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Qualitative analysis of Camel Snus' website message board—users' product perceptions, insights and online interactions
  1. Olivia Ann Wackowski,
  2. M Jane Lewis,
  3. Cristine D Delnevo
  1. Center for Tobacco Surveillance and Evaluation Research, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – School of Public Health, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA
  1. Correspondence to Olivia Ann Wackowski, Center for Tobacco Surveillance and Evaluation Research, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Public Health, 335 George Street, Suite 2100, New Brunswick, NJ 08903, USA; olivia.wackowski{at}umdnj.edu

Abstract

Background In 2006, RJ Reynolds began test-marketing Camel Snus, a new smokeless tobacco (SLT) product. Promotion included use of a brand website, a relatively new marketing channel used by tobacco companies, which allowed visitors to learn about the product and discuss it with others on the website's message board. Our study aimed to examine early experiences with and perceptions of Camel Snus as described by board contributors and also to consider the use and benefits of the message board for both consumers and the company.

Methods We conducted a qualitative analysis, coding each message in Atlas.Ti and analysing it for emerging themes and patterns. Messages were also coded for demographic information where evident, such as tobacco use status and geographical location. Descriptive data and illustrative quotes are presented.

Results Board participants described being introduced to Camel Snus through free samples. Favourable evaluations were posted by current smokers who had never tried SLT before as well as current users of other SLT brands. Messages indicated both initiation of dual product use among smokers and product substitution. Participants used the board to advise each other on how to use the product, where to get more, suggest ways RJ Reynolds could improve the product and to encourage RJ Reynolds to release it nationally.

Discussion Camel Snus has appeal for at least some smokers and SLT users. Camel Snus' website message board may have been a doubly beneficial marketing feature in both connecting product users and providing product feedback to the company during test-marketing.

  • Smokeless tobacco
  • snus
  • perceptions
  • tobacco marketing
  • websites
  • message boards
  • advertising and promotion
  • qualitative study
  • smokeless tobacco products
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Introduction

Websites promoting specific brands of tobacco represent a relatively new form of marketing for tobacco companies, and have been used to communicate brand identity,1 2 advertise brand events and promotions3 4 and introduce new products.5 6 In the age of Web 2.0, having an online brand presence may be additionally beneficial to tobacco companies for diffusing information about and gaining feedback on new brand promotions and product styles, including products in the critical ‘test-marketing’ phase. This paper examines online discussion about a new product of interest to the public health community, Camel Snus, during its time under test-marketing.

In June 2006, RJ Reynolds used the name of its flagship cigarette brand to launch test-marketing of a new smokeless tobacco product (SLT), Camel Snus. Snus is a Swedish-style snuff product, which has lower tobacco-specific nitrosamine levels than many other smokeless products.7 8 According to one RJ Reynolds spokesperson, Camel Snus test-marketing was intended to determine whether consumers would find the product to be credible, if they would buy it with their cigarettes and whether they would switch from smokeless brands.9 Test-marketing began in June 2006 in two US cities, Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas and expanded to 17 metropolitan areas by April 2008 before launching nationally in early 2009 (January/February).9–11 Promotion during test-marketing included direct mailings, point-of-sale materials, sample giveaways and a new brand website, http://www.camelsnus.com.12 13

The introduction of Camel Snus represented not only a product new to the Camel family but also a tobacco product type unfamiliar to US audiences. As test-marketing began, Camel Snus' website included information on how to use it, provided examples of situations conducive to ‘snusing’ (eg, while flying in an aeroplane) and promoted its Swedish heritage with entertaining features such as Sweden visiting guides.14 In addition, the website provided a message board allowing geographically distant users to connect and discuss their product perceptions and experiences. Message boards have been recognised in the marketing world for their potential as tools in building relationships with consumers and cultivating brand loyalty.15 16 Consumers can use message boards to discuss brand products while simultaneously enjoying social interaction in an online ‘community’.16 17 In turn, message boards can provide companies with valuable insight into their consumer base and feedback about their products, a feature that may be particularly important in the refining and marketing of new products.15 18

For tobacco control professionals, analysis of such message boards might provide insight into brand perceptions and information about ‘under the radar’ promotions experienced by tobacco users (eg, gifts, events) that might otherwise be overlooked. Our study had two main objectives: to examine early experiences with and perceptions of Camel Snus as described by message board contributors, and to examine the use of the brand's message board and consider its benefits to both the users and the company.

