Can Product Managers Use Social Media To Market Forbidden Products?

Can product managers successfully promote e-cigarettes using social media?
Can product managers successfully promote e-cigarettes using social media?
Image Credit: Lindsay Fox

When you think about all of the products that product managers are responsible for, there are a number of them that come to mind as being “difficult” products to successfully manage. For one reason or another, these products are difficult to talk about and therefore are difficult to market. In this category go condoms, guns, doughnuts, and, of course, cigarettes. However, there is a new product on the market that probably belongs in this category but it’s so new that nobody is really sure yet. I’m talking about e-cigarettes and product manager’s plans to expand their product development definition and market them using social media.

The Challenge Of Marketing E-Cigarettes

When you take a look at the e-cigarette market one thing will jump out at you right off the bat. The market is currently being dominated by a single company: Juul Labs. Juul has done so well in conquering this market that they have actually had to pull back on some of the marketing that they were doing. Specifically, they have stopped their social media marketing because there had been concerns that they were targeting teenagers with their smoking products. What this means is that it opens the way for rival Vuse e-cigarettes which are made by Reynolds American to occupy this marketing space.

The product managers at Reynolds have carefully watched what happened with Juul’s social media campaigns. They believe that they are going to be able to take measures that will prevent anyone under 21 years of age from seeing their ads. This is the first time that Reynolds has ever used social media to promote one of its products. When e-cigarettes first showed up, Vuse was the market leader until Juul arrived and took over the market. Juul offered its customers a flash drive shaped vaporizer that contained nicotine-laced liquids. One of Juul’s marketing breakthroughs was to offer their liquids in flavors such as cucumber and mango. The Juul e-cigarettes did not look like regular cigarettes or the other electronic cigarette devices being offered by other firms.

The Reynolds e-cigarette product is a rectangular vaporizer. Its refill pods contain more liquid than Juul’s do. Cigarette companies are forbidden from creating and running ads on TV for cigarettes; however, since e-cigarettes are so new the same rules don’t apply to them. The Reynolds product managers have been running TV ads for the Vuse product. They have also been putting discount coupons on the backs of their popular Camel traditional cigarettes. However, the e-cigarette market is still owned by Juul. Most recently Juul sales accounted for 75% of the sales of e-cigarettes which would look good on anyone’s product manager resume. At the same time Vuze only accounted for 14%.

How To Successfully Market E-Cigarettes Using Social Media

Now that the Reynolds product managers have decided to use social media to market their Vuse product, they have to make some decisions. The first decision that they’ve had to make is just exactly who is going to be able to see their social media ads. They’ve decided that they are going to restrict their online followers to only those people who have identified themselves as being at least 21 years old to the social media platforms of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. They will also hire workers to scrub the followers daily in order to get rid of people under 21 and any fake accounts. Additionally, every post that they make will contain a warning that the nicotine that is contained in their product is addictive.

Currently there are very few regulations that related to the marketing of e-cigarettes. The U.S. FDA has stated that such products will need to submit applications to the FDA over the next few years in order to remain on the market. The Reynolds product managers are pushing forward with their social media marketing campaign without consulting with the FDA. The FDA has laid out some basic rules that everyone who sells products like this has to follow. The first rule is that they suggest that any images of people only show people who are 35 years old or older. They have also warned companies about making the use of their product appear to be too “cool”. The way that the Reynolds product managers are trying to abide by these rules is by only showing their product and not showing any people.

Using social media to promote e-cigarettes is new territory for the Reynolds product managers. To date, Reynolds has never used social media to promote any of its products before. Likewise, Reynolds has never used so called “social media influencers” – people who can get other people to try a product if they are seen using the product. Other cigarette companies have created policies that prohibit them from using social media to promote their products. E-cigarettes are still relatively new and these waters are untested. What the Reynolds product managers are going to have to do is to show the FDA that they can reach their target markets while not accidentally reaching teens at the same time. It’s a brave new world, let’s see if they can do it.

What All Of This Means For You

Not all products are created the same. In fact, some products can be very difficult to market well. A great example of one of these types of products are the new e-cigarettes. This is a market that saw a new startup, Juul, show up and dominate the market. However, the product managers at Reynolds have decided update their product manager job description and fight back. They think that they have a secret weapon. They are going to advertise their e-cigarette using social media.

Using social media to market e-cigarettes has been done before. E-cigarette market leader Juul used it in the past. However, when they got in trouble for attracting too many teenagers to their product, they backed off and stopped using social media. The Reynolds product managers believe that they can take steps to make sure that no social media users who are under 21 will be able to view their product online. The Reynolds e-cigarette product, Vuse, is different from other e-cigarettes in that it looks like a flat rectangle. It is different from market leader Juul in that its refill cartridges contain more liquid than Juul’s do. Marketing of e-cigarettes is lightly regulated right now. The FDA has released some guidelines but the Reynolds product managers don’t believe that their product will violate any of those guidelines. Other cigarette companies have a no social media policy; however, the Reynolds product managers are venturing into new territory with this effort. Time will tell if they will be successful.

As product managers it is our responsibility to try new things in order to promote our product. When we are not the market leader, we need to go to extra lengths to find ways to introduce new people to our product. Yes, selling cigarettes is a bit of a controversial product to be offering; however, Reynolds product managers are just trying to accomplish the same things that we all are. We’ll need to see how their market matures and if they are allowed to continue to use social medial to introduce the world to their product.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that social media is the best place to market an e-cigarette?

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