Legitimate Strategy versus Smoke Screen:
Framing Philip Morris' Name Change to Altria
University of Florida
College of Journalism and Communications
2044 Weimer Hall, P.O. Box 118400
Gainesville, FL 32611-8400
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Paper submitted to the Public Relations Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Convention
2003 Kansas City
Legitimate Strategy versus Smoke Screen
Using the theory of framing in constructing and maintaining corporate
reputations, this paper addresses the case of Philip Morris Companies,
which changed its name to Altria Group in January 2003. The research
compares the frames used by the company to justify the name change with the
framing used by the mainstream media to reflect the event, and the reaction
of various publics published online. Different frames are exemplified and
implications are provided.
Legitimate Strategy versus Smoke Screen
The current study uses the concept of framing and applies it to the
construction of corporate image and mass-mediated messages. Specifically,
the paper represents a case study of Altria Group, Inc. (formerly Philip
Morris Companies, Inc.), a multinational corporation that changed its name
on January 27, 2003.
Shortly after the change, there were comments from the mass media and
tobacco watchdog organizations arguing that the new name was merely a
public relations strategy deemed to distance the parent company from the
negative tobacco image associated with it.
Through press releases and executive statements, Altria Group explained
that the change reflected "important evolutions in our development," and
will clarify "[our] identity as what it is: a parent company to both
tobacco and food companies that manage some of the world's most successful
brands." The name "Altria" derives from the Latin word "altus" which
means "high," and is intended to signify quality performance and constant
striving for improvement.
This paper will identify the frames Philip Morris/Altria set forth to
enhance its corporate image, and then compare and contrast the frames used
by media and activist groups to report and react to the name
change. Implications regarding PhilipMorris' short-term and long-term
corporate communications effectiveness will be offered.
This research expands the area of framing studies beyond political
communication, where a great many studies have been conducted. The focus
here is on frames used to build and promote PhilipMorris' corporate image,
and as such, can be looked at from a public relations
perspective. Moreover, given the concerns surrounding the tobacco
industry, of which Philip Morris is a major player, this discussion may
have ethical implications as well. Finally, the researcher believes this
paper valuable because of the timeliness of its topic.
Two theoretical groundings are of particular relevance for this
study. First, the author will present the concept of framing, and the
process by which framing occurs. Second, because the paper addresses the
case of a company's name change for the purpose of a corporate image
change, the concept of reputation management be discussed, along with
interpretations, pitfalls, and opportunities of such corporate actions.
According to Goffman (1974), framing is the process by which individuals
make sense of events taking place in the outside world. Frames emphasize
certain meanings or connotations of the message over the others, with or
without a predetermined purpose. As Gamson (1989, p. 157) explains, "Facts
have no intrinsic meaning. They take on their meaning by being embedded in
a frame or a story line that organizes them and gives them coherence."
The process of framing occurs within individuals, who subjectively
conceptualize objective realities. Roeh (1981) wrote that "No author or
speaker is free of the necessity to choose words, syntax, and order of
presentation" (p. 78).
Entman (1993) notes that "To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived
reality and make them more salient in a communicating text" (p. 52). As
such, it appears obvious that frames can originate in more than one
"location." First, it is the sender of the message who decides how to
frame its content. Second, it is the communicator, which may or may not be
the same as the sender. In mass mediated communication, the communicator
is the journalist or the medium through which the message is being
disseminated. The mass media, known as gatekeepers in the communication
process, have the ability to re-frame the original message, and assign it
new or latent meanings. The third framing may occur at the receiver's end,
who will make sense of the frames through her or his own set of
values. The resulting interpretation "may or may not reflect the frames in
the text and the framing intention of the communicator" (Entman, 1993, p.
52). Finally, the decoding of the message will depend upon the context
and/or the culture in which the message is formulated.
For the purpose of this research, the sender of messages and initial framer
is Philip Morris/Altria, through press releases and other corporate
statements. This author will compare those frames with the frames found in
mainstream media, here the mass communicator or disseminator. The
receivers of Philip Morris' messages are individuals and activist
organizations, whose reactions and own frames posted online will be
examined and discussed. The culture, in this case, can be PhilipMorris'
overall corporate image, financial challenges, public's perception of the
tobacco industry, litigations within the industry, or legislation
regulating tobacco manufacturing.
Both Entman (1989) and Graber (1988) concluded that "[b]ecause salience [of
frames] is a product of the interaction of texts and receivers, the
presence of frames in the text, as detected by researchers, does not
guarantee their influence in audience thinking" (Entman, 1993, p.
53). Thus, this paper will analyze whether the frames embedded in the
original text and the frames decoded by various audiences were similar or
different. In so doing, the author will be looking at headlines, keywords,
metaphors, symbols, images, and other literary devices used in textual
The concept of framing has traditionally been studied in relation to
political communication and public opinion. Through content analysis of
news media coverage of political campaigns and poll results, scholars have
found evidence that media frames are likely to be accepted and embraced by
audiences (Gitlin, 1980; Iyengar, 1991; Lang and Lang, 1983; Weaver,
Graber, McCombs, Eyal, 1981). The media's framing or encoding may be
balanced toward the story, or unbalanced. As Tankard (2001) points out,
"Much of the power of framing comes from its ability to define the terms of
a debate without the audience realizing it is taking place.
