How Marlboro Man Became the First Brand Repositioning Success Story

The Upfront Analytics TeamBrandingLeave a Comment

marlboro man

Marlboro’s 180 Degree Advertising Shift 

When brands change their philosophies and target audience, it calls for a major repositioning. Repositioning occurs when a brand wants to maintain a name and product offering, but wants a new crop of potential customers to take notice. It might sound like a modern marketing strategy, but the truth is that the first major brand repositioning happened in the 1950s, thanks to the clever marketing team at Philip Morris, the father company of Marlboro cigarettes. Find out how Marlboro adapted to a changing economic landscape with a repositioning; even if you’re not a smoker, you might just learn something. (Check out our rebranding vs repositioning post for a more macro view on these two related terms).

The Marlboro… Woman?

Most people are familiar with the rugged Marlboro Man. But before it was cowboys and blue-collar workers, Marlboro was imagined as a brand for female smokers. Created in 1924, the filtered Marlboro cigarette was branded as a classy alternative to smelly, inelegant products. In fact, the Marlboro signature–a red band around the top of the cigarette–was created to hide embarrassing lipstick lines from female smokers.

Even the name was carefully chosen to appeal to female smokers. At the time, Winston Churchill was widely rumored to be related to the wealthy and enigmatic Duke of Marlborough, and the female-centric smokes were named to capitalize on the national fixation.

Up in Smoke

For two decades, the Marlboro woman–sophisticated; classy; wealthy–remained for all intents and purposes a marketing win. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that Marlboro began to be associated with more than just a classy lady.

The idea of the Marlboro Woman began to crumble when a report was published in the early 1950s, prompting an initial 40 percent of Americans to agree that cigarettes were a leading cause of lung cancer (according to a Gallup poll). With its product under fire, Philip Morris had to quickly retool its strategy to avoid health-conscious female smokers.

It was then that the Marlboro Man was born.

Enter the Marlboro Man

Philip Morris (and other cigarette manufacturers) learned a valuable piece of information during the 50s: Male smoking was still popular, particularly if the cigarettes were filtered. Most smokers believed that filtered cigs were healthier, so their sales increased while unfiltered cigarette sales faltered.

Philip Morris already had a filtered cigarette that was no longer selling to its target demographic, so it was simply a matter of repositioning the Marlboro brand to appeal to male customers. This was done by distancing the brand from its previously feminine imagery: It was replaced by cowboys, construction workers, and other manly characters. Not only did men start buying up the filtered cigarettes; they began associating their identities with the Marlboro Man.

The repositioning skyrocketed Marlboro Cigarettes to become the fourth best-selling brand in the United States, even as the industry remained under siege by the FDA and health critics alike. In fact, when smoking commercials were banned in 1971, Marlboro didn’t flinch. Their trademark cowboy didn’t say much anyway, making him perfect for print ads.

However you feel about the tobacco industry, one thing is undeniable: Cigarette manufacturers employ the best marketers in the business. The repositioning of Marlboro from a female lifestyle brand to a make-centric identity brand is one of the first and best success stories of an embattled brand in the history of marketing.

Being nimble, adaptable, and creative? That’s a strategy that everyone can agree on.


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