hen you think of Scandinavia, you might think of ABBA, Legos, and “The Little Mermaid.” Just about anything, in fact, except cigars. But that’s exactly what the Scandinavian Tobacco Group Lane Ltd. (STG-Lane) wanted attendees at the 2013 National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) show in Atlanta to associate with the company. Headquartered in Tucker, GA, STG-Lane is a subsidiary of Copenhagen-based Scandinavian Tobacco Group, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of cigars and pipe tobacco, selling roughly 3 billion cigars annually in more than 100 countries.
Even so, getting consumers to equate quality tobacco with Scandinavia is an uphill battle for the company and its subsidiary in the United States. STG-Lane and other merchants of smoke duke it out for a U.S. cigar market that lit up by 124 percent between 2000 and 2012, per data from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. In fact, American smokers burn $3.2 billion on stogies every year. For cigar makers, though, that surging wave of popularity came with a perceptual catch: a public that seems irreversibly hardwired to associate first-class cigars with Cuba, the way wine connoisseurs associate the finest bubbly with the Champagne region of France.
To some, Scandinavia would seem as incapable of producing superior cigars as Saudi Arabia would astounding apple pie. Indeed, ever since the United States’ embargo on Cuban imports in 1962, the Caribbean island and its cigars have attained a mystique rivaled only by that of fin de siecle Paris and absinthe.
So when STG-Lane planned to roll out its new Havana Honeys, a short, narrow cigar known generically as a cigarillo, at NACS, it risked attendees passing by its booth as if the company was hawking New York City salsa at a Southwest food festival. “The challenge was to find a way to convey the superiority of our product, and to make a splash with the Havana Honeys,” says Dionne Lucas, STG-Lane’s brand manager for cigars. “We needed a strategy that would pull attendees in so that we could engage them and communicate our key messages.”
Even though STG-Lane armed itself with a budget of $300,000 for its exhibit at NACS, its prospects for achieving a successful introduction of the Havana Honey might still have been as ugly as a thrift-shop Christmas sweater. It was the new kid on the block, in a manner of speaking. Introduced in Europe about a century ago, the diminutive cigarillos (running usually 3 to 4 inches long) had never quite caught on in the United States, as they had in other international venues.
STG-Lane itself had just entered this niche with its Captain Black brand in 2012, while others, like Davidoff International, had been deep in the cigarillos market for 20 years. Moreover, Swisher International Inc.’s Swisher Sweets owns a smothering share of nearly 40 percent of the cigarillos market in the United States, according to research firm Euromonitor International Ltd. Sure, the Havana Honeys were offering natural ingredients, high-end tobacco, and sophisticated flavors, but how do you communicate that to a throng of 22,000 attendees navigating an arena choked with more than 1,000 exhibitors?
An Appropriate Theme
Working with e4 Design Inc., an exhibit house in Norcross, GA, STG-Lane decided its strategy would be to construct an overarching theme that would address the popular pairing of exceptional cigars with Cuba, and its newest offering’s selling points. Using a theme
could be a psychologically astute approach that might end up drawing attendees like a magnet does iron filings. “The point of using a theme is that it gives a face to your objective,” says Columbia Business School professor Bernd Schmitt, “and that face is something your customers can recognize. Attendees can see meaning in what’s presented to them, and that helps them connect emotionally to the brand and the company.”
STG-Lane’s solution was to create an exhibit so immersive that the structure and its surroundings would whisk attendees off the trade show floor and transport them to Cuba. While other tobacco companies have products that name-check the all-powerful Cuban connection, such as Caribbean Cigar Co.’s Free Cuba and Gurkha Cigar Group Inc.’s Gurkha Classic Havana cigars, STG-Lane would go much further, submerging attendees in an idealized pre-Castro Cuba, by turns raffish and romantic, where flashy wise guys were outnumbered only by sequined showgirls.
“It was a calculated risk,” says Jeannette Johnson, e4 Design’s exhibit consultant. “It had to look and feel just right in order to be successful.” To measure how well the strategy worked, the company would target 100 key convenience-store tobacco buyers, hoping to get at least 50 of them into the STG-Lane booth for extended discussions that would sell them on the new Havana Honeys specifically, and the quality of its tobacco products generally.
The Honey Trap
At first, the designers considered transforming the exhibit into a replica of Cuba’s landmark Tropicana Club. Constructed in 1939, the Tropicana was an architectural exclamation mark of parabolic concrete arches, modernist sculptures, and Charles Eames-designed furniture. But a nightclub, like a cigar, is sometimes just a nightclub, and perhaps that environ would evoke bawdy Las Vegas more than bygone Cuba.
A better way to immerse attendees, the designers thought, was to recreate a bigger slice of Havana itself, specifically the section known as the Old Havana City Quarter. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 500-year-old center of Havana, with its sun-washed plazas necklaced by art-deco buildings, internal courtyards, serpentine streets, and private houses with wrought-iron gates and balconies, offered a remarkable template.
Using a combination of beMatrix system exhibit components, artful graphics, and a plethora of props to help set the scene, STG-Lane and e4 Design would render a visually stunning booth that connected the company brands with the aforementioned Cuban imprimatur. On a more practical level, it would also make possible a multitude of nooks and crannies where STG-Lane could display Havana Honeys as well as 11 of its other products, including its Winchester and Captain Black cigar product lines, without feeling like an oversized tobacco shelf at a 7-Eleven store. Equally important, such a design would allow for its key target, convenience-store tobacco buyers, as well as all other attendees, to relax away from the racket of the bustling trade show floor.