[...] Attention is directed to one point so that people do not notice the
manipulation that is going on at another point" (p. 97).
Likewise, it can be reasonably assumed that frames used in non-political
messages have the potential to influence the public opinion. This research
addresses such question by looking at the frames used by Philip
Morris/Altria to justify the corporation's change of name, and by comparing
them with the public's reactions to those frames.
Tankard (2001) discusses a series of approaches to framing measurement,
each of which presents opportunities and limitations. One possible
approach is unsystematic, which gives the researcher liberty to select
whatever aspects of the communication she or he is interested in, but
allows room for great subjectivity in frame selection. The systematic, or
empirical, approach uses a list of frames, uniquely identified for the
topic under study. Further, "each frame would then be defined in terms of
specific keywords, catchphrases, and images" (p. 101). This method, while
easier to follow because of its objectivity, looks at components of the
message but not at the message as a whole. Thus, the overall perspective
and underlying meanings cannot be captured. In this paper, the
researcher decided to use the qualitative or unsystematic approach, though
paying close attention to some framing mechanisms suggested by the
quantitative method such as quotes, images, captions, logos, etc (see also
Messaris & Abraham, 2001, for a discussion of the role of images in framing).
Since Philip Morris took on a different name, there have been comments
especially on the side of anti-tobacco activist groups that the decision to
change a well-established name represented a public relations strategy
designed to refresh and better the manufacturer corporate
reputation. Consequentially, this second part of the literature review
focuses on reputation management and the impact of reputation on the
overall corporate image.
The management of corporate reputation is seen as an essential public
relations function (Morley, 2002) "the orchestration of public relations
initiatives designed to promote or protect the most important brand you own
your corporate reputation" (p. 10). While quality of reputation is the
result of a number of intertwining factors, it is the overall corporate
image that leads the tone of how the company is perceived by its various
publics. Good reputation has direct implications on many aspects of the
business, Morley explained among others, high stock price, loyal
customers, successful partnerships and strategic alliances, employee
satisfaction and high productivity, and influence in the formation and
adoption of public policies.
Thevissen (2002) likewise agrees that good reputation in corporate
communication is seen as a credit. "Having a bad reputation therefore
implies getting less credit or no credit at all, while a good overall
reputation creates expectations and possibilities based on earlier
experiences" (p. 320). In light of such approach, and given the negative
image tobacco manufacturers have long been associated with, Philip Morris'
change of name can be interpreted as an attempt to rebuild its reputation
and redeem itself in the eyes of the general public. The framing of
corporate statements will likely contribute to the position the company
wants to be perceived in.
Analyzing elements that assess a company's reputation, Thevissen considers
factors such as quality of products, financial performance, corporate
citizenship/social responsibility, leadership/management, and emotional
appeal to stakeholders. Thus, it makes sense to look for these types of
messages originating within a company that faces reputation problems. As
the analysis section will demonstrate further in the paper, these are the
exact frames used by Philip Morris/Altria to justify its sudden change of name.
From Fortune's America's Most Admired Companies study, the key
characteristics that define and strengthen a corporation's reputations are:
management quality, product quality, wise use of corporate assets, value as
a long-term investment, ability to attract, develop and keep talented
people, financial soundness, responsibility to community and/or
environment, and innovativeness (Atkins, 2003).
"Your reputation will always mirror the absolute reality of who you are,"
said Steve Marshall, CEO of United Kingdom's Railtrack, quoted in an
article from Wharton School of Business and AON Corporation. Players in
the business world seem to agree, it is a mistake to believe that
reputation can be changed without changing the very essence of the business
itself. For that matter, Philip Morris/Altria acknowledges the company had
been in turmoil in the past, but it has learned from its own wrongdoings
and has changed to win the battle in the court of public opinion.
However, the process of change does not appear to be one easy
step. Moreover, management statements of responsible corporate behavior
and commitment to change may or may not accomplish their desired
goal. "The least effective way to engender trust, of course, is to declare
oneself to be trustworthy. Trust is built over time, based on what
companies do, not say" (Atkins, 2003). This paper will content analyze
Philip Morris' official releases, focusing on common themes the company is
trying to send across.
1. How was Altria's attempt to frame its name change covered by the
traditional media and other groups and organizations on the Internet?
2. Which frames are similar and which frames are different?
The research method used in this paper is qualitative content
analysis. The researcher decided to use a qualitative as opposed to
quantitative approach in order to fully analyze the frames embedded in the
text. Qualitative analysis is more appropriate for examining latent
content, whereas quantitative analysis is used for manifest content of
The unit of analysis was one single article or communication such as images.
The population analyzed was comprised of three sets of messages: (1)
Altria's press releases and statements regarding the name change, available
on its website; (2) traditional media articles retrieved via the
Lexis/Nexis database; and (3) websites searched for using Google, a
commercial search engine.
The final sample contained seventy-two cases related to the corporate name
change from Philip Morris Companies to Altria.
