Introduction: Marketers have long recognized the power and importance of branding, which creates aspirational attributes that increase products' attractiveness. Although brand imagery has traditionally been communicated via mass media, packaging's importance in promoting desirable brand-attribute associations has increased. Knowledge of how groups prone to smoking experimentation interpret tobacco branding would inform the debate over plain packaging currently occurring in many countries.
Methods: We conducted 12 group discussions and four in-depth interviews with 66 young adult smokers and nonsmokers of varying ethnicities from two larger New Zealand cities and one provincial city. Participants evaluated 10 familiar and unfamiliar tobacco brands using brand personality attributes and discussed the associations they had made.
Results: Participants ascribed very different images to different brands when exposed to the packaging alone, regardless of whether they had seen or heard of the brands before. Perceptual mapping of brands and image attributes highlighted how brand positions varied from older, more traditional, and male oriented to younger, feminine, and "cool."
Conclusions: Our findings emphasize the continuing importance of tobacco branding as a promotion tool, even when communicated only by packaging. The ease with which packaging alone enabled young people to identify brand attributes and the desirable associations these connoted illustrate how tobacco packaging functions as advertising. The results support measures such as plain packaging of tobacco products to reduce exposure to these overt behavioral cues.