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A difference that makes a difference: young adult smokers’ accounts of cigarette brands and package design
  1. J Scheffels
  1. Janne Scheffels, Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research, PO Box 565, Sentrum, 0105 Oslo, Norway; js{at}


Objective: To explore young adult smokers’ construction of meaning and identity in accounts of cigarette brands and cigarette package design, and the processes by which positive associations with a brand may be reinforced and sustained.

Methods: Qualitative in-depth interviews with 21 smokers aged 18–23 in Norway, where advertising for tobacco has been banned since 1975.

Results: Cigarette brand and cigarette package design appear as an integrated part of young smokers’ constructions of smoker identities, enabling the communication of personal characteristics, social identity and positions in hierarchies of status.

Conclusion: Through branding and package design tobacco companies appear to be able to promote their products in a country where advertising is banned, by means of similar principles that make advertising effective: by creating preferences, differentiation and identification.

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A brand can be understood merely as a name, a symbol, a package design—or a combination of them—that serves to distinguish the goods of one producer from another. Many authors, particularly of more recent consumer research literature, emphasise that a brand is a lot more than an identifier. Brands are also about awareness, character and status: all elements that can be translated into value for marketers as well as for consumers.14 Brand image is generally defined as consumers’ associations with or perceptions of a brand.2 4 Brand identity is a more complex concept, involving the visions and purpose of the brand as defined by the brand manager, encapsulating the brand’s values and the ideal future image that brand managers strive to create for their brands.4 5 Advertising for tobacco, as for other products, communicates more than (or all other than) information about the product it aims to sell. It communicates images such as status, glamour, slimness, masculinity or femininity. A number of recent studies of tobacco industry documents have exposed how the industry for a long time has recognised and utilised branding and package design in complementing and extending the imagery created by advertising.69 A qualitative study by Gittelsohn and colleagues10 described how adolescents claimed that cigarette brands are like clothes: they have to fit with who you are and what your style is. The cigarette package is likely to play a part in this. When a pack is taken out of a pocket and opened to take out a cigarette, the pack is visible for all to see. In this way it can make a statement about identity.

A debate concerning plain or “generic” packaging of tobacco products has arisen, as knowledge about the importance of packaging as an important component of an overall tobacco marketing strategy11 has increased. Generic packaging is packaging that is devoid of brand logos, brand colours and any other information, apart from the brand name and information mandated by the government. Packages should be identical in size, shape, colour and other visual elements. The aim of plain packaging is to take away the tobacco package’s visual identity and appeal as an advertisement for the product.

This study is a qualitative exploration of young smokers’ construction of meaning and identity in accounts of cigarette brands and cigarette package design. It was carried out in Norway, where other forms of tobacco advertising have been banned for more than 30 years. The aim of the analysis is to study the processes by which associations with brands may be formed and sustained, and the role cigarette package design plays in these processes.

Adolescents who at an early age are able to name advertised brands, and who use promotional items for these brands, are more likely to become smokers than those who do not, in a dose-response fashion.12 13 Brand preference has been shown to play a part also in smoking maintenance and intensity.14 Cigarette brands benefit from very high brand loyalty. For example, studies in the United States have shown that less than 10% of smokers change brands annually.15 Choice of brand is usually made early in the smoking career.16 Several researchers have argued that branding is the primary channel for the influence of tobacco advertising.16 17 Youths consistently buy the most heavily advertised cigarettes.1820 When advertising is restricted or prohibited, one can assume that the cigarette package becomes particularly important as a means of communicating brand imagery.21

The processes cigarette branding works through have been studied in some qualitative studies. Barnard and Forsyth22 described how positive associations with a brand of cigarettes created by extensive advertising was reinforced and sustained through social interaction among adolescents. Gittelsohn and colleagues10 explored variations in brand preference between US smokers from different ethnic groups. Their findings pointed to how brand choice served as a way to assert both social identity and individuality. Dewhirst and Sparks23 explored how the tobacco industry makes use of intertextual associations of sponsored events (such as Formula 1 motor racing) to create and strengthen brand identities (such as the masculine image of Marlboro).