Before proceeding with the analysis of frames, a brief discussion of the
context surrounding Philip Morris as a tobacco manufacturer seems appropriate.
In November 1998, attorneys general from forty-six states signed an
agreement with the five major tobacco manufacturers in the United States,
an agreement that became known as the Master Settlement Agreement
(MSA). Attorneys general dropped lawsuits against tobacco
manufacturers, and in exchange the latter agreed to allocate large funds to
each of the settling states to develop anti-smoking campaigns, reduce teen
smoking, and pay for treatment of tobacco-related diseases.
By signing the MSA, the tobacco industry agreed to pay $206 billion to the
forty-six states over the next twenty-five years. Of this, $300 million a
year for five years would go to a newly created Legacy Foundation, "for a
public education program to reduce underage tobacco use and educate
consumers about the causes and prevention of diseases associated with the
use of tobacco products" (MSA, 1998). Moreover, funding for the foundation
would continue beyond the five years, as long as the tobacco manufacturers
signing the MSA controlled more than 99.05 percent of the U.S. tobacco
Beside monetary compensation to states, what the MSA accomplished was an
unprecedented and severe restriction on tobacco advertising. The
settlement banned outdoor tobacco billboards and transit ads, and reduced
the advertising outside of retail stores to fourteen square feet. It
prohibited the use of cartoon characters to promote tobacco products,
and tobacco product placement in "any motion picture, television show,
theatrical production, or other live performance, live or recorded
performance of music, commercial film or video, or video game" (MSA,
1989). Tobacco brand-name sponsorship of music and sports events when
contestants or audiences are under 18 was banned, and brand-name
sponsorship of other events was limited to one event or series per year per
In the face of such strict prohibitions, tobacco manufacturers in the
United States had to find alternative ways to subsidize the industry and
maintain their customers. Shortly, accusatory statements against the
tobacco companies appeared, for violation of the MSA's terms.
The first annual report of the Federal Trade Commission after the MSA
indicated the tobacco industry's expenditures, as well as earnings. While
the sale of cigarettes decreased by 10.3 percent from 1998 to 1999, the
cost of advertising and promotions increased by 22.3
percent. Specifically, the FTC noticed substantial increases in magazine
advertising spending (34.2 percent), promotional allowances (23.1 percent),
cigarette giveaways (135.5 percent), and retail value added (64.6
percent). The only substantial decrease was in spending on outdoor
advertising, by 81.7 percent from 1998 to 1999.
Further addressing the idea of MSA violation, a 2000 press release of the
National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids cited researchers at the
Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The researchers found that
tobacco advertising in magazines with at least 15 percent readership by
youth ages 12 to 17 had increased by 33 percent from 1998 (prior to the
settlement) to 1999 (after the settlement). The director of the
Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program explained, "Our study shows clearly
that the tobacco companies have not stopped marketing to children since the
Master Settlement Agreement; they have merely altered the way they do it,
and in fact, may be doing it even more effectively."
The American public had already witnessed numerous lawsuits against the
tobacco industry since the late 1960s. The public was already skeptical of
the way the manufacturers were complying with the settlement agreement when
in 2002 Philip Morris Companies announced it would change its name to
Altria Group, Inc. The change took place on January 27, 2003.
I. Corporate messages and framing of name change
First, the researcher looked at the messages that Altria, formerly Philip
Morris Companies, sent out to justify the change of name at the corporate
level. It is important to identify the reasons behind the change right
from the source, before looking at and interpreting media and activist
public's framing of the event.
Logging on to www.philipmorris.com, a visitor is greeted with Altria's
logo, a combination of bright and pastel colors, and the headline "Philip
Morris Companies Inc. is now Altria Group, Inc." Underneath, the
Thank you for visiting philipmorris.com. Effective January 27, 2003, at
8:00 a.m., Philip Morris Companies Inc. will change its name to Altria
Group, Inc. [
] Our name change [
] reflects the fact that we are no longer
the same company we once were structurally, culturally or
behaviorally. This change better reflects who we are today and who we want
to be in the future. It will focus attention on the qualities we want to
convey such as superior performance, financial strength and a commitment to
integrity and corporate responsibility. We believe our new identity as
Altria Group, Inc., allows us to communicate with greater clarity our
corporate structure and how our companies manage their respective business.
The website visitor then has the option of continuing to Altria.com, or
visiting one of the three companies united under the name of Altria - Kraft
Foods, Philip Morris International, and Philip Morris USA.
The name change appears intended to present the company in a new light, and
change the public's often negative perceptions associated with the parent
corporation's well-known tobacco component. "People hear 'Philip Morris'
and think 'tobacco.' They don't think 'Toblerone,' 'Altoids,' 'Oreo,' or
'Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.' Similarly, when people think of Philip Morris
Companies, they rarely conjure an image of the world's largest diversified
consumer products company," declared Mark Berlind, associate general
counsel, Corporate Affairs Legal.
