Juul’s Pronounced Growth Against Cigarette Goliaths Isn’t Just a Matter of Vape VS. Smoke

*Originally published on LinkedIn April 22, 2019.

Disclaimer: I am not endorsing picking up a nicotine habit in any form AT ALL! I recommend people should stay nicotine free! Nicotine is as addictive as heroin IMHO, don’t underestimate it!

BLUF: The keys to Juul’s market success in the David Vs. Goliath battle against the highly entrenched cigarette industry is not from winning a Coke Vs. Pepsi style product fight. Juul’s success leverages key product innovations for macro effect, but not how you might think.


Have you ever seen the movie 8 Mile? In the culminating rap battle Eminem exposes his rival as not really gangsta when he informs the crowd of a secret, emphasizing the words in his freestyle that, “Clarence went to Cranbrook!” I like that part of the movie, because I went to Cranbrook for my freshman year of high school. I was a kid from Flint, Michigan, on partial scholarship for academic achievement. At that point in my pubescence I was a bit out of my element and likened myself to some kind of Holden Caulfield, awkwardly navigating the ropes at such a renowned Ivy-League-producing private school among peers who could actually afford it. All the rich kids smoked Marlboro Lights, and that’s when I first picked up smoking cigarettes too.

For over 20 years since that fall of freshman year I had been a cigarette smoker, until very recently. For years I’d struggled to quit smoking. I’d tried the patch, the gum, a few different pill based methods, and even pushed myself into the depths of cold turkey at least a dozen times for as long as I could stand the “trainspotting” like withdrawals before giving up and getting my hands back on those sweet cancer sticks. The cowboy killers. I think I’m a pretty smart guy, and over the years I’ve been under no misconception that my smoking habit was stupid, and is the stupidest thing I did and have ever done. It was seriously the only challenge that I had faced but could not best. Until I got a Juul. Since the first day I got a Juul I haven’t had a single cigarette, and its been easy.

The purpose of this Article isn’t to sell you anything (see disclaimer above). I could write you a case study on why Juul has emerged as the industry leader within the vape sector (75% of the market), but that’s really not the point of this article either. I am being specific to Juul because that’s the product I used, and because their uniquely distinguished success so far is an established fact. Perhaps some things I’ll point out apply to all vape, not just Juul, but I don’t know because I haven’t used any others.

However, what I do know is that Juul’s success in keeping me as a customer once I first tried their product wasn’t because I preferred the product itself, persay, like a “Coke vs. Pepsi” style taste test decision. Getting an entrenched smoker like me to prefer vape is like trying to convince a meat and potatoes lover like me to go vegan. I have no “beef” with vegans, I’m just saying its a hard sell. I’ll explain how they did it, though, cause its smart and its a great lesson that can be applied to many other use cases for winning the uphill fight against a complex and entrenched competitive environment.

Identify and Target the Correct Problems to Solve for Success

Quitting smoking isn’t tough to do just because of nicotine addiction. If that were the case, the patch or the gum would have worked just fine for me, and would have accomplished more in the market against cigarettes than they have over the course of their (fairly lengthy) product life cycles. I mean, they undoubtedly provide nicotine effectively at the levels needed to fight off the physical withdrawals that come from not smoking.

What’s more, is that with so much anti-smoking marketing, public sentiment, health education to broadcast its dangers, and so much restriction on tobacco company marketing plus extra tax costs, et cetera, the cessation market has had some significant product leveraging advantages against cigarettes in their quest to topple the cigarette industry by combating nicotine addiction for years.

If the problem that Juul products targeted to solve and compete against was nicotine addiction, they would only have been as successful as the other smoking cessation products historically have been, or so. However, Juul recognized the habit of cigarettes as a part of the cigarettes as a product problem aside from the problem of nicotine addiction in and of itself. Juul’s game changing success was only possible because they recognized the true nature of the problem at hand they would have to solve to to grow any market foothold against cigarette companies.

Employ Effective Mission Based Strategy

I learned to play chess when I was seven and I won my first tournament in 7th grade. I’ve been a part of high performing complex kinetic and non-kinetic full scope combat campaign planning strategy teams as a military Officer. Therefore, I like to look at business strategy in those kinds of terms in some ways. In problem identification and targeting, Juul correctly assessed cigarettes as a dual threat (habit + addiction) enemy, learned from the failures of cigarette-cessation war history, and also recognized that to win in the greater market environment meant they would need a strategy to fight a “dual front war” which would beat out both cigarettes and other cessation products.