Norway was the first country in the world to implement a ban on tobacco advertising, in 1975. In a ranking of the level of implementation of tobacco control policies in 30 European countries, Norway is ranked among the four countries with the highest level of restriction.24 The prevalence of daily smoking in Norway was 24% between both genders in 2006, a reduction from 34% in 1996. As in most other western countries, people with lower socioeconomic status are increasingly over-represented in the smoker population.25 The most popular brands of cigarettes in Norway in 2006 were the Scandinavian brand Prince (43% market share), Marlboro (25%), Barclay (8%) and, finally, the Norwegian brand Petteroes (7%).26 To focus on how smokers talk about branding and cigarette packaging in a Norwegian context, where tobacco advertising has been strictly regulated for more than three decades, provides a unique opportunity to study young smokers’ construct of these issues. This can make an important contribution to the debate on generic packaging of tobacco products.


Data were obtained from semi-structured, audiotaped in-depth interviews based on Kvale’s27 principles. These apply a reflexive approach to the knowledge sought, as well as to the interpersonal interaction in the interview. The interviews were conducted in 2003 as part of a larger qualitative project exploring youth smoking in Norway in an identity construction perspective.28 Interviewees’ talk is, in this study, understood as creating as well as representing reality.29 It is seen as constructions of self in talk within particular social, material and discursive contexts (including the interview context).30 31 In-depth interviews are well suited to an approach aiming to study processes of identity construction. Rich and contextualised descriptions provide a good source for exploring the link between how people talk and the context within which they speak.27 The findings presented in this study are of an exploratory nature. They can provide a good starting point for further studies of the processes through which cigarette branding works.

A total of 21 smokers (11 male and 10 female) between the ages of 18 and 23 participated. The interviewees were university students (9) or trade apprentices attending technical colleges (12). When cited, they are identified by a fictitious name, and by age and educational/occupational status. The sampling of students (representing higher socioeconomic status (SES) smokers) and apprentices (representing lower SES smokers) of both genders was done because of interest in social differences in ways of interpreting and explaining smoking. All interviewees were recruited by the researcher, who presented the project in three selected teaching institutions and asked smokers to volunteer to be interviewed. From those who did, 21 people were contacted within the following week to make an appointment for interview. This procedure was chosen in order to create a distance between the interview and the school context. All had smoked for a minimum of 18 months. With the exception of two people who had reduced their smoking to only at weekends in the month before the interview, all the interviewees smoked daily at the time of the interview. Every interview lasted approximately one hour. All interviews were conducted by the researcher, and transcribed in detail by a research assistant. After transcription the interviewer listened to the tapes while reading the transcripts, in order to make any necessary corrections.

The procedure of analysis began with several rounds of transcript reading. Then for each interview, excerpts of the interview text were identified thematically with attention to the meaning of cigarette brands and cigarette package design, and memos written about these. Secondly, specific formulations and constructions in the text excerpts were coded and sorted, such that similar formulations and constructions were grouped together as signalling specific types of themes, often with several attached to the same grouping. Themes and groupings were revised several times as the interview and analysis process progressed. No analytical packages were used.


Three broad themes emerged: cigarette brand as social and local identity, brand choice as distinction and the cigarette package as an accessory of identity.

Cigarette brand as social and local identity

Our individual identity is what separates us from all other individuals, but at the same time it is closely connected to similarity and community with others.32 In this study cigarette brand appears as a dimension in the construction of social identity, closely intertwined with expressions of individuality. Gyda (19, female, apprentice) said:

I smoke Prince, sometimes Prince Mild. Prince is really my brand. It was sort of what we all started with. My best friend smoked it, everybody did. You see, this small town we live in…it is sort of…you know, like the neighbouring town is a little bigger and like a much nicer place…so they smoke Marlboro Light. In my town we have Prince—because we are sort of the drug place and…it is not very nice there and everything is just ugly. It is not hip to be there or anything.

