Winston cigarettes: From minor brand to key player.

Eleven years after R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. placed Winston on its marketing back burner, the cigarette brand could hold the key to three companies’ ability to pull off a historic corporate deal.Imperial Tobacco Group said Tuesday that it plans to make Winston the face of its U.S. cigarette strategy, trying to build upon the brand’s 2.2 percent market share — No. 7 overall — even though Reynolds has given it limited marketing support since September 2003.

The importance? The Federal Trade Commission has to be convinced that Imperial can gain enough U.S. market share from the Reynolds and Lorillard cigarette brands in the proposed deal to become a viable No. 3 U.S. competitor.imperial, through its U.S. subsidiary Commonwealth Brands, has between a 3 percent and 4 percent market share.With Imperial obtaining Kool, Maverick, Salem and Winston in the proposed deal, its market share with traditional cigarettes could rise between its estimate of 10 percent and analysts’ estimate of 12 percent. Imperial said its research into the U.S. marketplace "reinforced Imperial’s confidence that Winston can be rejuvenated.”

It is a leading global brand, global No. 2, which has strong latent brand equity in the U.S. and has previously demonstrated its capability to grow, supported by increased investment. The Camel brand has been the face of Reynolds for more than 100 years, although it has alternated recently as the nation’s No. 3 and No. 4 brands with Pall Mall, which Reynolds acquired in 2004 with the purchase of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. Winston was introduced in 1954 as the first filtered cigarette with good taste. Heavily promoted with snappy jingles, Winston was America’s best-selling cigarette by 1966.Winston quickly became a preferred cigarette of people age 35 and older. As recently as the early 2000s, analysts said that 80 percent of Winston smokers fit that category.

However, analysts said that Winston was the Reynolds brand most affected by the rise in popularity of Marlboro cigarettes over the past 40 years.By September 2003, Reynolds decided it could not justify major marketing pushes for four of its brands — Camel, Doral, Salem and Winston — and downplayed Doral and Winston, dropping them to second-tier marketing status.Reynolds’ goal with second-tier status was to maintain the loyalty of current smokers while reducing spending on marketing aimed at luring smokers to switch brands.Imperial’s strategy in marketing Winston will be pivotal to how successful its enhanced U.S. push can be, said Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center of Retail Innovation at the Wake Forest School of Business.He stressed that Imperial could revive Winston through aggressive marketing, but that likely would require taking the brand in a new direction to appeal to other sets of smokers.

He cited how Reynolds, through the controversial Joe Camel campaign that began about the time of Camel’s 75th anniversary, gained significant traction as a hip brand that appealed to younger adult smokers. "There is a silver tsunami going on so that Winston likely will continue to have appeal among baby boomers for years to come,” Beahm said. "But for Winston to become what Imperial envisions, it will need to take that new direction.”