Recognizing the past failures of the cigarette cessation industry is what ultimately helped Juul to see and achieve the right positioning on multiple fronts, I believe. All the other cessation products out there, in my experience, have nobly chosen to fight a head on fight against tobacco companies with a goal to eradicate nicotine addiction as a whole. While I applaud the cause, old cessation’s Sisyphean attempts proved that cigarette companies don’t rely on nicotine addiction as their main effort operation that keeps their customer base. What I mean by the “right positioning” is that Juul chose their mission wisely. Their mission is to eliminate cigarettes, not nicotine addiction. Their mission based strategy is to attack cigarette companies by attacking the product itself and the product loyalty – the cigarette habit, or in other words, the cigarette experience.

Referent Power for Customer Trust

Some non-smokers are kind of ambivalent about cigarette smoking around them. However, as a former long time cigarette smoker, I got really used to being shunned and shamed by society in a lot of ways as more of the norm for doing something I liked to do. I’m not complaining, I’m just calling a spade a spade. For example, I understand why you might feel like cigarettes are disgusting, because, objectively, they are. However, right or wrong, approaching smokers as a whole with the historical messaging that’s been thrown around has been almost wholly fear tactics and shaming. Education is great, but smokers already know its bad. The historic messaging against smoking has been largely ineffective because it alienates its customer. Its been dismissive and condescending to the smoker point of view, at best.

We’re all adults here, so here’s what I mean: Late on some lucky night for me, when I am enjoying the pinnacle of all cigarette experiences (post coitus), having a laugh with my special lady watching TV, and all is right and good in the world for a moment… and then an anti-smoking commercial comes on with gory death focused shock and awe, fear invoking imagery, and general tone that resonates as being “against” me, a smoker, and my people. They lose me. The guerrilla marketing makes me feel treated as an enemy, misunderstood, and disrespected. I can’t get on board with it. The message is judgey, and it spoils my moment.

With peace and love, I consciously realize that the approach of anti-cigarette marketing campaigns have been well-intentioned… but, they generally have smacked of a premise that ignores the fact that smokers enjoy smoking at its core on some levels. Historically, cessation products’ advocates have not effectively considered the smoker experience as part of the draw for cigarettes that they needed to compete against!

When I tried the patch I could put on a double dose, but I still would want a cigarette with my coffee. Morning coffee with a cigarette, sadly, has historically been on of my favorite pastimes in life. Truth.com, you can keep throwing around dead bodies n’stuff, but if you don’t target me with an alternative solution you’re not much use. Gum, patches, and even pills, for years, have all fallen short in considering their target consumers’ full choice criteria and connecting with them in spite of saturating marketing efforts, because they didn’t understand them.

Right now, people are bonding over a cigarette somewhere. Somewhere, someone is smoking a cigarette looking at the sunrise, or sunset, or landscape. They are thinking about something very important or having an important moment for themselves. I can’t even count the number of times having cigarette at the end of the day was a “victory” moment for me as a Soldier reflecting on one helluva day. Cigarettes are an experience that smokers enjoy and become accustomed to. Old cessation methods and marketing campaigns never addressed their audience on this level or offered a workable substitute for this aspect of the why people smoke cigarettes.

However, Juul has been able to establish referent power with me (and many others), and it hasn’t been due to any sort of particularly prolific Juul blitz marketing campaign I’ve ever seen. Nothing that stands out to me anyways. Certainly not as much as I’ve seen truth.com. The low hanging fruit for Juul that helped them first, is simply that they didn’t alienate me. In anything I have seen, Juul has stuck to messaging competing on product against cigarettes, rather than competing against my “good time”. Therefore, they are different for being inclusive of their customer’s point of view in a way old cessation never achieved.

In actuality, Juul marketing messaging I’ve come in contact with has been more refined than old cessation techniques with a strongly customer-mindful and respectful approach. They provide factual anti-cigarette education on their site which is genuine and socially conscious, but its tone is geared towards supporting its products’ superior position rather than attacking smoker machinations. They leverage the typical smell, health, and convenience approaches that are old hat for cessation themes, but they come off helpful in tone, not judgey. They seek to enhace their customers’ smoking experience, rather than shame it.

