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Sri Lanka: brand launch runs into protest
  1. David Simpson
  1. d.simpson{at}

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    For many years, Ceylon Tobacco Company, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT) enjoyed a near monopoly in Sri Lanka, whose beautiful countryside and historic cities it freely despoiled with promotion for its Bristol cigarette brand. But recently, in a seemingly unlikely backward step reminiscent of its colonial past, BAT decided to write off years of investment in Bristol by changing the brand’s name to Viceroy.

    Bristol’s sales had been falling, no doubt partly due to increased tobacco control activity, and recent brand promotions had not achieved their targets. In addition, efforts to encourage Bristol smokers to switch to BAT’s more profitable and highly promoted Gold Leaf brand had partially backfired due to strong community smoking cessation programmes targeted at low income groups under the government’s poverty alleviation programme. BAT seems to have been losing its lower-priced market segment, seeing Viceroy as the way to recapture it. BAT has also been rationalising its range of brands worldwide; Bristol is virtually unknown outside Sri Lanka, whereas Viceroy sells in more than thirty countries.

    So, the company set about trying to convince shopkeepers and distributors that not only would Viceroy do better than Bristol, but its tobacco and processing were the same anyway. As promotional campaigns put it, Viceroy offered “The same flavour under a new name”. BAT even tried to convince national railway officials to renovate and repaint a dilapidated colonial era “Viceroy” train to its former glory as a flagship for the brand’s promotion, forgetting the railway company’s well-established smoke-free policy. When planning the official brand launch, too, things did not go well for BAT. It booked a top hotel in Polonnaruwa, the country’s capital in medieval times, but overlooked the well-informed and energetic network of organisations and individuals working against tobacco in the area.

    On the morning of the official launch to local shopkeepers, around a hundred protesters showed up at the hotel, including representatives of health groups, womens’ and mother’s organisations, child protection agencies and nurses. As the morning wore on, some of them, complete with banners and placards, started shouting their disapproval in front of the hotel. Youth protesters then demanded to speak to BAT officials—10 were said to be present—but hapless hotel staff, who by now had tightened security, tried but failed to persuade any of them to come out. Things went from bad to worse, with an elaborate farce in which hotel go-betweens could only persuade the company’s local agent to come out to address the crowd, clearly an embarrassing experience for a man faced with an angry crowd of people from his own part of the country. Still the crowd demanded to speak to BAT’s own executives, but still they refused, being forced to forget about the event and hide inside the hotel.

    Activists from the many organisations involved returned home in the knowledge that they had taught a big tobacco company a lesson, boosting morale and encouraging them to keep up their efforts in the future.

    Embedded Image

    Sri Lanka: protestors demonstrating outside a hotel where BAT was trying to launch a new cigarette brand to retailers.