Gyda positioned her brand choice as part of her identity as a girl from the small town. The larger neighbouring town was described as a place with another identity, another status and another cigarette brand to go with that. She continued:

My friend showed up the other day at my house and she brought a package of Marlboro Light. And I said “Do you smoke Marlboro Light? You are not allowed to do that in my house, you little brat. Who do you think you are now?” She is kind of pretending to come from another place. She is trying to be a bit posh, she usually smokes Prince, just like me. “I don’t know why you still smoke Prince, these are so much better”, she says. So now I have swapped to Prince Mild mostly, because it isn’t as common, sort of. It is too embarrassing to smoke Prince in Oslo. If you’re together with more snobbish people, with a bit of wealth or those who live on the better side of town or something, then I hide the Prince cigarettes, they sort of aren’t good enough. (Gyda, 19, female, apprentice)

Here, smoking something other than Prince was talked about as a break with community, both in a direct friendship group context and in a wider context, related to her community. Trying to “act” someone else by choosing another brand, in this case a brand described as a higher status brand, seems to be positioned as a kind of “betrayal”: pretending to be someone other than “us”. At the same time Gyda spoke about being embarrassed for using Prince, even hiding the package in some settings outside her local community. Her way of talking about brand choice gives an impression of ambivalence. Brand choice appears here both as a statement of loyalty and social identity and as something that can be used to negotiate a more individual identity in other settings.

Foreign (American) brands as “cool” in urban, cosmopolitan settings appeared as a theme across many interviews, often in relation to stories of changing brand when moving to the city from a more rural environment. Karin (21, female, apprentice) said: “I began by smoking Prince, and then I started to smoke Lucky when I moved to Oslo. Lucky was kind of cool because it…When we began to smoke, it was difficult to get hold of. You couldn’t buy Lucky just anywhere”. Karin also related what she described as the “coolness” of Lucky Strike to a notion of exclusivity; by saying that it was not sold everywhere. Some interviewees talked about Lucky Strike as an urban brand in the context of this brand being the one most often sold in bars. Lars (19, male student) talked about how Lucky Strike suited his image and lifestyle as a rock n’ roll kind of person:

You see…they mostly have Lucky in bars. I play the guitar and. when I go with my friends from the band to these music bars, smoking kind of becomes part of that rock n’ roll image.

Studies of documents from British American Tobacco (BAT), which holds the global marketing rights for Lucky Strike, have showed how the company has used tobacco-related bar promotions as an important part of their marketing strategy for Lucky Strike in the United States.33 BAT documents have also exposed how they have done market research which explored how cigarette packs were appreciated as “great to put down on the bar” by young urban males.10 The image of Lucky Strike as described by smokers in Norway seems to be closely related to the brand identity BAT aims to promote worldwide.

Brand as distinction

As the health risks associated with smoking have become clearer,34 and the social and geographic distribution of smoking more uneven than ever before,35 smoking has in the Western world increasingly become the subject of stigmatisation and moralisation.36 37 Theoretical contributions to health research have related the increasing stigmatisation of addictive behaviours such as smoking to the increasing dominance of a discourse that positions control over the body as a strong cultural ideal.38 In this study, references to addiction were used as a way of describing a brand (or a tobacco product) or the smokers of that product in a negative way. Kurt (20, male, student) talked like this about Petteroes roll-your-owns (RYOs): “I don’t want to smoke that. I just see myself sitting there rolling it with yellow fingers. kind of like a drug addict”. References to social class were also often made, in particular when talking about RYOs or Prince. Smoking Prince was in some accounts associated with not being a snob (working class identity in a positive sense), in others as being “common” or low social class (working class identity in a negative sense). Ingrid (21, female, student) made distinctions between different cigarette brands in this way:

I: I used to smoke menthol cigarettes, Marlboro Menthol. And then I’ve smoked Marlboro Light, sometimes Lucky, but mostly Marlboro Light.

J: Is it important for you what brand you smoke?

I: Yes, I think so. If somebody smokes regular Prince, or Blood-Prince as it is called. I don’t like that.

J: Why is it called Blood-Prince?