Methods

About the Camel Snus website and message board

Like most other tobacco brand websites, the Camel Snus website is password protected. Visiting http://www.camelsnus.com initially brings users to a login page, which asks for a unique user id and password—these are obtained only after individuals go through an age-verification registration process. To access the website for this project, we used the login information of an adult registered with the site who shared their information with us.

The original message board on the Camel Snus website consisted of five forums where users could either post a new message or reply to an existing message, adding to a message ‘thread’. Each message contained the date and time of the posting and the online alias of the individual who posted it. The original board became active on the website in November 2006 and was removed in late January 2009, coinciding with the national release of Camel Snus and a revised website, which included a new message board. This study examines messages posted on the original board during test-marketing.

Coding and analysis

We conducted a qualitative analysis of the conversational message board data. We saved all messages posted as of 15 December 2008 as text files. These transcripts were read indepentently by two investigators to inductively develop a code list and guide that captured the main emerging themes. The final list consisted of seven broad thematic categories of codes (eg, ‘perceived benefits of Camel Snus’), which comprised a total of 56 more specific content codes (eg, “it is discreet”)—messages were assigned as many codes as applied. Messages were independently coded by the two investigators, using Atlas.ti, a qualitative data analysis program, and any disagreements about the coded text were resolved. Quotes from the messages were selected to illustrate themes although in some cases these were edited for clarity (eg, spelling, grammar) or brevity.

Each message was also given a unique identification number and separately coded for the date it was posted, the alias/unique user it was posted by and demographic information about the poster. We recorded whether messages provided any indication that the poster was a current smoker (eg, “I use snus when I can't smoke”), a recent quitter (eg, “I haven't smoked since trying snus”) or an ever user of SLT. We defined SLT users as individuals whose messages indicated they had tried SLT at least once previously as well as individuals who indicated that they currently used some form of SLT other than Camel Snus. We also recorded whether messages indicated the poster's location (ie, city and/or state) and provided any indication that the poster was female, as we assumed that the default would be male. Messages without any indications about these demographics were coded as “can't tell” rather than “no”. These data were entered into SPSS (version 16.0) and used for quantitative descriptive analyses. Because this study analysed existing data without individual identifying information, the UMDNJ institutional review board determined it did not qualify as human subject research.

Results

Message board participants

The earliest message on the Camel Snus board was posted on 6 November 2006 and the latest messages posted on 12 December 2008. During this period, a total of 551 messages were posted by 322 unique participants. Of the 551 messages, 26.3% were posted in 2006 (in November and December only), 35.4% in 2007 and 38.3% in 2008. Of the 322 unique users, 73.9% posted only 1 message, 21.7% posted 2–4 messages and 4.3% posted 5 or more messages. Based on message content, 61 (18.9%) participants could be identified as current smokers, 4 (1.2%) as recent quitters, 69 (21.4%) as ever SLT users and 9 (2.8%) as female. In addition, 141 participants (43.8%) provided their geographical location, which included cities and states that both were and were not test-markets.

Introduction to Camel Snus by free sample

Users on the board from various locations, including those outside of initial test-markets, indicated being introduced to Camel Snus through a mailed free sample. Many noted initial confusion at receiving what they assumed to be another cigarette-related mailing, implying that these message board users included individuals already on Camel's cigarette mailing lists:

“I found the package from Camel in the mailbox. I figured it was a pack or two of smokes. I opened the pack to find a metal tin. At first I thought “What the hell, Camel mints?” I then read the info and opened the tin of Original…That's when I fell in love with snus”

A few participants also described receiving a free sample from bars, parties or concert events, or obtaining free tin coupons from mailings or magazines.

Product perceptions

Participants used the board to share their perceptions about Camel Snus, which were overwhelmingly positive. Messages included general positive evaluations about the product (eg, “Camel Snus is awesome”) and praise for Camel/RJ Reynolds (eg, “Way to go, Camel!!!”). Among those who posted positive statements were smokers who had never tried SLT before (“I have never even thought of the idea of smokeless tobacco, but I think I'm starting to like it!”), those who had previously experimented with SLT (“I tried chewing tobacco once before, and hated it. This I can really enjoy.”), as well as current SLT users (“Snus is awesome, much better than the Skoal Bandits I use now”).

