Classic Case of Repositioning: Gender Re-assignment of a Brand

by buildingpharmabrands

Marlboro ad Mild as May slogan (

What could be a more challenging repositioning strategy than a gender reassignment?

Philip Morris launched the Marlboro brand in 1924 as a woman’s cigarette, with a memorable advertising slogan, Mild as May. The company targeted the female audience in 1926, with a series of ads depicting a woman’s hand reaching for a cigarette. The cigarette advertising was primarily based on how ladylike the cigarette was. To this end, the filter had a printed red band around it to hide the lipstick stains calling it ‘Beauty Tips to Keep the Paper from Your Lips.’

During World War II, however the brand faltered and had to be taken off the market. Three new competing brands: Camel, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfields entered the market and gained a firm hold on the market further diminishing the value of Marlboro cigarettes.

In 1942, the July issue of Reader’s Digest published an article titled ‘Cigarette Advertising Fact and Fiction,’ which claimed that all cigarettes, regardless of brand, were essentially the same, and equally deadly. The research findings were gradually increasing and unveiling the link between smoking and lung cancer. This is when Philip Morris saw its chance to reintroduce Marlboro and market it as a safer filtered brand. The smokers, unable to breakaway from the habit of smoking, were willing to try new cigarette brands, particularly the filter cigarette brands as they were perceived relatively safer. There was a big window of opportunity for Marlboro as the consumers were switching to filter brands in  a big way. Marlboro, however, faced with a perceptual hurdle in introducing the new filter cigarettes, as they were carrying their previously well established feminine personality from Mild as May campaigns. The company had to change the personality of the brand from feminine to masculine targeting a new segment of customers: male smokers who were afraid of lung cancer. Philip Morris took the challenge to Leo Burnett Company of Chicago, a rapidly growing creative hot shop to reintroduce Marlboro. Leo Burnett did a remarkable job by repositioning Marlboro that has created history. He reassigned the gender to Marlboro from a feminine brand to a he-man brand. From Mild as may to the tattooed man!

Philip Morris reintroduced their new all-male Marlboro in the US in 1955 with the Tattooed Man campaign. An article in the Esquire magazine of June 1960 captured the new personality of the Marlboro smoker as a: lean, relaxed outdoorsman, a cattle rancher, a Navy officer, a flyer, whose tattooed wrist suggested a romantic past, a man who had once worked with his hands, who knew the score, who merited respect. The totally new, polar opposite of the earlier imagery, reinforced a masculine personality for the brand proving that there was nothing feminine about the new filtered cigarettes. The initial advertisements said:

Man-sized taste of honest tobacco comes full through, smooth-drawing filter feels right in your mouth. Works fine, but doesn’t get in the way. Modern flip-top box keeps every cigarette firm and fresh until you smoke it.


Philip Morris found through its continuous monitoring of its advertisements and the different personalities of Marlboro Man, that the cowboy emerged to be the most popular character. A slew of campaigns followed featuring the cowboy as the Marlboro Man, who taught consumers about filters, promoted the flip-top box, and even enticed women to try the cigarette made for the men that women like. The geometric design of the red, white and black lettered flip-top box of Marlboro boosted the appeal of a strong independent individual. The Flip-top box was like a cowboy’s holster for his favorite gun making a statement. The box became a carrying card available to every one making the red box as a symbol of membership to the club that recognized the Marlboro Man as their spokesperson.

How did the Marlboro men gain the trust of millions? In a friendly, unpretentious, and honest voice. Joseph Cullman, then president and chief executive officer of Philip Morris in the Esquire magazine article described the Tattooed Man campaign as virility without vulgarity, quality without snobbery.

Every which way you look, the Marlboro Man is a classic case of repositioning a brand from a feminine personality to that of a macho personality. Indeed, it’s a classic case of gender-reassignment!