The sad decline of pipe tobacco merchandising.

I love old tin art. I’ve concluded lately that the older a tin is, the more likely I am to like its art. Maybe it’s some nostalgic yearning for better times, or maybe it’s that I appreciate that pipe tobacco manufacturers and blenders of old took obvious pride in how their blends were packaged and presented. It shows up in those grand old tins and logos.

Why is it, as time passes, that tin art worsens and worsens? Take for example the minimalistically elegant tin designs of Marcovitch? To me, the cutter top was a better tin design than its later coin-twist version. Still, we wouldn’t see this kind of brand consistency across decades now, let alone the maintenance of production values.

The imaginative and winning Baby’s Bottom tin.For those who would reflexively tell me how expensive packaging is and how it is a waste, I would love to have that debate. The cost of packaging in the good old days was cosiderably higher proportionately than it is now. Nope. I don’t agree.

If I were in the tobacco business I hope I would do better than most of the pipe tobacco packaging we see nowadays. Most of it is worse than bad; it is appalling. Conceptual strength, messaging, and graphic design is lacking, and production is even worse. What’s especially weird is that often the better the tobacco blend is, the worse its packaging is. I just don’t get it. When was the last time you said to yourself, “I just can’t throw this current production tin away; it is just too cool. This isn’t just a tin. It’s tobacciana.” For me, the answer would be, “Uhhhh, a couple of times.”

There are some notable exceptions. Mike Butera’s Pelican and Kingfisher tins are gorgeous. Greg Pease’s Maltese Falcon and Key Largo tins were tasty (disclaimer: I was involved in those.). Some of McClelland’s tins are classy or interesting (the Frog Morton series and the Christmas Cheer and VA 22 & 25 labels), but there are many more that are not.

The pipe men I know like to think of themselves as classier and more erudite than the average cigar smoker, or at least in the same league. Have you checked out cigar packaging lately? It rocks. Design quality and production values on most cigars puts pipe tobacco packaging to shame. Honestly, I’m not sure shame is a strong enough word.

Have you seen an Opus X cigar band? There are people out there who make their living designing only cigar bands. In production, the average premium cigar band is lithography or letter-press printed, die-cut, foil-stamped, and coated. The average pipe tobacco packaging is digitally printed, barely better than color-copied. In the old days, they actually printed on the tins. Those tins that were great – like some of Dunhill’s older, large tins – were eye-popping good. Now…not so great. Good tin packaging is still out there, so we know it can be done. Peterson’s tinned tobaccos are an example of maintaining production standards, even if the art itself is stodgy and boring.

Has it occurred to anybody out there marketing in the pipe tobacco world that the cigar boom just might - maybe - result from very savvy marketing and campaigning on the part of the producers? That the Fuentes and Padrons of the cigar world are very smart merchandisers in addition to damn fine cigar producers?

While some might observe that the cigar business has a very long tradition of producing extraordinary art in packaging, so does the pipe world. The difference is that the pipe world has abandoned that tradition for the most part where the cigar world has built upon their own.

Packaging is incredibly important in the consumer product world. The marketplace has demonstrated that it rewards good packaging with increased market share and a superior bottom line. The fact is that there is a real opportunity for those who up their game to enjoy superior results. The savings that some firm might derive from minimal packaging design and production is far less than the reward that the same firm might realize from stronger product presentation.

Consumers have long opined that “I don’t buy products for the packaging. Just give me a good product.” This is one of those cases, however, where a history of case studies conclusively demonstrates that what consumers say about their behavior and how they actually behave are very different, indeed. 

We all respond to better looking products and packaging. People are attracted to what’s pleasing. That is as true for pipe tobacco as it is for any other consumer product category.

Ironically, the anti-tobacco movement is very hip to the power of advertising and packaging. That’s why they are systematically trying to limit, if not gut, these efforts. If they’re not banning advertising, they’re trying to systematically mar packaging with abhorrently grotesque labels that depict the results of various cancers.

With  the draconian health-warning labels required in so many countries today – especially in Europe – producers must say “Why bother?” to themselves. If I were forced to append some “Smoking Kills” label complete with the most gruesome cancer image available, I would probably feel the same way.

I suppose we can expect potato chip, cookie, soft drink, pizza and hamburger packaging to feature pictures of grotesquely obese pictures soon. Take-out pizza joints are really going to suffer. A large pie box makes for lots of real estate upon which one can depict acres of flab and cellulite. There is the off chance, however, that the average person might start objecting when their fatty-food-of-choice packaging is hijacked for some ill-conceived, do-gooder public health messaging that has all the influencing power of a short burst of flatulence in a hurricane.

I know that this post seems uncharacteristically negative; it is thus. I care about our blend producers, their viability, and their future prospects. So, while I might be taking them to task over getting lazy and cheap with their packaging solutions, it’s only because I think the product deserves better.

So do we.