Product flavours

Participants also provided feedback on specific product characteristics, including the flavours. Camel Snus was initially available in three flavours—Frost, Spice and Original. Board participants especially liked Frost, with several noting that it was the ‘best’ or their ‘favorite’ flavour. Frost was also favourably evaluated against other SLT brands by some participants: “My friend got Frost and I gotta say it's amazing…Almost beats my Skoal Wintergreen…”

Although Frost was one of the final flavours launched nationally (along with a new flavour, Mellow), Original and Spice were discontinued. While several participants on the board indicated that they did not like Spice (noting that it gave them heartburn, made them need to spit or was too ‘overbearing’), others expressed disappointment upon learning that it had been discontinued:

“I'm truly disheartened to learn they're planning to discontinue Spice… if it goes away, I will likely stick with Swedish brands…”

Product pouches and strength

Several smokers commented that Camel Snus gave them a ‘fix’ of nicotine when they were unable to smoke. However, many messages that addressed the product's strength or nicotine level indicated it was not ‘strong enough’. This seemed particularly true among ever SLT users. Camel Snus was noted to be weaker than Skoal and to have nicotine levels that were lower than that of Swedish snus. Many participants indicated that they had to use several pouches at a time to get a ‘buzz’, and recommended that Camel make the pouches bigger:

“Definitely making the pouches bigger would up sales. I have consumed my tin in 4 sittings for I put about 6 pouches in at a time to get the same amount of nicotine you would get with Skoal…”

One user noted that the size and strength of the product might be intentionally developed to be acceptable for smokers: “…I am a ‘seasoned’ snuff dipper, so the little pouches didn't really do much for me. I guess it depends on what their target market is. Dippers are going to laugh at these little things, but smokers may like them just fine”. By July 2008, RJR changed the size and number of the pouches, replacing the 20 smaller sized pouches promoted earlier during test-marketing with 15 larger pouches per tin. People discussed their reactions to this change with most agreeing that they liked the bigger pouches because they ‘last longer’. However, some disagreed, noting that 15 were too few pouches to have per tin, especially for the price. Additionally, two participants pointed out that as women they preferred the smaller pouches.

The price and quality of Camel Snus

Participants also discussed the cost of Camel Snus in their location and its ‘value’. Some SLT users commented that the price was too high compared to other SLT products, while others noted the price seemed ‘acceptable’ when compared to smoking:

“…If they charge the same price as a can of Skoal or Cope, then there's no way I'm buying them. If I did the math right, there is approximately 4 times more tobacco in a can of long or short cut Skoal…”

“…you have to consider that it lasts about 1/2 h compared to a 5 min smoke”

Several participants also used the board to complain about quality control issues, such as encountering expired tins of Camel Snus, pouches that were not properly sealed, and tins with fewer than 15 pouches.

Perceived benefits of Camel Snus

An alternative to smoking

Throughout the board smokers indicated that Camel Snus was great for use in places or situations in which they could not smoke, such as on planes/during travel, in bars, at home or around the family, and most notably at work. One smoker summarised several of the benefits:

“… I've tried chewing tobacco in the past and well….It made me puke. I'm really digging on the Snus though. I'm living in AZ where we just raised the tobacco tax $.80 and banned smoking in restaurants, bars, and workplaces. So, this could turn out to be a great alternative in a state where it is becoming extremely hard to be a smoker.”

Participants also noted situations unrelated to smoking bans for which Camel Snus would be useful, such as hunting or motorcycle riding. In addition, several smokers noted that using the product kept them from craving cigarettes and had helped them cut down or even completely stop smoking:

“…It has taken my urge away to smoke! Have not smoked since SNUS! Almost 2 months! and I love to smoke Camels!!!”

Discreet and acceptable

Participants on the board also acknowledged the product's ‘discreetness’. Several users indicated using it at work unnoticed. The spit-free characteristic was perceived as a benefit both among smokers and those with SLT experience:

“I live in Texas, and smokeless tobacco is huge here…The smoking ban in Austin nightclubs is a real hassle for a lot of us, but constant spitting presents a social barrier in a nightclub environment. Snus is a great alternative, and I hope RJR will continue to move forward with this product…”

Two participants noted that the product seemed more acceptable for them as women than other SLT:

“This is the best stuff I have ever had. I used to chew and as a female it can look not so good. For me this SNUS is geared toward women…”

Learning, teaching and sharing about snus

Although several participants on the board mentioned that they had never used SLT before, such lack of experience was frequently implied as users sought advice from others on how to use the product (eg, “…I love the taste of Frost, but I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing with it. Help?”) and discussed questions and concerns about potential side effects. These were often addressed by those experienced with SLT in general or snus in particular. One point of discussion related to the issue of spitting, with some participants indicating that they were not finding the product to be totally spit-free as advertised, and expressing concerns about swallowing and getting sick. Other users confirmed that Camel Snus really was spit-less (if used correctly) and reassured the worried that unlike other SLT products this one was ‘safe’ to swallow if need be:

“…I actually swallow some every once in a while. The Camel Snus is not strong enough to give you a stomach ache.”