Overseas journeys often begin with passports. So to start attendees on their trek to STG-Lane’s exhibit, the company sent its 100 chief targets a faux passport 30 days before the show, inviting them to visit the booth. More than just a common pre-show solicitation, however, the missive was an extraordinary enchantment. Designed by Daniel Williams and Atlanta-based Shared Vision LLC, the passport drew on a rich vein of imagery associated with pre-Castro Cuba, such as Pan American World Airways’ sun-washed travel posters of Cuba, Havana-America Jockey Club promotional placards, postcards sent from the Caribbean island gilded with Chevrolets, butterfly flowers, and, of course, cigars.
Arriving in a 6.75-by-4.75-by-1.5-inch box covered with replicas of 1950s Cuban stamps, the passport was housed in a brown leather holder. Set inside the holder was the yellow document, with text urging the recipients to “Escape to the Tropical Oasis” of STG-Lane’s booth at NACS, where they could unwind with a cocktail, and chat with a sales rep about Havana Honeys.
The passports set a tone for the company’s 50-by-70-foot exhibit, the way old-fashioned travel posters promised dreamy escapes with imagery that was narcotic in its allure. So when attendees first encountered the STG-Lane booth the day NACS opened its doors, they might be forgiven for momentarily thinking a 3,500-square-foot slice of the Caribbean island had been teleported to the floor of the Georgia World Congress Center.
Visitors entered the booth, which was unofficially dubbed the “Cuban Oasis,” atop vinyl flooring that effected a mirage of aged stone streets. One of STG-Lane’s 20 booth staffers, who informally occupied each the booth’s multiple entrance points, welcomed the guests and escorted them through the booth. Strolling down a narrow “street,” they passed mocked-up façades of worn-out buildings with exteriors that looked as green as oxidized copper, or as blue as a weathered robin’s egg.
Plastered on some of the walls were old-style movie posters, measuring 39-by-55 inches and framed by blinking LEDs, featuring the company’s Pipa pipe tobacco and Captain Black cigars. Artificial palm trees suggested a subliminal tropical breeze, while hanging overhead from a truss, seven double-sided, 4-by-8-foot UV prints on rigid substrate replicated the five Havana Honey flavors: Original, Classic Cognac, Sweet Honey, Spiced Rum, and Menthol Mojito. Also attached to a truss, 18 incandescent par-can lights blazed with the intensity of a tropical sun. Raising the temperature even more was the Tabasco-hot beat of “Distinto Diferente” by the Afro Cuban All Stars (a group partially composed of legendary 1950s Cuban musicians) playing via speakers hidden throughout the booth.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” the philosopher Martin Buber wrote. And the journey into STG-Lane’s exhibit held delightful destinations for visitors as well. Next to courtyards, wrought-iron balconies fronted time-worn façades. Beat-up newspaper kiosks branded with Havana Honeys imagery stood close by a tobacconist’s shop. Inside the shop, visitors could peruse myriad products, including Captain Black pipe tobacco and cigars, Cubero cigars, Winchester Little Cigars, a variety of roll-your-own tobaccos, and, of course, the Havana Honeys.
If the tobaccos’ combined thick-as-incense bouquet of apples and bonfires and cherries wasn’t enough to conjure up Cuba, the detritus artfully placed around the exhibit did: a beat-up bicycle, a pile of vintage luggage stocked with STG-Lane products like a flea market, and, in a nod to the popularity of the Cuban Grand Prix held in the 1950s, an antique 1955 Porsche. Not far away, a stone angel that looked old enough to have sailed Noah’s ark held batches of Cubero cigars in a basin for attendees to snatch. Balancing the (deliberately) shabby with the sultry, eight models clad in party dresses as colorful as tropical fish danced to the steamy-as-a-sauna voice of Cuban salsa star Celia Cruz singing “Quimbara.”
STG-Lane took attendees deeper and deeper into its Cuban chimera. Sales reps sipped mojitos with customers at a 10-foot-long antique oak bar under a fabric ceiling that perfectly resembled pressed tin, and ceiling fans that cooled the area like the ice cubes in the drinks of white rum and mint. The drink menu was not just lazily playing on stereotypes: While mojitos have been long associated with Cuba, the libation echoed two of the Havana Honeys flavors, Spiced Rum and Menthol Mojito. Just off one side of the bar, a 10-by-13-foot VIP lounge shielded by wrought-iron fencing offered a space where salespeople could chat with clients – many of them the all-important convenience-store tobacco buyers – under a wooden trellis and walls of faux crumbling stone.
Like the real Cuba today, the booth even juxtaposed different decades and styles. Close by the VIP lounge was the 10-by-12-foot Winchester man cave. Since the brand name reverberates with the ultra-American Winchester name of firearm fame, STG-Lane felt the brand’s area in the booth should possess a decidedly more domestic appearance. Furnishings included a retro dartboard, a poster-sized retro ad from the 1970s, and product samples displayed on a wooden ladder. The music in the masculine alcove could have been spun by the late Casey Kasem himself, with a playlist that included “American Woman,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Evil Ways.”
What a Trip
“People don’t take trips,” wrote John Steinbeck. “Trips take people.” The trip inside STG-Lane’s immersive exhibit took hundreds of attendees deep into a momentary and idealized Cuba, where they dwelled for as long as 20 minutes apiece, more than twice as long as visitors usually spent in the company’s booth at past NACS shows. That gave staffers ample time to connect with the company’s theme and marinate on its key messages.
The Scandinavian cigars of today took their place next to the hallowed Cuban cigars of yore without a misstep. In the minds – and taste buds – of attendees, Havana Honeys became the kind of cigar whose enjoyment, as Mark Twain once suggested, should be interrupted only by eating and sleeping. Most impressively of all, the company met with all 100 of the buyers it had targeted before the show – and all it took was a short trip to a bygone world that exists only in our imaginations.