• April 18, 2024

Mapping Milestones

 Mapping Milestones

Photo: Imperial Brands

Photo: Imperial Brands

Three years into its five-year strategy, Imperial Brands reports progress on multiple fronts.

By George Gay

The U.K. government looks set to ban outright the sale of disposable vapes largely on the grounds that these products, which can be bought with a relatively modest outlay, are said to appeal to those under the age of 18. Currently, arguments are raging around this issue, but no matter on what side of the fence you sit, it cannot be denied that there is something less than coherent about the reasoning behind the proposed ban because it is already illegal in the U.K. to sell vapes to those under 18. The legal position in respect of disposable vapes and the underaged will not change because of the ban, though it will in respect of the rest of the population, so the argument that the proposal is aimed at protecting the underaged does not stand up to scrutiny.

It is odd, too, that another, more reasoned argument against disposable vapes—that their disposal, whether careless or authorized, is too environmentally damaging—seems to be of only secondary concern to the government. But it is of concern, and some industry players are taking steps to address at least some of the issues raised.

In its 2023 annual report, Imperial Brands said that it had launched its Blu Bar disposable vape brand in 11 European markets, so I took the opportunity of asking it for its views on these products. “We have long called for action to prevent the deliberate marketing of vaping products to young people,” Imperial said in an emailed reply. “It is important, however, that new restrictions do not compromise the ability of vaping products to transition adult smokers away from combustible cigarettes.

“Disposable vapes are currently used by more than half of adult vapers in the U.K., and a ban threatens to undermine the country’s significant progress to reduce smoking. There’s also a risk it will fuel the illegal trade of unregulated products, already a sizeable problem for enforcement authorities.

“We recognize the sustainability challenges associated with disposable products. We have been working hard to address this in our portfolio and have just launched a new version of Blu Bar (Blu Bar 1000) in the U.K. (other European markets to follow) with a removable battery.”

The use of a removable battery is presumably an important step in disposable vape design because it makes the dismantling of used products in qualified waste disposal facilities safer and more efficient, and therefore more likely to happen. It doesn’t, I guess, address the important question of the number of batteries being used and disposed of across the country, but then this can be partially addressed by increasing the number of puffs that products deliver. In any case, apparently, at Imperial, this is not the end of the story. “Expect to see more innovation—all built on our consumer insights—from us later this year,” Imperial added.

The reference to consumer insights harks back three years to the launch of Imperial’s five-year strategy to transform itself into what it describes as a consumer-led challenger business. As part of this strategy, it set up in 2021 a Global Consumer Office, and it now has two Sense Hubs at which it interacts with consumers to understand their expectations. “We are placing the consumer at the center of our decision-making by building our capabilities in consumer insights, portfolio and brand management, innovation, and through our portfolio of next-generation products (NGPs),” Imperial said.

This is all well and good, but I had to admit that I was less than certain what was meant by a “challenger business” and what you had to do to qualify as such a business. “We are the smallest of the global businesses in our industry, and that means to succeed over the long term, we need to be a strong challenger,” Imperial said. “Being a challenger is about having the best understanding of our consumers and their choices. It is about having simple and efficient operations that enable us to be agile. It’s about building a culture where our people can perform their best work.

“To give an example: We have had a disciplined, challenger approach to NGP market entry. We have launched products only in markets where the category (vaping, heated tobacco and/or modern oral) is a big proportion of overall nicotine consumption—and where we have strong existing routes to market.”

The reference to a disciplined approach to NGP is not just managerial speak. In fact, as part of its five-year strategy, Imperial put in place the means not only to revive its combustible business but to reboot its NGP business completely. In its 2023 report, it describes how, during fiscal years 2021 and 2022, it first refocused the business by withdrawing from several markets, such as the heated-tobacco market in Japan, which it decided did not fit its challenger criteria. Presumably, withdrawing from Japan’s heated-tobacco market must have taken considerable thought and discipline.

Having refocused, it then began a test-and-learn process introducing new products in pilot markets, closely studying reaction from consumers and customers, before scaling up.

Which brings us to the 2023 financial year. “For our potentially reduced-harm business, this has been an important year, with product innovation and targeted market launches translating into accelerated revenue growth,” Imperial says in its report. “Following the introduction of new propositions in vape, heated tobacco and oral nicotine, we now have credible offerings in all three major categories. And consumers can now buy our NGP in more than 20 European markets as well as the United States.

“This operational acceleration has translated into revenue growth of 26.4 percent globally, and 40.4 percent in Europe, where we have been focusing our investment.”

Not everything has gone to plan, however. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Feb. 5 issued marketing denial orders to Imperial subsidiary Fontem U.S. for four Blu disposable and one Myblu brand of e-cigarettes, which means that these products may not be marketed or distributed in the U.S. While this and a previous failed attempt to get Imperial Brands through the FDA’s premarket tobacco product application (PMTA) process has been costly and is no doubt frustrating, it is not altogether surprising. The Fontem application joins those of many other companies that have come to grief against the gates of the FDA. “After reviewing the company’s PMTAs, FDA determined that the applications lacked sufficient evidence to demonstrate that permitting marketing of the products would be appropriate for the protection of the public health, which is the standard legally required by the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act,” the agency said in announcing its decision. It might have added, “No pasaran!”

The list of Imperial’s main NGP markets seems to support the company’s claim to have launched products only in markets where vaping, heated tobacco and/or modern oral is a big proportion of overall nicotine consumption and where it already had strong existing routes to market. Its main vapor product markets are, in alphabetical order, Belgium, the Canaries, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. In heated tobacco, they are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Portugal. And in modern oral, they are Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Of course, while these lists look reasonably impressive following a major reboot, on the global stage, Imperial is smaller than its three main rivals, so it has developed a partnership approach to innovation. “This is exemplified by our three new innovation centers,” Imperial says in its report. “Our Sense Hubs in Liverpool and Hamburg bring together our own development teams with third-party partners and our consumers. Our Shenzhen site enables us to get closer to our supply chain partners.

“Our new way of working has halved the time from initial concept to market launch and increased our capacity to work simultaneously on multiple projects. This is particularly important because of the need for us to take a multi-category approach, reflecting the way different markets are evolving different NGP preferences because of local culture and regulatory environments.”

Although much progress has been made, these are early days yet in respect of the NGP side of the business, as Imperial readily admits. For instance, while its 2023 report included tobacco (cigarettes, RYO, cigars and snus) volumes, it gives no NGP volumes. When asked about this, Imperial said that NGP volumes had not been large enough to justify reporting. “But as the success of the reboot grows, this is something we’re keeping under review,” it said. “We do report on NGP revenue by region.”

Fair enough. One thing that did seem odd to me, admittedly not someone trained in management of any kind, was that in its 2023 report, Imperial announced a £1.1 billion ($1.39 billion) share buyback scheme for 2024, up from a £1 billion scheme in 2023. Why, I wanted to know, was the money not invested in the business—perhaps in the company’s nascent NGP products?

The answer was that Imperial was already delivering on its four priorities for the use of capital, namely: invest behind new strategy to support sustainable growth; maintain a strong and efficient balance sheet; a progressive dividend policy growing annually, taking into account underlying business performance; and surplus capital returns to shareholders.

“We remain fully committed to investing in the business,” the company wrote. “It is the priority for capital, and we have been stepping up investment in NGP rollouts. But our NGP plan is targeted behind specific markets and products based on the market data and consumer insight.”