I: Because the package is red? I don’t know…maybe because it is so strong. The stronger the cigarettes you smoke the worse it is, maybe. The reason I smoked menthol cigarettes was because of the white filter, I thought they looked more elegant. Because I don’t like the brown filter, I don’t like the way it looks. So menthol looks more elegant. But like RYOs and that stuff, that is really common. Only construction workers smoke them.

The interviewees often made distinctions between their own way of smoking (here: brand or type of tobacco product) and others’ ways of smoking. By choice of brand or tobacco product, others were positioned as being too addicted or uncool. By drawing distinctions between the brands that others use and those they use themselves they thus could position the self as a different kind of smoker or a better kind of smoker. This illustrates the dynamics of identity construction as a dialectical process of establishing relations of similarity and difference,32 within the frameworks of particular discourses.39

The cigarette package as an accessory

The colour and the design of cigarette packages were often referred to when the interviewees talked about how they regarded different cigarette brands. Studies of corporate documents have revealed that the tobacco industry has explored how lighter colours on the package appear to promote perceptions of lower cigarette strength, while cigarettes in packages with darker colours (such as red) often are conceived as “too strong” or “harsher”.10 Gyda talked about the red Prince package like this:

Blood-Prince we call it. Goes straight into your blood. And now I have sort of got tired of hearing that every time I get out one of those bright red packages. because no one smokes them any more. If you want to be a bit of a snob, you smoke Marlboro Light. That is because Marlboro Light is much milder. Then you’re a bit more snobbish, with a golden package and…it looks a bit nicer. Prince sort of has capital letters—PRINCE—and it is red and there is a picture of a cigarette on the cover. It is not very nice. So if we’re going to a elegant party or something, I normally buy Blend or something, or maybe More. That is a long, long thin cigar. If I want to be a bit posh that is (Gyda, 19, female, apprentice).

Gyda referred to the colour of the package and the explicit image of the cigarette on the cover as giving Prince a kind of uncool or low social status brand identity. The Scandinavian Tobacco Company, which markets the Prince brand, may have made similar investigations: just after these interviews were carried out they made a major change to their package designs, and changed the appearance of the Prince package. The cover picture now depicts a more abstract image of floating smoke. The image of the cigarette that produces this smoke is now removed from the package.40 When talking about brands like Blend and More, Gyda spoke about the cigarette package as a kind of accessory; the look of the package and the brand identity matching her elegant dress and the special occasion.

Frank (20, male apprentice) talked about how he sometimes chose another brand than Lucky Strike, his regular brand:

Sometimes I smoke Davidoff. Damned expensive cigarettes. You can only buy them at one place that I know of. They are not something that everyone sells. They are rather smart. Or…the package looks a bit better. It has a motorbike helmet, a quite new motorbike helmet. The motorbike is sponsored by that make of cigarette. Those cigarettes are much better than all the others.

Here package design is combined with other elements such as exclusivity by price and availability to describe a particular brand image. Ingrid said, as showed earlier in this article, that she did not like it when somebody smokes Prince. To elaborate upon this statement she was asked if she would have smoked Prince if somebody gave her a package when she was broke and could not buy cigarettes herself. She replied:

I: No, I would have given it away to someone.

J: Is that because you don’t like the taste of it or because it doesn’t look right?

I: It is too strong. Or both really. I wouldn’t put a packet of Blood-Prince on the table in a café. I wouldn’t. (Ingrid, 21, female, student).

In this account, as in many other in this study, cigarette packages are talked about as being useful for expressing statements about the self: about style, about changes in style or identification and for “dressing up” for special occasions. In the following account, Mari (19, female, student) talks about brand choice in relation to several of these processes, the appearance of the cigarette package positioned as an important dimension:

In my home town, everyone smokes Prince. That’s really not cool. And then I visited my brother when he moved to Oslo... He said, “You can’t go around with that package here. It’s Blood-Prince”. He went out and bought a package of Camels for me. Many of my friends here smoke Lucky Strike. I almost want to begin with them myself... unconscious influence perhaps. I don’t know how it happens... it’s about like when you see that someone has something, like jeans, and they look really good in them. You don’t just want them because everyone else has them... it’s because they look so good. That’s how it is with a cigarette package. When I see someone smoking Prince, I think about Blood-Prince. Then you come from the sticks. It’s not cool, only yobbos from small towns smoke them.