Indeed, continuing the investigation of Altria.com, nothing on the home
page points directly to cigarettes, the Marlboro man, or any other symbols
Philip Morris has been known for. The page is characterized by simplicity
and color. Altria's logo is in the top left-hand corner a square
containing twenty-five small squares, displayed in different shades of
primary and secondary colors: red, yellow, blue, green, and orange. In a
message to employees, the new chairman and CEO Louis C. Camilleri explains:
"Aiming higher, reaching further, innovating and growing. The Altria name
and logo powerfully express these enduring qualities. The colorful mosaic
evokes our enormous diversity, our energy and our operating companies'
astounding portfolios of successful brands." A corporate press release
states that the new logo signifies "drive toward excellence, companies'
focus on building brands, passion for success, openness to innovation,
commitment to [Altria's] communities and societies, and focus on people."
Three small images and links, in the center of the Web page, pinpoint to
more information about the name change: a message from the chairman, an
official statement about the identity change, and the advertising campaign
launched to promote the new identity.
Chairman Camilleri's message states the new name as "an important milestone
in the evolution of our family of companies. It doesn't signify a
beginning or an end. Rather, it marks how far we have come and gives us a
framework for how much farther we aim to go." The message is framed in
powerful words such as passion, commitment, dedication, responsibility,
excellent, always. These words are hoped to convey the image of a
multifaceted corporation oriented toward brand building, customer
satisfaction, and responsible community involvement.
The corporate identity change statement puts the issue directly:
The name "Philip Morris" is truly a tobacco name a name associated with a
remarkable history as a leader in that industry both in the United States
and around the world. But we have also come to own a number of companies
that are not tobacco-based, companies such as General Foods, Kraft, Jacobs
Suchard, and Nabisco. By changing its name, Altria Group will clarify its
identity as what it is: a parent company to both tobacco and food companies
that manage some of the world's most successful brands.
The Latin-derivate name seeks to represent seven attributes defining the
corporation: performance, marketing excellence, commitment to
responsibility, financial strength, innovation, compliance and integrity,
and dedication to people.
The company bluntly admits a possible different interpretation of its
intentions: "Some have speculated that the name change to Altria is an
effort to distance the family of companies from its tobacco heritage. It
isn't. Altria Group takes pride in owning what we believe to be the two
premier tobacco companies in the world." However, as the content analyses
of media coverage and activists websites will demonstrate, this has been
the case in numerous instances.
The name change was overwhelmingly approved by 95 percent of the
shareholders at the annual meeting held in April 2002. For one reason or
another, they all felt the need for a change. Moreover though, as internal
company memos unveiled by the media demonstrated, there had been talk about
a necessary and imminent change since early 1990s. This aspect will be
referred to later in the paper.
Through press releases and other corporate statements, Altria presented
itself as more than Philip Morris, the manufacturer of successful tobacco
brands. David P. Nicoli, vice president for corporate communications at
Altria, emphasized in his speech the company's involvement in the community
employment opportunities, contribution to state and local taxes, and
donations to national programs designed to prevent hunger, combat domestic
violence, support the arts, and provide disaster relief.
Referring to legal disputes around the company's tobacco business, Nicoli
Over time, society had become increasingly concerned with the sale and
consumption of tobacco products. [
] The tobacco industry as a whole failed
to respond to those concerns, choosing instead to slug it out in the
] Here is what we have learned: if you expect society to continue
to give a company a license every business needs to operate, it has to do
more than obey the letter of the law. Companies have to reach out to find
common ground, and try to work out problems in a responsible way.
To support the claim of company change, Nicoli provided examples of
PhilipMorris' involvement in youth smoking prevention programs, coordinated
through a special department with an annual budget of $100 million. One
such program is LifeSkills Training, allegedly endorsed by the American
Medical Association and proved to decrease smoking among high-schoolers by
25 percent. The speech mentioned other organizations and federal entities
(the Center for Disease Control, the American Dietetic Association,
American Academy of Family Physicians, the Food and Drug Administration,
and the US government) with which the Altria family of companies had been
"All these steps reflect our attempt to learn from the past, position
ourselves for the future, and ensure that our evolution keeps pace with
society's expectations. [
] For us, adopting the name Altria is an
opportunity to reflect on the sources of our successes, and the sources
of our failures. And it is an opportunity to commit to a future built on
learning from the past," vice-president Nicoli stated.
To introduce and promote the new identity to the general public, Altria has
launched an eight-week advertising campaign in newspapers, magazines, on
television and the Internet. The four ads are intended to communicate
attributes such as performance, marketing excellence, commitment to
responsibility, and financial strength. The campaign, developed by the Leo
Burnett agency, consists of four metaphor-advertisements, and their print
version is available on Altria's website.
The first ad represents a green tree with numerous branches reaching the
blue sky, and is accompanied by an explanatory message. The tree signifies
Altria, the parent company "whose roots are firmly planted in success,
through years of strong financial performance and global reach." The
branches departing from the tree are the many successful companies housed
under Altria's umbrella, such as Marlboro, Maxwell House, Nabisco, Altoids,
The second ad displays a bridge and the sky in the background. It can
signify crossing "into new areas of expertise," a link between old and new,
between the American company and its international markets, and exceptional
strength and endurance.