However, several board users experienced nausea or vomiting, and some referred to a ‘burning’ sensation caused by the product. While some indicated that this was ‘too much’ for them others noted that it was something that they overcame after a few uses:

“I found the initial burn to be really intense. I used 4–5 packets before I was used to it…I use a can every two days and love it. Don't give up on the product!”

Less discussion centred on more long-term and serious health effects of snus use, although several messages compared risks with cigarettes. One smoker expressed both her interest and hesitation to try the product:

“…how often would you have to use this product for it to have serious health issues…is it a more rapid insertion of supposedly harmful chemicals to your gum and mouth than cigarettes? I really want to get into this, but I am a little hindered by the fact that it may be more harmful than a cigarette. Any advice?”

Two users replied that from what they had read, snus is considered to be less risky than other tobacco products, including cigarettes:

“… while it's not 100% safer, the Swedes believe it is not anywhere near as harmful as smoking. Just taking out the tar and carbon monoxide is obviously an improvement. If anything your lungs will be in a better condition than if you smoke a pack a day….”

“Everything I've read indicates that smoking cigarettes is the most risky way to consume tobacco, followed by pipes and cigars, nasal snuff, American-style chew and dip, and then Swedish snus as the least risky…”

Demand for Camel Snus

A dominant topic of conversation related to Camel Snus' availability. Participants repeatedly emphasised that they ‘needed’ more of the product but that it was unavailable where they lived. People posted questions and comments about when it would be available in their location or nationally, and that they hoped Camel would “go all the way” with it.

In the meantime, participants used the board to commiserate and discuss alternative methods for obtaining Camel Snus (eg, having a friend or family member in a test-market mail Camel Snus to them; commuting to test-market cities to buy Camel Snus). In addition, participants used the message board to request help from board users that lived in the test-market cities: “I'm out of my test can of Snus. Anyone in Austin or Portland that's willing to send me some more?” Several board users responded with their willingness to help.

In addition, board users indicated that they had started ordering other brands of snus to meet their demand and discussed which websites they had used and perceptions of products they had tried. As the number of test-market cities expanded, participants proudly posted that Camel Snus was now available in their area: “I got some snus finally in chicagoland… how awesome!!”.

Discussion

To our knowledge, this is the first study to both analyse tobacco brand website message board data and provide descriptions of consumers' perceptions of Camel Snus, a new SLT product in the USA. Both SLT users and current smokers provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about Camel Snus and used the brand's message board to share their experiences with the product and call for it to be launched nationally.

The promotion of snus has been a point of debate in the tobacco control field, with some pointing to its harm reduction potential for smokers unable or unwilling to quit and others expressing concerns about net population level harm if snus use was widely adopted.7 19–23 Interestingly, message board comments reflected issues on both sides of the debate. We found several participants noting that Camel Snus helped them cut down or even quit smoking completely. On the other hand, users also described snus use in places where smoking was not allowed (eg, bars, workplaces), and dual product use. Such dual use may offset the potential of clean indoor air laws to facilitate smoking cessation.19

In addition, we found that marketing played a significant role in product trial, as many participants described trying the product based on receiving a free sample, including those mailed directly to them. Other research has found that individuals in Indiana who had received mailed promotions had significantly higher odds of trying Camel Snus or Taboka, another snus product under test-marketing at the time.24 As board participants included smokers with no SLT experience, it is worth considering whether they would have ever tried Camel Snus if it had not conveniently been mailed directly to them.

This study also provided insight into consumers' use of a current tobacco marketing channel-tobacco brand websites. The Camel Snus website not only communicated about a new product, but through the message board provided a space where individuals could contribute to development of the product by providing feedback during test-marketing, some of which may have influenced RJR's final product decisions (eg, discontinuing Spice, revising pouch size). Previous research has described RJR's use of the Camel cigarette website to involve smokers in the product development process,6 a strategy that may work to create buzz and interest for new products.