Mari spoke about a kind of urge to change brand, explained by what she described as the Lucky Strike brand’s ability to make the user look cool and “dressed up” in a stylish way, like a pair of really well-fitting jeans. An important part of brand image as she talked about it (“you can’t go around with that package in the city!”) was the cigarette package as a visual “badge”: communicating something about who the user is. Sociological perspectives on branding have stated that the reason why brands are accepted or even welcomed into social life, is that they provide their customers with real informational, interactional and symbolic value. Brands enable consumers to construct meaning for themselves and to communicate this understanding to others.41 42 The cigarette package appears, based upon the exploratory findings of this study, to be an important component in these processes.


This study shows how cigarette brands and cigarette package designs are given meaning in relation to personal characteristics, to social identity and to positions in hierarchies of status (linked to classic structural variables such as social class and the urban/rural dimension and related to smoking discourses). Some brands are described as more exclusive than others, some as elegant and sophisticated, others as “common” or dirty or associated with addiction and marginality. Hulberg41 writes, in a study aiming to integrate sociological paradigms with perspectives on marketing, that branding works through processes of establishing preferences and differentiation. This study shows how smokers themselves describe the dynamics of these processes: how identification with the brand and with smoking is created through the shaping of preferences for and distinctions between brands. In the young smokers’ accounts, brands appear as adding an extra dimension to the social meaning of smoking in their daily life: communicating a difference that makes a difference.43 The cigarette package appears as an important element in brand images as described by smokers here. Characteristics of the package, such as colour, illustrations and the font of the letters used for the brand name, are positioned as contributing to the symbolic meaning of cigarette brands.

In general, the images related to cigarette brands that the young smokers speak about seem to be similar to those that international marketing strategies have aimed to create.44 The Lucky Strike brand as a brand for urban males, and Blend and More as elegant and “feminine” brands, are examples of this. Marlboro seems in this study to be associated with a higher social class image and perhaps also femininity. This is very different from the rugged, masculine “Marlboro” Man identity Philip Morris has been shown to aim for the brand.45 This difference could be related to that the interviewees mostly refer to Marlboro Light, a blend containing less tar and nicotine than original Marlboro cigarettes, sold in a white package with gold letters. Another possible explanation for this may be that foreign brands, American in particular, are positioned as more exclusive simply because they are foreign.46

The findings of this study indicate how tobacco companies are also able to promote their products in a country where advertising is banned. Branding and package design seem to function in the same promotional role as advertising messages,47 acting to position smoking, cigarettes, smokers and non-smokers mythologically.48 These processes are likely to be closely intertwined with influences from foreign advertising,11 such as advertising in foreign magazines distributed in Norway or the broadcast of foreign tobacco-sponsored events such as car-racing.49 This points to how tobacco companies by promoting their brands globally, effectively can weaken national restrictions. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Norway ratified in 2003, is an important step towards transnational efforts to deal with transnational advertising strategies. The findings from this study suggest that a regulation of cigarette packaging may be an important policy element. If all brands were packed in generic packages, the effect of the package as a communication and promotional device would be significantly reduced.11 This could be an important strategy for reducing the attractiveness of smoking as an expression of image and identity50 among young smokers.

What this paper adds

  • Previous studies of how branding and package design work to promote tobacco use among youths have mainly focused on analyses of tobacco industry documents, or quantitative analyses of the relation between brand recognition and tobacco use. Few studies have explored how young smokers themselves talk about how they perceive the meaning of cigarette brands and cigarette package design.

  • The aim of this paper is to explore the processes by which positive associations with cigarette brands may be formed and sustained, and the role cigarette package design plays in these processes. Using qualitative interview data to do this makes richer and more complex insight possible.

  • The study is performed in Norway, where advertising for tobacco has been banned since 1975.



  • Funding: This study was funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

  • Competing interests: None declared.