Putting consumers first
Across all industries, the Covid-19 pandemic has been one disruptive force, which drove government intervention, accelerated consumer trends and, as a result, spurred further innovation. The tobacco and nicotine industry, which finds itself in a period of rapid change, has been no exception: Controversial policy led to bans on combustible cigarettes as seen in South Africa, but at the same time, growing health consciousness has led to an increased interest in reduced-risk alternatives.
Stefan Bomhard, who previously worked in the alcohol industry and joined Imperial Brands as CEO in July 2020 from Inchcape, a global distribution and retail leader in the premium and luxury automotive sectors, shared his views on the longer term transformation of the tobacco and nicotine industry, looking at how stakeholders could collectively be best at making a reality of a healthier future. He observed parallels between the vaping sector and the automotive industry, where manufacturing for many years had been seeking to improve the efficiency of the 160-year-old technology of the combustible engine. “Then climate change became the climate crisis, and the e-engine meant a complete turnaround,” he said.
Innovation, Bomhard emphasized, can happen only if supported by private sector efforts. As regulation of reduced-risk products (RRPs) edges toward prohibition, unintended consequences such as illicit trade arise. “The industry has to step up and present continuously better choices for consumers,” Bomhard said. “Smokers need to be perceived as informed people who want to make informed choices. There is no single route to tobacco harm reduction, but a billion individual paths.”
Imperial Brands, which in the past 25 years developed from a domestic player into an international player, sees its role in this development in delivering a better experience for consumers. “From my experience, small players can flourish with the right mindset,” he said.
While keen to transform the tobacco industry, Bomhard insisted Imperial Brands remains 100 percent committed to combustible cigarettes. “They are the core business for building a harm-reduced company, as they finance the investments in tobacco harm reduction,” he noted.
To transform Imperial Brands, he explained, additional capacities have been built, including increased research of consumers’ needs. The company hired its first consumer product officer earlier this year. Products will be improved based on the findings of consumer studies. At this point in time, consumers have chosen heated-tobacco products over vaping, according to Bomhard, so Imperial Brands focuses on offering products in that segment.
Furthermore, a number of new executives have joined Imperial Brands, bringing in new capabilities and contributing to the development of a new, more innovation-headed mindset in the organization. The focus is on the question of how employees can play a practical role in driving innovation, Bomhard pointed out.
In addition to harm reduction, he went on, the industry had other important challenges, inclusive of supporting better lives for farming communities, transitioning to a lower carbon business model and reducing waste. “The future of the industry will without doubt have twists and turns,” he said. “For me, having enjoyed a career in a variety of fast-moving industries, each one of them facing major structural changes, the year with Imperial has enforced my first impression that right now, there is no more dynamic sector than tobacco and nicotine.”