The Name Game and Big Tobacco

Philip Morris Companies Became Altria Group - So What?

When a corporation like the Philip Morris Companies changes its name, is it a change in deed or just in word?

As the umbrella company that owns such diverse products as Kool-Aid, Altoids, Oscar Meyer, and Miller Beer, Philip Morris Companies changed its name to Altria in January of this year.

It’s a significant milestone for the company that owns the subsidiary Philip Morris, which, in turn, sells the world’s most profitable brand of cigarette?Marlboro.

Since it is widely established that cigarettes cause cancer, the name change begs some obvious questions:

Does the name change reflect a willingness to rely less on tobacco profits and settle tobacco litigation in good faith?

Will the name change mean that Philip Morris will stop marketing cigarettes to a youthful, burgeoning, and profitable Asian smoker market?

The art of signifying nothing
Not likely on both counts, given the fact that the name change was spurred by Philip Morris’ concern over its corporate image and not the fact that smoking kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, murders, and car accidents combined (400,000 dead yearly in the US alone, according to Centers for Disease Control).

The genesis of the name change has been in the Philip Morris corporate works since the late 1980’s. Altria, which Philip Morris executives say is derived from the Latin word altus (“high”), means very little to the public right now. In contrast, market studies have shown that the public has a largely negative connotation of the name Philip Morris.

Like with many companies that have changed their names recently, the name serves only to identify stock that can be bought or sold. And because the name “Altria” means little in the public consciousness, its owner is free to assign meaning to it as he, she, or it sees fit. Think branding.

With the name change Altria becomes what Philip Morris calls a “consumer packaged goods company.” That’s another name that means little to the American public. It’s that much harder to hold a “consumer packaged goods company” accountable for what it does (outside of packaging violations). But a seller of tobacco? They can be taken to court and judged accordingly. For Altria, lack of clarity is a virtue.

The Marlboro Man doesn’t work here
As such, the new name insulates Philip Morris and its Kraft Food unit from political and economic pressures; it removes Kool-Aid and Miller Lite from falling victim to guilt by association with cancer. At least it removes all of them one step further, which may be just what Philip Morris needs to keep profits and investments high.

Holding Altria responsible for ownership of Philip Morris now becomes a complex issue to anti-smoking advocates and litigants. One area that may be affected is that great weapon of the teeming and huddled masses?the boycott. Rarely seen these days, boycotts are the deep down secret fear of many a CEO and shareholder. However, participation in a boycott could become harder to trigger when that boycott is aimed at Altria rather than Philip Morris.

Combine the reasons for the name change with some recent corporate actions and it becomes clear that the change is a change in name only. After all, Philip Morris increased its advertising budgets to record levels in 1999 after agreeing in a 1998 state tobacco settlement to stop from marketing to youth.

As a result, it’s safe to say that the name “Altria” has less to do with its apparent cousin, “altruism” (from Latin alter, “another”), than it does with a corporation’s burning need for higher profits.

What’s not safe to say is when the public will begin linking Altria to the selling of cigarettes.