The third ad represents a column, and suggests that the role of a parent
company is "to provide strength and guidance for its family" through
"world-class people and performance," as well as leadership. And that is
the role of Altria Group, Inc.
The final ad shows a waterfall, representing a source of energy, growth,
nurture, and continuous and spectacular change. "There are many sources of
future growth for our consumer products companies, replenished daily with
innovation and product development," the advertising states, "and we're
well positioned for the next big brand to come from the Altria family of
All in all, Altria's messages available online conveyed the same type of
information, and provided similar interpretations for the company's name
change. Its messages appeared as powerful and sincere. The corporation
tactfully discussed the name change in light of its long history, presence
on the market, diversity of activities and products, and well-known
reputation. Factored in were impressive community involvement and
partnerships with governmental bodies and other organizations that could
lend Altria legitimacy and credibility.
II. Framing change in traditional media
Second, the researcher looked at the frames used by traditional media
(newspapers, magazines, trade publications, wire services) to cover
PhilipMorris' change of name to Altria. All publications and articles
analyzed in this section were selected using LexisNexis database (see note
3). Among the publications content analyzed here were The New York Times,
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, The Daily
Telegraph, Boston Herald, and Toronto Star, to name just a few.
One article from The New York Times, entitled neutrally "A New Name That
Says More or Less," addresses businesses' decisions to change their
names from a general perspective. According to the reporter, companies
undergo name changes for a variety of reasons, "including clarifying the
nature of their business, indicating an expansion or redirection of
services and trying to increase recognition." While the article does not
take a specific position on Altria's name change, it discusses advantages
and disadvantages of changing the name of a business and still maintaining
its profitability. A generic name like Altria's does not identify the
specific service provided by the company, but on the other hand it may
provide more opportunity for dialogue and discussion around the new name.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes a harsher approach in "Philip Morris
isn't fooling anyone." The article begins,
In the last decade, Philip Morris slipped from fifth to 496th on Fortune
Magazine's most admired American corporations list. Today, the world's
largest and most profitable tobacco corporation is banking on the short
memory span of consumers and hoping that yet another massive PR campaign
will win back a U.S. public that has adamantly rejected its deadly business
However, according to the authors of this article, "[w]hatever name Philip
Morris goes by, it will not be able to distance itself from the Marlboro
Man's global rampage that claims 4.9 million lives each year, a number that
is projected to skyrocket to 10 million per year by 2030." The article
further condemns "Big Tobacco's deceptive practices," and suggests that
"Philip Morris would do better to reform its ways than change its
name." One of the wrongdoings Philip Morris/Altria is accused of is
interference with the adoption and development of the Framework Convention
on Tobacco Control, the world's first global public health treaty, which
would ban tobacco advertising completely.
A letter to the editor in Los Angeles Times titled "Philip Morris Is Trying
to Mask Its True Identity" puts an interesting spin on the
interpretation of Altria's logo. The writer explains, "I saw the
accompanying logo [
] I was instantly reminded of the scrambled, digitized
photos you see on TV when they want to shield the true identity of someone,
and I immediately understood. Now when I look at the name Altria and its
logo, I will always remember that it is Philip Morris trying to shield its
true identity from the public."
Financial Times of London features an interview with Altria's chairman
Louis Camilleri ("Food for thought in Marlboro's new face: Interview Louis
Camilleri, Altria"). In the interview, Camilleri reiterates the reason
the company decided to change its name - "Philip Morris was solely
associated with tobacco." A link to a full transcript of the interview is
provided at the end of the article.
A short note featured in The Daily Telegraph ("Philip Morris draws on
Latin") acknowledges the name change and the explanation given by the
company, but ends with an ironical "I'm sorry to say, though, that the
ingredients in its ciggies remain the same."
The Boston Herald, quoting the campaign director for Infact, a Boston-based
watchdog group, interprets the name change as "basically yet another PR
stunt from Philip Morris" ("Marlboro maker drags out new name"). A
branding expert based in Western Springs, Ill., also quoted in the
material, appreciates "I don't think [Philip Morris is] going to get any
mileage out of it. [
] The public is critically looking at motives, and in
this case the motives are transparent." Hence, in a subtle way, through
direct quotes from experts, the article seems to suggest its own opposition
to PhilipMorris' attempt to frame a new corporate image.
From a short satirical article in Financial Times, the reader learns that
"the inventive, pseudo-Latin word Altria" had not been adopted without a
fight. Two other companies with similar names, Denver-based venture
capital firm Altira Group, and Altria Healthcare of Alabama, had filed
lawsuits against Philip Moris/Altria for trademark violations. "Altira
Group and Altria Healthcare must be scratching their heads at Altria's
insistence that its name change will bring better clarity to the corporate
structure," the article states. Eventually, both suits were settled under
undisclosed financial terms. Discussing Altria's new ad campaign, the
Leo Burnett designed the campaign, centered on eye-catching (if undeniably
irrelevant) images of trees, a suspension bridge, a classical colonnade,
and a waterfall. But it's only in the fine print that Altria gets around
to mentioning a handful of brands found in many households [
that aren't exactly littering the ads' pristine scenery.
