‘Almost as good as sex’ but underperforming?

I remember the first time I saw one; a middle-aged man in the corner of a near-deserted Soho café tugging on a thin white stick and releasing luxuriant pools of “smoke” into the air above his head.

Initially, I experienced that Pavlovian pang of jealousy known to every ex-smoker. I gave up in 2003, on the day that my first child was born, seeing as you ask.

Then as a (fairly) law-abiding citizen, I experienced feelings of shock and revulsion that someone could defy the smoking ban in such cavalier fashion. I toyed with the idea of going up and admonishing the nicotine rebel. Or possibly even congratulating him. Obviously in the end, I did neither.

It was a couple of months later when I next came across one.

I’d met a friend for a drink. We were standing in a pub in the middle of a deep conversation when he fished this thing out of his pocket and begun sheepishly toking on it, like it was a cigarette. Only it wasn’t.

It was an e-cigarette. Which incidentally is an odd name for a product that has nothing “e” about it whatsoever, apart maybe from the fact that it requires batteries.

This was surely the go-to solution for wannabe non-smoking smokers everywhere

Anyway I tried my friend’s e-ciggy and I had to admit I was impressed. It felt just like the real thing as far I could remember, right down to the real head swim I got after exhaling what tasted almost like real smoke.

And in the midst of my head swim, how I wished that I owned shares in whoever made them because clearly this was the next big thing. This was surely the go-to solution for wannabe non-smoking smokers everywhere.

But despite growth in the market, it hasn’t caught on as first thought, has it?

Since those early run-ins with the e-cigarette several years ago, I can literally count on one hand the number of times I have seen someone with a virtual cigarette lodged between their fingers.

The way e-cigarettes are packaged and marketed underlines their un-sexiness, compared to the real thing. Imagine if the Camels and Marlboro in Mad Men were replaced with e-cigarettes. James Dean would have been healthier with an e-cigarette tucked behind his ear, but I’m far from convinced he would have ever become a cinematic icon.

Cigarette packaging is steeped in brand heritage and many are true design classics. By contrast, your typical e-cigarette packet lacks this polished look and feel; perhaps room for improvement here.

Back in the day when cigarette marketing was allowed, the advertising was a triumph of creative ingenuity over legislation. We weren’t allowed to claim anything. Promise anything. Or even imply anything.

So we created clever, cryptic imagery instead. The best campaigns were lauded as near-art and won countless industry awards. The myriad restrictions designed to render tobacco brands less appealing, simply made them cooler and more desirable.

Compare that with how they do it in e-cigarette land. While tobacco marketing was all about irrational mystery, e-cigarettes are all about rational price promises.

Perception within my adland bubble dictates that innovation trumps imitation. So instead of trying to mimic tobacco design cues, e-cigs should develop their own aesthetic. However, as the e-cigarette is still in its infancy and trying to find its feet, the market should look to surprising places for inspiration in its packaging; perhaps start by casting an eye over Japanese confectionary or cutting-edge tech devices?

The advertising at present lacks the allure of the heady cigarette days of old. Because of legislative uncertainty in the industry, they seem to be stuck between a rock and a larger rock, not knowing whether to hone in on the potential health benefits – lack of tar, for example – or whether to pursue the cost benefit.

It’s difficult to build a brand with aesthetic visual advertising when the market doesn’t know its own position. Brands must be ruthlessly single-minded and focus on one positioning or benefit, rather than trying to chuck countless balls at the audience. A starter for ten: “None of the tar, all of the experience”.

It could be argued that the problem for the e-cigarette market now is that the novelty has worn off; so where does that leave the brands? In my opinion they should concede, even celebrate, the view held by many smokers that nothing is as good as smoking, but that e-cigs are undoubtedly the next best thing.

If history can teach us anything on branding, it’s that companies who simply sell to themselves will struggle. But when an entire sector seems to have failed to capitalise on basic branding principles, you can see just what an opportunity lies in wait.

First step must be to establish where your product slots into the minds of your market, and then build a brand tone of voice and personality. Ensure your product is recognisable in the deluge of options on shelves.

A distinctive logo and branding around that idea is paramount to securing loyalty from the vapour-loving clientele.

Above all though, the sector shouldn’t take itself seriously. Remember it’s an odd product. Those involved should be celebrating its oddness. Why not plant tongue firmly in cheek and go all out and compare the product to the greatest high of them all – sex. E-cigarettes: “The second most satisfying thing in the world”.

Al Young is chief creative officer at advertising agency Inferno. He has won more than 40 major international awards and written some of the UK’s most famous advertising campaigns, including Tango, Pot Noodle and John Smiths.