Tobacco: The ‘Cig-Alike’ Conundrum

Resembling combustible cousins may be hindrance for some e-cigs

By  Melissa Vonder Haar, Tobacco Editor

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A man pulls out a pack for his end-of-the-night smoke, then exhales a hazy cloud from that first drag. From across a dimly lit, crowded bar, you’d swear that the product he holds—with its compact size, soft tan filter, white body and distinctive orange glowing tip—was a cigarette.

Such was the ideal not long ago for electronic cigarettes. If it looked like a cigarette and felt like a cigarette, it might very well be the ideal e-cigarette.

Now, with cities passing laws banning indoor e-cig usage because the products look so much like tobacco cigarettes, being described as looking like a cigarette (or “cig-alike”) may be a detriment.

Running the gamut from blu’s sleek black body and titular blue tip to massive tank units, products that are moving away from looking like their cigarette predecessors is a phenomenon observed by Nik Modi, tobacco analyst for New York-based RBC Capital Markets.

“We’re seeing much more novelty looks vs. the traditional cigarette-e-cigarette look,” Modi says. “I definitely think the trend is moving towards noncigarette-looking products.”

It’s not just manufacturers moving away from the “cig-alike” model. Though quality and performance remain the top drivers, an e-cig’s appearance is increasingly important to consumers, especially as more communities restrict the use of combustible cigarettes.

“Adult smokers have already provided evidence that they want an alternative that acts like a cigarette vs. something that just looks like one,” agrees Jason Healy, president of Lorillard’s Charlotte, N.C.- based blu eCigs.

There are still plenty of high-performing cigarette-looking models: Scottsdale, Ariz.-based NJOY has long been an industry leader, and established tobacco companies such as Richmond, Va.-based Altria and Jacksonville, Fla.- based Swisher International made the conscious decision to have their proprietary e-cig entries look like cigarettes. (Altria’s Green Smoke acquisition also falls into the “cig-alike” category.)

Which begs the question: Which model will win out in the long run?

A Case for the Familiar

Looking (and working) like a combustible cigarette initially was very important, not just to “cig-alike” products but also to the electronic cigarette industry as a whole, especially when early heavier, larger and expensive models failed to take off.

“When e-cigs were first introduced to the U.S. market, the initial response by consumers was a total rejection for anything that didn’t look like a cigarette,” says Carlos Bengoa, president of CB Distributors Inc., Beloit, Wis. “The majority of smokers found the product too big and had a hard time adjusting to the weight.”

As such, companies introduced quality products—such as CB Distributors’ 21st Century Smoke and NJOY’s Kings—that mimicked the weight, look and feel of tobacco cigarettes.

“We’ve made a conscious choice to look like a tobacco cigarette,” NJOY’s CEO Craig Weiss said during the Wells Fargo E-Cig Forum last November. “Our view was the more familiar you make the product, the more likely people are to make the switch.” (NJOY declined comment for this story.)

It’s a move that seems to have worked: Global e-cig sales have grown by an estimated 30% each year since 2010, with U.S. sales more than doubling from 2012 to 2013. Bengoa credits this to a quality offering of cigarette-like options.

And though improvements in technology and performance have definitely bolstered the e-cig boom, many manufacturers still believe a familiar appearance eases the transition for adult smokers. Ed Denk, Swisher’s director of marketing, says that’s exactly why his company opted for a cigarette-like model when launching e-Swishers in 2012.

“We have heard overwhelmingly that the current cigarette consumer who is considering e-cigarette use is looking for the same look, feel and taste as their cigarette,” he says. “Almost none of the smokers we have talked to [were] open to a noncigarette looking device initially in their e-cigarette experience.”

Even Miguel Martin, president of the non-cigarette-looking e-cig producer Logic Technologies Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., agrees that familiarity is important to some consumers, acknowledging “there might be a percentage of people who, at the very beginning of the process, need something that’s identical to ease the transition.”

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