Despite the metaphors embedded in Altria's new advertisements, it appears
that they may be hard to decode, thus counterproductive. The article ends,
"If consumers aren't confused yet about what exactly Altria is selling,
they surely will be very soon."
A word of caution is suggested by "Pitfalls of Rebranding" in Financial
Times of London. Using another three examples of name changes from the
industry, those of the Post Office in Britain, PricewaterhouseCoopers and
one of Kellogg's cereal brands, this article demonstrates that changing the
name of a company can be a risky business and turn into failure. According
to marketing consultant Tod Norman, "Changing your name means rejecting
your past and thus rejecting your customers. If the goal is to open your
brand to new customers, developing a sub-brand may be far safer and more
appropriate." And business professor Lesley de Chernatony of the
University of Birmingham points out that consumers these days are more
"vociferous and marketing literate" than in the past, demanding compelling
and thoughtout arguments instead of passively accepting the name change.
Other articles found by the researcher in LexisNexis were purely
informative and neutral of Altria's new identity, without taking any side
or commenting on the name change as a strategic move. Overall, there
appeared to be two tendencies of interpreting and framing the name change
in the mainstream media. One direction presented the news straightforward
and covered both aspects of the rebranding corporate statements
explaining its change of identity, as well as industry experts discussing
the pitfalls and implications of a name change of such proportions. The
other tended to approach the topic in ironical terms, and search for
underlying meanings in Altria's corporate releases. The one approach that
was missing in the articles reviewed was supportive of the name change.
III. How the world is making sense of PhilipMorris' name change
While traditional media have taken a conservative stance on the issue in
most instances, the Internet has allowed individual voices, activist
groups, healthcare and watchdog organizations from all over the world to
comment on Philip Morris and Altria, and express their opinions.
Almost unanimously, people framed the name change event as a public
relations strategy deemed to better the image of the company, and to
distant from the reputation of a tobacco business.
Essential Action is a Washington, DC, based corporate accountability
organization. Excerpts from a series of statements collected from
participants in its Global Partnerships for Tobacco Control program read:
"Philip Morris' change of name will never be able to hide its misdeeds
committed throughout the world, especially in the developing countries."
"Philip Morris, a company that is to blame for the global destruction,
disease, and death through tobacco products, is now trying to hide behind
the abstract name of Altria." (Mauritius)
"A name change from Philip Morris to Altria is quite an understandable move
in Ukraine, where it made headlines after releasing a billboard featuring a
pregnant woman. [
] A new name is not going to lessen the number of frail
babies born to smoking mothers, and will not lessen the number of babies
that contact colds, ear infections, and lung diseases due to
cigarette-addicted parents." (Ukraine)
"A new name does nothing to diminish the load of immorality, corruption,
perversion and lies upon which the company has constructed its global
economic empire." (Uruguay)
"Look carefully at ALTRIA and you will see LIAR, TAR, RAT (as in rat
poisoning), AIL (ment), and TRIAL." (United States, New York)
"Philip Morris has stated that the name [Altria] comes from a Latin word
meaning 'high.' But shockingly the word 'alt' in German means 'old,' and
the word 'trias' means triad. It appears that in every way, Philip Morris
will be following its 'old' ways." (United States, Minnesota).
SatireWire.com takes a humorous, yet ironical approach to the issue,
emphasizing that a change of name does not equal a change of identity, at
least not at a structural and functional level. Parodying a press
release, the website states: "Just days after Philip Morris declared it
will change its name to Altria Group, lung cancer today announced it will
change its name to Philip Morris."
"The 'lung cancer' brand certainly evokes something powerful and terrible,
but that brand essence is palpable only in English-speaking markets. [
'Philip Morris,' by contrast, needs no translation. When you hear Philip
Morris, you think lung cancer."
The Web page includes a fictional ad/poster representing a young adult
smoking. A message on his forehead reads, "I don't worry about getting
Philip Morris (i.e. lung cancer). I'm too young, right?" The explanation
underneath the poster is "As part of its rebranding effort, lung cancer
will place posters like this in doctor's offices."
Another example of satirical treatment of the change is found at
BorowitzReport.com, mocking another press release.
"Officials from the newly renamed company announced today that their
primary product, cigarettes, will now be known as 'Health Stix.' 'We want
to assure our customers that, even though the name has changed, the product
remains the same,' said company spokesman Dirk Slive, who will now be known
as Sandy Nice. [
] In a related decision, Altria has renamed tar and
nicotine 'sugar and spice.' In addition, desperate, hacking, phlegmy
coughs will now be known as 'breathing.' At press time, Altria officials
were still mulling new names for death. While no decision has been reached
as of yet, sources say that Altria executives were leaning heavily towards
"Happy Nappy Time."
Not all material found went down this humorous path. Some commentators
made serious accusations against Philip Morris/Altria, most of which were
At the Philip Morris shareholders meeting in April 25, 2002, when an
overwhelming majority voted in favor of the name change, Eva Kralikova,
M.D. in the Czech Republic, asked Philip Morris to change more than its
name. "Today we have heard a lot about Philip Morris being a
responsible company. But a responsible company would not do what Philip
Morris did in the Czech Republic last year. When our government tried to
increase tobacco taxes, Philip Morris commissioned a report to tell us that
because of smoking, our country would save almost 1,227 U.S. dollars in
reduced benefits for the elderly." The speaker thus went beyond the name
and associated the corporation with its behavior.