In addition, the message board provided an online space where geographically separated individuals new to the product/SLT could conveniently discuss how to use it, where to obtain it and learn and share together. Board users shared personal information such as email addresses with each other to continue interaction offline, and thanked one another for advice received. This is relevant as the use of message boards to facilitate consumer engagement and the building of online ‘community’ has been noted as a marketing strategy for developing consumer product interest and brand loyalty.16 25 Furthermore, in times of increasing restrictions and decreasing societal acceptance of tobacco use, such message boards may provide tobacco users with a welcome outlet for being able to connect with and share with similar others.

It should be noted that the use of tobacco brand websites is not limited to the marketing of new or test-marketed products—the top selling cigarette (Marlboro, Newport and Camel) and smokeless tobacco brands (Grizzly, Skoal and Copenhagen) each have one. Additionally, message boards are only one of many features on tobacco brand websites that might work to cultivate tobacco use and brand loyalty. These brand websites may include games, creative online contests, sweepstakes that can be entered daily for ‘improved’ chances at winning, entertaining videos or photo galleries and free gift and coupon offers.26 27 Continued surveillance of these current and dynamic forms of tobacco advertising is warranted. However, given the permission-based nature of these websites (ie, individuals have to ‘opt-in’, register and be age-verified as adults to gain access to the sites), making policy recommendations for their regulation is challenging. At the very least, policy could be made to regulate the login pages of these sites, which anyone including youths can reach by typing in the website's URL, so that they are free of product imagery and information. Indeed, at the time this paper was written, the http://www.camelsnus.com login page featured images of the product and also the answers to seven frequently asked questions about Camel Snus, thus serving as an advertisement in itself that is accessible to all (not only registered users). Further policy actions might include limiting the appearance of these login pages to black and white text-only pages, similarly to what has been proposed for point-of-sale and magazine advertising by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

This study has several limitations. Although it provides insight into some consumers' opinions and use of the product, it should not be taken as being representative of smokers' receptivity to Camel Snus or as representative of the perceptions of all those who have tried Camel Snus. The finding that comments on the board were generally favourable was not very surprising—it seems unlikely that those who disliked the product would take the time to register for the website and contribute to it. In addition, little information could be discerned from the messages about the users themselves. Although we noted the identification of location, tobacco use status (eg, current smoker) and gender (specifically, mentions of being a female) where evident, such information was not revealed in most messages and data on other demographics (eg, age) could not be determined. Furthermore, it is not known to what extent, if any, RJ Reynolds filters or edits posted messages, or even covertly posts messages itself in the guise of a ‘user’. Current user rules for the message board on Camel's main website, http://www.camel.com, indicate that RJ Reynolds employees or their relatives are prohibited from posting on the board. These rules also state that RJR maintains the rights to edit or delete content as it sees fit.

Despite these limitations, we believe the current analysis provides unique information about the experiences of some users and is useful given public health interest in the potential growth of SLT in the USA, and the relatively recent move into the SLT market by cigarette companies. Analysis of the website's message board also provided a unique form of unobtrusive research that allowed for learning about some tobacco users' product perceptions and experiences outside of a traditional research setting (eg, focus group research), which may have possibly provided more candid and natural data.

In summary, it appears that RJR has been at least somewhat successful in introducing Camel Snus and gaining consumer interest by targeting existing customers of their cigarette products, and that the product has appeal with some current smokers and users of other SLT brands. RJR's inclusion of a message board on Camel Snus' website may have served as a doubly beneficial marketing feature in both connecting new product users with one another while simultaneously providing the company with valuable consumer feedback.

What this paper adds

  • This paper contributes to the literature on both new smokeless tobacco products and new tobacco marketing channels.

  • By analysing user discussion on a tobacco brand website message board, this paper provides a qualitative description of early consumer perceptions of and experiences with Camel Snus, a new SLT product in the USA under a popular cigarette brand name. Our analysis reveals that consumers were successfully introduced to the product through free samples and promotions during test-marketing, and that the product appears to have appeal with at least some smokers and users of other SLT brands.

  • The paper also provides insight into the use of tobacco brand websites, a relatively new tobacco company advertising channel. We discuss how a particular website feature, message boards, can provide benefits to both tobacco users and tobacco companies, and demonstrate how tobacco researchers can use these types of data for research purposes.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Urmila Chandran for her help with this project.

References

View Abstract

Footnotes

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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