Philip Morris is doubling down on wooing Cannes

Philip Morris: Open Mic Lounge and panel session with Wyclef Jean
Philip Morris: Open Mic Lounge and panel session with Wyclef Jean

From Wyclef Jean to Cindy Gallop to its massive beach house, the tobacco company really wants to tap the creative community.

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

There are no Philip Morris logos on the company's expansive Open Mic Lounge beach house along the Croisette – not Marlboro and not even Iqos, the heated-tobacco product Philip Morris touts as a means to a smoke-free alternative.

The same goes for the extensive speakers’ series and concerts Philip Morris is sponsoring at Cannes, which kicked off Monday with a panel and performance by Wyclef Jean on the Terrace Stage atop the Palais. No Philip Morris or Iqos logos were in sight, but Philip Morris 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 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, Philip Morris' 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 Philip Morris' 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 Philip Morris' 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 its scientist. That’s why, during the course of our interview, Olczak ceaselessly circles back to the brand's 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, Philip Morris 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 Philip Morris. It’s rare to have so many creatives all in one place, Olczak explained, 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 the company wants guidance on everything from best use of social media to how to communicate the subtle positive changes smokers feel when switching.

"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 at Cannes is helping to rebuild Philip Morris' relationships with agencies. Not all of them had wanted to align with tobacco companies, especially those with strong health practices.

Olczak said 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 Philip Morris' R&D spending is on non-combustible products and already 60% of commercial marketing spend is on alternative products.

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

Markets such as 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 Philip Morris is engaging PR agencies to improve communications and lobbying efforts.

Jacek Olczak, chief operating officer for PMI

Dialogue or dollars?

It’s also why Philip Morris 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, Olczak explained, 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 Philip Morris is making with its Cannes activation and not figure that there’s a return on cost. But Olczak is adamant the 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 said. "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."

A version of this article first appeared on Campaign Asia

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