Book Asks If Juul Is Just Blowing Smoke
A book about electronic-cigarette company Juul Labs Inc. shows how hard it is to defend yourself against attacks if you’ve never really decided what your mission (or message) is — other than making boatloads of money. It’s a cautionary tale on the importance of taking the time to do that.
Juul’s roots go back to 2007 when two product-design alumni from Stanford University started a predecessor company. Juul became by far the most popular e-cigarette; by 2018 it had 72 percent of the U.S. market.
But the company could never decide whether it was providing a nice shiny object for the cool kids or a tool for quitting combustible cigarettes (the kind you smoke).
Juul could never shake the accusation that it was trying to hook teens on vaping. It’s not clear whether it was purposively or negligently doing that. It didn’t help that its early marketing efforts included outreach to Hollywood idols and a “Vaporized” ad campaign that featured young models.
Then, in December 2018, it announced that Altria, maker of Marlboro and Parliament cigarettes, would invest $12.8 billion for a 35 percent stake. This upset the public and employees who thought they were working for a tech startup that opposed Big Tobacco.
“Months after news of the Altria investment broke, Juul’s public opinion ratings were at rock bottom,” writes Time reporter Jamie Ducharme in her highly readable 2021 book, Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul.
The company did take certain steps, such as requiring purchasers on its e-commerce site to be at least 21 years old and nixing flavors (more attractive to teens) before it was required to.
Months after news of the Altria investment broke, Juul’s public opinion ratings were at rock bottom. — Jamie Ducharme, Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul
“Some employees thought the company’s only hope of pulling itself out of the swamp of public opinion was launching an all-out apology offensive,” Ducharme writes.
It sort of tried that with a new somber ad campaign that axed the models and highlighted nicotine’s addictive nature. It also pushed laws to raise to 21 the nicotine-buying age, including for vaping products. But the legislation it backed was viewed as having too many loopholes.
A major challenge came in March 2019, when San Francisco, Juul’s hometown, proposed banning essentially all e-cigs. The company fought hard against the kibosh. It was willing to pay for new age-verification systems in city stores to deter teen sales. It financially supported a group called the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation, which proposed less-onerous rules.
Again, nothing worked. (The book doesn’t delve much into Juul’s media-relations efforts.)
K. C. Crosthwaite, the Altria executive who took over as Juul CEO in September 2019, dropped the company’s efforts against the San Francisco ban, which had gone through in June of that year.
Admittedly, Juul is a much-hated company in a much-hated industry. But its main problem was neglecting to define its purpose. Some health-policy wonks do favor vaping as a healthier alternative to smoking, and Juul did push that line. But its early indecision made it seem like it was just blowing smoke.
Photo Credit: Juul
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