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Reader Comments (11)

It's true that we first eat with our eyes, and we first buy with our eyes as well. Cigar and Liquor companies know that the packaging is what really gets noticed. Walking into a room full of bottles of liquor, wine, or boxes of cigars, our eyes wander around only to stop on very attractive packaging. The Ashton ESG label is one of the prettiest I've ever seen. On the other hand, a Tatuaje brown label (simple brown paper with just "tatuaje" in white) is one of my favorite cigars. This brand was introduced to me, but I think the entire line is the most boring when it comes to catching consumers eyes (note: they are re-creating an old packaging style). Had someone never told me about the brand, I would have never tried one.

Liquor bottles look really nice, and I'll admit that even if I know a product to be very good, a gaudy package turns me off (especially if it is gift). Packaging is important to cigar, wine, and liquor manufacturers. Beer companies don't care much. Have you ever seen Pork Slap? Victory brewing makes great beers, but they have very cheap looking labels.

They cost more, but people think a lot about packaging. When I first started smoking a pipe, McClelland's Dark Star caught my eye and the product was just as good. I've seen a lot of different tin art and my favorites have always been the McClelland black, brown, or red label tins (which look like cigar labels) or Rattray's for their very old quill-on-paper style.
December 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Davidson
I wonder if the degradation of packaging labels has to do with the market in pipes. There are some people who smoke pipe because its the cheapest form of tobacco. They don't expect much for cheap.

Also, with Internet sales, it is more common for people to buy in bulk, decreasing demand for tins. I buy my pipe tobacco based on tobacco reviews or personal recommendation from friends.

Furthermore, society at large values quality increasingly less. Nothing is built as sturdy as it was 50 years ago. I think this is a complicated matter and it deserves some consideration. We have largely lost our appreciation for things of beauty as we have adopted the premise that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty has value only when it points to something that transcends our physical reality. I think as our society has lost an appreciation for God, they have found little use for beauty. But inwardly, our hearts need beauty. Even if it is the beauty of a tobacco tin.
December 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandahlpipe
I've often pondered these same questions myself, with little result other than lament and despair for the decline of these art forms. My fear is that this is the result of progressive apathy, after years of increasingly relentless harrassment... Maybe it is the survival reflex
of camouflage..?

Well guys, I have this to say to the blenders and manufacturers. Besides being something that catches the eye, your predecessors knew that people would want to keep and collect tin art that was well done. Why do you think that Larurs & Brothers put notice on their tins that it was against the law to use the empty tin for re-use with another blend? Are we on the way to the plain brown envelope? I understand that profit margins are to be maximized, but cutting product quality and merchandising while feeding stockholders greater dividends is the way to ruin, as the past 300 years of tobacco history has shown. How about peel and stick labels that will cover up the grotesque labels, once the tin or pouch is purchased or making the obligatory warning labels removable? Maybe things got this way because it is easier to just roll over?

Whatever the problem, its time to find some degree of resolve. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
December 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFred Bass
Excellent post, Neill. I completely agree with you. I think the problems you point out are symptomatic of the industry as a whole, which lacks a "get new people smoking" mindset. It seems that for some time people have assumed that pipe smokers will smoke, and a few new ones will come along to replace the ones dying off, and we'll keep going. Pipe smokers already like Blend-X, so why waste money on great packaging? Because you need to get more people smoking, that's why!

One of the best ways to entice a new smoker (or entice a cigar smoker) is by making the packaging enticing. Catch their eye, make them wonder what's in there, if it will be as nice as the container suggests. You're spot on that the cigar industry gets this. Beautiful boxes, gorgeous bands, innovative packaging, and the stogies themselves, of course. Rows and rows of them showing themselves off in wood-lined humidors. Not to mention the image or lifestyle the cigar industry built up (i.e. cigars are an affordable piece of the good life). When you walk a newbie in there they're bound to buy a couple.

This leads to what I think is the other problem - the stores. There aren't many tobacconists around anymore, but plenty of cigar shops. People walk in and see one dusty shelf with some dull looking tins that won't entice anybody (if they even have that). Why waste money on packaging when only a handful of stores nationwide actually display much pipe tobacco? I'm sympathetic to that argument, but the solution is to make them take notice. The pipe tobacco industry need to make their tins so attractive that cigar shop owners will want to put them in the window just to attract passers-by.

You have to spend money to make money. I realize that's a greater risk than ever in a bad economy in an industry constantly under assault. But I think the payoff is there if people are willing to take the risk. I think you see this in the evolution of Pease's tins. They started off simple, understated, classly, and forgettable. His newest designs are well done and will actually draw attention sitting on your desk or at a shop. And he sells a lot.
December 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterChrono
Considering your previous career, do you have the same problem with recorded music? I lament the demise of the LP (and now the CD in favor of the .mp3 format) because of the loss of cover art and liner notes.
December 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJBBaldwin
The tins of pipe tobacco sure aren't what they used to be. I liked the round, metal tins with the painted lids. I don't like the aluminum tins with the plastic lids regardless of their cover art.

