Robert Sawatzky
Jun 18, 2019

Why PMI is doubling down on wooing Cannes

From Wyclef Jean to Cindy Gallop to its massive beach house, the tobacco company really, really wants to tap the creative community to help it give the cigarette alternatives story consumer traction.

PMI's Open Mic Lounge on the Cannes beachfront and panel session with Wyclef Jean at Terrace Stage
PMI's Open Mic Lounge on the Cannes beachfront and panel session with Wyclef Jean at Terrace Stage

Philip Morris International (PMI) is back in a big way at Cannes Lions 2019, in what is likely the largest marketing activation at the festival for a consumer brand company.  You might not notice though, unless you pay attention, which is just how PMI likes it.

There are no PMI logos on the company's expansive ‘Open Mic Lounge’ beach house along the Croisette. Certainly not for Marlboro, but also not for Iqos, the heated tobacco product PMI touts as a means to a smoke-free alternative.

The same goes for the extensive speakers’ series and concerts PMI is sponsoring at Cannes, which kicked off Monday with a panel and performance by Wyclef Jean on the Terrace Stage atop the Palais. No PMI or Iqos logos were in sight, but PMI scientist/communications leader Moira Gilchrist was on the panel to somehow awkwardly shoehorn the virtues of non-combustible tobacco products into the conversation for those assembled to hear the Haitian-raised rapper’s life story.

“We’re coming to the places where people can have a normal fact-based, science-based pragmatic conversation rather than an ideological one,” Jacek Olczak, PMI’s chief operating officer told Campaign Asia-Pacific in an interview at the ‘Open Mic Lounge’, aptly named to reflect the company’s desire for discussion. “You can see us here in Cannes… it’s nothing to do with the brand or product promotion, it’s about having the dialogue about what we can do today to solve the problem of smoking.”

By now, many people know about PMI’s efforts, as one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, to eventually transform itself into a company that no longer sells cigarettes. Many also know PMI’s consumer message, which portends to be: ‘Don't smoke. If you do, quit. If you can’t quit, try our heated alternative (Iqos) that cuts out many of the ill-health effects from combustible cigarettes.’ 

But when you’re a tobacco company, it’s not easy to get people to trust you or listen to you. That’s why Wyclef Jean sits alongside their scientist. That’s why during the course of our interview Olczak ceaselessly circles back to their consumer mantra and scientific arguments around heated tobacco, about as often as his continual imbibing of heated tobacco from the Iqos device in his hands.  And it’s why to reach out to agency creatives, PMI is bringing in Cindy Gallop for a Tuesday Open Mic session on the beach.

Ad for Open Mic Lounge speaker session at Cannes

Courting agencies

The creative community is really important for PMI. It’s rare to have so many creatives all in one place, Olczak says, so Cannes is a great place to get ideas from agencies.

“Agencies can always inspire you with good thinking and [ideas of] what else we could do. Agencies also serve as the radar screen of how consumers and society react to different forms of messaging,” he said, noting how they want guidance on everything from best uses of social media to how to communicate the subtle positive changes smokers feel when switching on everything from taste to hygiene.

“We want to unleash creativity around the whole idea of what ‘unsmoke’ means,” Olczak said. “So it’s a little of us triggering a dialogue and listening to them about how we can do things better. Those who align with our vision are really coming with a lot of inspiring ideas.”

Engaging creative and PR agencies here is helping to rebuild PMI’s relationships with the agencies.  Not all of them have wanted to align with tobacco companies as clients, especially those with strong health practices (See "Behind Philip Morris' entreaty to agencies").

Olczak says that’s almost a non-issue now. “We have so scaled down campaigns around combustible cigarettes that there is hardly any work to be done by agencies for us. Most of the engagements with agencies are coming around the new products.”

Indeed, in her panel session at Cannes, Gilchrist noted that 90% of PMI’s R&D spending is on non-combustible products and already 60% of commercial marketing spend is on alternative products as well.

That still leaves 40% of marketing spend on bad old cigarettes, particularly in emerging countries where smoking rates are still rising, like Thailand and Philippines. But Olczak says that’s changing, citing new laws in the Philippines favourable to cigarette alternatives and plans to expand heated tobacco product sales in Indonesia. PMI is currently planning how to best move Iqos into a million different points of sale in that country, he notes.

Markets like Thailand, Taiwan and Singapore continue to have legal roadblocks in place, which in Olczak’s mind is “utmost stupidity” for governments looking to raise health standards. It’s for these situations that PMI is engaging PR agencies to improve communications and lobbying efforts.

Jacek Olczak, chief operating officer for PMI

Dialogue or dollars?

It’s also why PMI is insistent that it wants to be seen having health discussions rather that push products for profit. 

The reason why there are not product logos at the Open Mic Lounge in Cannes, Olczak says, is “because we would immediately be accused that we did this whole thing to promote a straight product.” He added “It’s easier here where I can talk about the dialogue and not be accused that this is cheap Iqos marketing. It’s not about this. I’d rather go for the higher objective.”

Yet few can look at the great expense PMI is making with its Cannes activation and not figure that there’s a return on cost. But Olczak is adamant their mission here is not straight commerce.

“I take it very positively if I have conversations with the people here and not just about buying or selling something," he says. "It’s not just that an agency’s going to come with a contract. You measure success by how many people are coming back to you with ideas about how we can unsmoke the world.”

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