One of the most successful and outspoken anti-tobacco activist
organizations is the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids based in
Washington, D.C. In an essay released in 2002, shortly after the
announcement of name change, the organization's president stated: "
Why has Philip Morris changed its name to the Altria Group? The answer is
obvious. The public isn't buying PhilipMorris' image makeover. In
January, Philip Morris ranked second to last in a US survey of corporate
reputations conducted by The Reputation Institute and Harris Interactive.
] PhilipMorris' name change represents a classic public relations gesture
to create the illusion of change."
Renaming itself Altria, Tobacco-Free Kids asserts, is but "the latest and
most desperate of [Philip Morris]'s self serving changes as it seeks to
protect its political allies and its non-tobacco enterprises from the taint
of its tobacco business."
To counteract PhilipMorris' name change campaign, Tobacco- Free Kids
launched a national newspaper ad campaign, co-sponsored by the American
Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Lung
Association. The photo represents a live snake, and the headline reads
"No matter how often a snake changes its skin
it's still a snake. Altria
is Philip Morris." The ad suggests that Philip Morris is trying to hide
from the past by changing the company name to Altria Group. "Why is Philip
Morris changing its name? After decades of marketing to kids, deceiving
the public and manipulating its products, Philip Morris now wants to hide
from the past. [
] Philip Morris may be changing its name, but it's not
changing its ways." The ad's conclusion is "New name, same deadly
habits." The president of TFK acknowledges the ad is, and was intended to
be, shocking, because "Philip Morris' behavior has been shocking."
The same organization also created an online campaign in the form of a
short animated movie that mocks PhilipMorris' change of name. The
animation, which can be viewed on the Web at www.philipmorriscanthide.org,
is about a Marlboro Man criminal, wanted for the death of millions, who
undergoes plastic surgery and transforms into a young girl named Altria to
sell cigarettes to children. (This idea taps on an investigation published
by The New York Times, accusing Philip Morris of recruiting underage girls
overseas to give away cigarettes to their peers.) The name of the surgeon
who performs the operation in the movie is P.R. Whitewash, suggesting that
PhilipMorris' decision to change its name was a public relations strategy.
The animation, titled "The movie Philip Morris doesn't want you to see,"
ends with a call to action. Viewers are invited to log on to another
website and send a fax message to President Bush, urging him to support the
government's action against the tobacco industry.
Contacted by AdAge.com, a spokesperson for Philip Morris said the online
movie was "a misrepresentation of our motives behind our proposal to change
the name of Philip Morris Companies, the parent company." Though according
to a TFK press release from March 2002, Philip Morris proposed changing its
name after a $250 million corporate image advertising campaign,
highlighting its charitable contributions, failed to improve the company's
negative image. As stated previously (see note 22), in January 2002 the
company ranked second to last in an annual survey of corporate reputations.
Another discussion at AdAge.com about the "strategic move to leave
tobacco-stained image behind" unveils what could be a key element in the
name change campaign. According to one internal document titled "Top
Secret. Operation Rainmaker," discovered prior to the 1998 Master
Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and state attorneys
general, there had been discussions at Philip Morris since at least 1990,
addressing the company's need to improve its public image. "We must
immediately change the name of either Philip Morris USA or PM Companies,"
the document said. During the 1990s, the same theme of an imminent
change was brought up over and over in public polls conducted by the company.
In 1993, a separate document prepared by the public relations agency Hill &
Knowlton read: "The identity and image of the principal corporate brand
Philip Morris is weak compared with other major U.S. companies, but can
be strengthened dramatically if audiences are told about the company's
diverse product line and other corporate attributes."
United Kingdom's The Guardian ironically headlines "You're stuck in a dying
industry, selling a product with a reputation for killing your customers,
what do you do? Just change your name, duck out of any nasty associations
and carry on as before." Directly referring to the tobacco company, "The
Game of a Name" states "Philip Morris best known for Marlboro cigarettes
is changing its name to avoid all those nasty tobacco stains sticking to
its corporate image." Commenting on the new name Altria, which "sounds
like some sort of medical procedure shouted out on ER," The Guardian
explains it means absolutely nothing in terms of its intended effects. Don
Pettit, president and CEO of brand consultancy Sterling Group, declares:
The name and the logo isn't [sic] as much connected to where the company
came from and what the company is. It is an abstraction and it's not an
abstraction that's obvious to the consumer. Even if you buy PhilipMorris'
explanation that it's an aspirational name and that they want their
companies to reach higher, it's not inspirational and does not really
connect with what their businesses do.
Pushing the irony on the dark side, the director of the Wellness Center
online compares PhilipMorris' name change to Altria with "Osama bin Laden
changing his name to Cuddly Bear, or Saddam Hussein renaming himself
Abraham Lincoln. Osama, Saddam and Philip Morris alike should somehow be
'estopped' from such phony transformation."