Esoterica, for one, still packages their pipe tobacco in desirable tins but with stickered-on paper labelled lids rather than the painted lids. Likewise, Samuel Gawith packages in rectangular metal tins with glued paper labels. Why not painted lids, at least on flagship tobaccos like Stonehaven, Penzance, Squadron Leader, and Full Virginia Flake? Do these tobacconists believe that the market won't pay the additional costs that the classier tins would necessitate? I'll bet it would, and I'll bet these tobaccos would be as hard if not harder to find than they already are.

Kudos to MacBaren for its little painted tins (ie, Virgina Flake); ditto for Erinmore. And Butera's Kingfisher and Pelican are way beyond cool.

I'd really like to see Greg Pease and Russ Ouellette and the McClelland group offer a real metal circular tin with a painted lid as a higher priced option. Stop it with the Tupperware-like tobacco containers with their paper labels.
December 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertoby
It strikes me that while I agree with you, I had never thought of this phenomenon, Neill. On the pipe side, I have personally never liked the whimsical C&D labels, yet I love some of their blends. But you're right; very few of today's blends have stellar art in their presentation. You displayed bands from two of my favorite cigars, in the Opus X and Ashton pictures. Could it be that the difference is that anyone enjoying a cigar generally has the band in full display, and the pipe smoker has nothing but a tin back home, from which they filled their pouch? By that, I mean that cigar manufacturers are keenly aware of the opportunity of direct advertising of their product and include many gorgeous bands of artwork, where the pipe blenders see no need to? Might it be a desire to invest their share of the tin price in the blend itself? After all, one Opus X can easily retail for the price of a couple of great tins, and even more in resort areas....
December 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBigAl
Great article and good observations. I have made a study of mostly pipe related advertising and packaging, as well as working in the print/advertising business. Some companies still get this concept (Apple), sadly others do not. I feel that lackluster advertising in general is the result of an overall attitude in society where the bottom line is king, and class and quality is not important. Not to mention that real design is going away, but that is a topic for another day.

The older ads and packaging are the best for sure, with some exceptions (even outside of the tobacco industry). Look at the Velvet campaigns from the 20's, 30's and 40's for example. And we all know how that stuff smokes....

Alfred Dunhill was a master at this, and it didn't hurt that he had a great product too.

I agree with you - it would be wise for the pipe-related companies to get a grasp of this concept. Even the retailers could use these concepts to better themselves. After all, cheap blah packaging is really going to look even worse with the nanny state warnings on them. Good packaging design will do nothing but portray the class the product already deserves and in doing so will make the nanny warning look that much more foolish.
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin
Whilst I agree with the sentiment expressed, there are many problems with high investment in tin art, especially in Europe. Since the Eurocrats first made the laws about warnings on tobacco products, the goal posts have been continually changes so that a greater percentage of the visible packaging must contain the warnings. The horrible pictures have also been a feature here for a few years. This would make re-design to accommodate the changes an expensive task. Europe is also debating at the minute to introduce plain packaging on tobacco products, so we will not see any investment in improved tin art any time soon on this side of the pond.

Also, as some commentators have suggested, to make the packaging prettier to appeal to more people to start smoking, is like a red rag to a bull in this climate and would only accelerate the plain packaging plan.

Whilst also in Europe as austerity starts to take a grip, most people when doing their regular shopping are changing their outlook from being "brand aware" to being "price aware". Whilst this may not effect the purchase of a favourite tobacco in the short term, I doubt that prettier packaging would increase market share.
December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEstate Pipes
I have to say that I feel money to market a pipe tobacco brand can be better spent on things outside of logos and packaging. My favorite part of going to my local tobacconist is the wall of bulk tobaccos. Nothing to market them other than a smell and a name, assuming there is no previous smoking experience.

Before making a new tobacco purchase, a blend I have not tried, I will do my research online to determine what would be a good candidate. I would go to my tobacconist with a tobacco in mind, a name, or ask for his opinion on a blend. I do not think I would ever just purchase a tin based on how it looked. Some what of a "don't judge a book by it's cover," kind of idea.

Packaging is vastly becoming a thing of the past. With online shopping, the environmental pushes to keep everything green, and the anti tobacco laws, money spent on packaging would not show a good return on investment. Don't get me wrong, tobacco is a tangible product that must physically be delivered, thus, must be packaged. However, more often than not, the decision on what to buy has been made before the packaging comes into play. The packaging is more of a bonus than a driving force in purchase.

I agree 100% that it would be nice for tobacco to come in creative and decorative tins, but at the same time, I fully understand why there is no money spent by the manufacturers to do this. Their money would be better spent developing the brand name rather than it's packaging.
January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNorthern Neil
There was a thread about it here about a month ago. since it helps curbs the malpractice of selling low quality tobacco as pipe tobacco, and hence putting pipe smokers in the same despicable category. Thanks
January 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClick here

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