigued with the new name, some suggesting it is an anagram of “A Trial”. What we have here is a nomen nudum, a name without a proper description. Altria is a faux Latin word that echoes “altus”, meaning height. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers a closer sound match: altricial, from Latin and French, meaning to nourish, refers to a class of birds helpless at birth, and too young to forage for themselves—quite apposite when the company's internal documents about its potential customers as young as 12 are considered. PM has used the rather military veni, vidi, vici as part of its company symbol for years. I came, I saw, I conquered is probably a good description of their intentions, although venenum in auro bibitur (poison drunk from a golden cup) or graviora manent (the worst is yet to come) could be considered in the new-found clean spirit.


    An ersatz poster spoofing the name change of Philip Morris.

    The key to the proposed switch may derive from the way the new name will be pronounced. If it's to be a US southern accented Altria—“I'll try a . . .”—then stand by for “I'll try a Marlboro” (or an Alpine, or a Kraft cheese sandwich).

    The website had a field day with the name change: “Just days after Philip Morris declared it will change its name to the Altria Group, lung cancer today announced it will change its name to Philip Morris. According to lung cancer officials, the chance to snap up a brand that is more widely associated with lung cancer than lung cancer itself was too enticing to pass up . . . For a time, patients will have to get used to hearing `We suspect you have Philip Morris' instead of `We suspect you have lung cancer'. But in terms of comprehension, I think they will instantly understand what they're being told.” An ersatz poster has the following caption: “I don't worry about getting Philip Morris. I'm too young, right?”

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