The language in the Juul messaging assures its customer with data, establishes mutual goals with its customers to get off cigarettes, and offers them tips on how to use Juul products best to get the best smoker experience. By doing things this way, Juul has related to the whole market of cigarette smokers, appealed to their motivations, and gained a form of referent power with them in a way historic cessation and cigarette attack campaigns have not done.

Innovate Both Product Quality and Experience

All my other points notwithstanding, the real game changer Juul brought to bear which inspired me to write this article is its pure product quality and experience innovations, but not like you might think. You may think I mean most people like vape better than smoke as to flavor or something, so that’s why Juul’s done well. No. That’s not what I mean. Maybe people do, I don’t know, but I don’t think its about that – that’s just a surface level thing. The smell factor and even cost factor are not what did it either, IMHO. Cigarette smokers have not been swayed year after year by cost increases or smell and air complaints either. If those were the only differences, Juul wouldn’t be gaining against cigarettes, just like nicotine gum never really did.

Here’s the big secret I’m dying to share: Juul beats out cigarettes on product and experience innovation because it affected behavior change in both the smoking habit and nicotine addiction satisfaction application at the product level. Its actually quite scientific, formulaic, and ingenious. Let me explain. A standard cigarette, on average, has about 1 mg of nicotine. 20 in a pack. At the point I quit I was smoking about a pack a day, and each time my nicotine addiction and/or cigarette habit were going to get satisfaction it took me about 5 minutes to puff down the 10 or 15 drags or so it took to finish one cigarette. Each smoking “session” gave me 1 mg of nicotine.

Since I’ve switched to Juul, the nature of my habit and addiction – which could not be broken for over twenty years – has seamlessly changed in a way which has been core to my success in not smoking cigarettes. In fact, the way in which its changed has actually made it seem way more feasible to quit nicotine altogether in the near future. A drag of smoke and a drag of vape are inherently different. They taste different. The thickness is different. It feels different in your lungs. The most subtle difference, though, is kinda the most important: you get a different, lessor, amount of nicotine from a drag of a cigarette then you do from a drag from a Juul. Nicotine is more efficiently delivered in the Juul vape than it is in cigarette smoke. And, the functionality of Juul doesn’t require that I smoke a whole 1 mg every session. These importance of these differences cannot be overstated.

As a result of not being confined to the “cigarette format” of nicotine delivery, my habit has changed. When I feel the urge, its no longer ritualistic. “Going to have a smoke” before meant, usually, relocating to a segregated area where I would spend five full minutes or more to get my fix. With Juul, when I get the urge I take a drag or two which satisfies the addiction sufficiently and then continue on with whatever I was doing without being sidetracked like smoking a whole cigarette required. I get more nicotine in less drags, but it turns out I don’t “need” a full 1 mg every time I want to smoke in the way cigarette companies have always packaged it. The Juul gives me the dose I need, basically, with a more efficient delivery system which makes my habit and addiction less of a negative impact on other things in my life. Using the Juul replaces the nicotine while making the traditional habit routine kinda… nonexistent.

Its only been a few weeks or me (but that’s a lot!) and as I’ve been doing the math I’ve actually spent less money and decreased in nicotine intake without withdrawals or sacrificing my satisfaction level in my activities. After almost 25 years, I am finally no longer constantly planning when I’ll have my next cigarette, and its amazing. Juul, I’ll be quitting you soon enough too as our relationship is only the first step in my transition to fully free of nicotine addiction. However, I give you a lot of credit for figuring out the problem other cessation methods never saw and for helping me to solve at least part of it by figuring out the right product innovations. The way cigarettes package nicotine doses is their shaping operation to facilitate the smoking habit which is their main effort to sustain loyalty. Juul, your delivery system allows for a more efficient use of nicotine that is actually also enabling me to lessen my habit. Thank you.


I went a bit “TMI” with my personal experiences in this article, perhaps. Whether you care about MY story or not, though, the merit in my logic is obvious and there’s a great lesson about strategy to be learned from Juul’s tremendous success in the face of challenging the cigarette companies (of all things). If you are innovating a tech to disrupt an industry – especially one already dominated by well established giants – take some notes from Juul.

Tackle the problem no one else has in your mission. Back it with a well informed strategy based on historic lessons learned and keen awareness of the operating and competitive environments, but not one that alienates your customers. Empower your customers with your solutions and include their point of view and experience needs into your product innovations. Always seek to give more quality at lower total cost, i.e. value, as Juul has.

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