An obvious pattern emerges from most of the materials mentioned
above. Unlike the traditional media, online writers and commentators seem
to have taken a liberal approach to PhilipMorris' attempt to reframe its
identity and corporate image. From satire to irony, from harsh words to
accusatory statements, the online media has read Altria's corporate
statements in a different light and provided alternative interpretations
for the name change.
Discussion, limitations and conclusion
Using the concepts of framing and reputation management, and content
analysis as research method, this paper addressed the recent change of name
from Philip Morris Corporations to Altria Group. The author first looked
at the frames used by Philip Morris to justify the name change, using press
releases and corporate statements. Second, the author analyzed the
coverage of the event in the mainstream media articles available via
LexisNexis, and the frames used in those instances. The third set of data
was comprised of commercial websites containing reactions to the name
change from individuals, activist organizations, tobacco-related groups, etc.
Several directions appeared obvious throughout the research. The
statements put forth by Philip Morris/Altria could be summarized as the
"change" frame. The company emphasized that the new name was a necessary
strategy, in order to reflect evolutions in the development of the
business, and to clarify the identity of the parent company, manufacturer
of tobacco and food products. The name choice, Altria, was intended as a
metaphor for quality performance, drive toward excellence, and continuous
growth and improvement.
For the most part, the mainstream media has covered the event
neutrally. The articles found in LexisNexis presented Altria's position,
along with statements from activist groups which condemned the change as
being a public relations "makeover." The press also addressed implications
and pitfalls of a well-known company's name change, by exemplifying with
other successful and unsuccessful changes along the time. The overall
media coverage can be labeled as the "business" frame.
The Internet has allowed different voices and positions to be
heard. However, despite the multitude of voices, this research found
overwhelming support for a "smokescreen" frame. Individuals from all over
the world, activist groups, and watchdogs interpreted the name change event
as a public relations strategy intended to distance the parent company from
the reputation of a tobacco business, and instead create a family- and
community-oriented image using Kraft Foods as a symbol.
The author recognizes the limitation of this present research. The first
limitation is due to the sample size and makeup, in the case of the
material online. The Google search generated eight hundred seventy hits,
of which the researcher used only twenty-four. This selection was done
based on perceived relevance of the material for the topic of
interest. However, the diversity of the sample, as well as the unanimity
of positions on the issue, led to the assumption that there was a small
likelihood of obtaining different results, had the author selected more
items in a random manner. The second limitation is due to the qualitative
and exploratory nature of the research method. Quantitative content
analysis, on the other hand, greatly reduces the richness of the results
and limits the researcher's ability to find latent content embedded in the
material under analysis. The choice between quantitative and qualitative
research needs to be made depending upon the nature of the researcher, and
in this case a qualitative approach seemed appropriate.
While the present research has identified some interesting patterns, more
framing studies need to be conducted to test for the transfer of salience
of corporate messages from the sender to the media, to the general
public. In addition, different research methods such as surveys and focus
groups could be employed, to test for the encoding, decoding, and
effectiveness of specific messages.
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 Four companies are grouped under Altria's umbrella: Kraft Foods,
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 Altria Group, Inc. "Corporate Identity Change" and "Message from the
Chairman," available at
 Logging on to Altria's website at http://www.altria.com, the
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speeches, and graphic representations that directly related to the name
change and new corporate identity. There were sixteen such elements.
In LexisNexis, the author of this paper conducted a search using "Altria"
as keyword in "Headline, Lead Paragraph, Terms," and two strings: News >
General news > Major papers, and News > Business news > Industry
news. The time period used was the past six months (Since the name change
occurred at the end of January 2003, the author wanted to capture both
prior and post coverage.). The search yielded thirty-two articles.
Finally, a Web search was conducted using Google as search engine. Google
was chosen because it is considered the most comprehensive and relevant
collection of web pages available on the Internet. The author conducted an
advanced Boolean search for "Altria and name and change," and restricted
the results to English language and pages updated within six months. The
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through them and selected the pages most relevant for the topic (regardless
of the valence of the material), for a total of twenty-four Web pages.
 The complete text of the document can be found at
http://www.naag.org/cigmsa.rtf. Four states, Mississippi, Florida, Texas,
and Minnesota, settled separately from the rest and from one another. The
five tobacco companies signing the document were Brown & Williamson,
Liggett Group, Lorillard Tobacco, Philip Morris, and R.J. Reynolds
 For commentary on the MSA, see for example Campaign for Tobacco-Free
Kids, at http://www.tobaccofreekids.org.
 In 1997, the Federal Trade Commission, agency regulating advertising,
filed a lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds for using a cartoon character, Joe
Camel, in its advertising campaign for Camel cigarettes. The FTC alleged
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was dismissed shortly after the MSA came into being. However, the
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(a Philip Morris image) in tobacco ads.
 The study provided evidence that tobacco companies, instead of
reducing their advertising budgets entirely in accordance to the MSA,
reallocated the money mainly for magazine advertising. Brown & Williamson,
for example, increased its Kool brand spending by 75 percent in the months
following the MSA, while PhilipMorris' Marlboro brand spent 25 percent more
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