Three years ago, David Sley founded Hestia Tobacco, an independent tobacco company in Chicago. His product is a craft filtered cigar, and according to David, it's "the purest smoke on the market."
It's extremely difficult to market tobacco online. Hestia Tobacco can't buy Google AdWords, use Facebook promotions or promote tweets. What's more, possible partners and sponsors don't want to be affiliated with smoking -- even though some of them love the product.
So, what can Hestia Tobacco do? Fire up its social media presence. In our interview with David, he shares some of the lessons he's learned over the past few years in the tobacco industry, as well as how he rises above society's stigma. (Hint: Instagram helps.) Click through the Slideshare below or download it here.
Tell us about Hestia Tobacco. Where did the idea for the company come from?
There is a myriad of voices/angles adjoining the founding of Hestia Tobacco. With others, I've shared the voice of the tobacco farmers. Or my nearly lifelong love affair with smoking. And subsequent intrigue with Chicago's own Marshall McGearty Tobacco Lounge (RIP, old friend). And those voices remain true.
But they would have never happened had I not been persuading a pretty ginger to move from Los Angeles to Middle-of-Nowhere, Georgia, where I would be trading soybeans and cottonseed through the depths of the recession.
She said she wanted a business. I spit-balled, "Let's start a tobacco company." Seemed like the most sensible thing to do. July 4, 2010.
Are these cigars or cigarettes?
Hestia Tobacco currently sells a "filtered little cigar." And yes, some folks say they look and taste like cigarettes. They're not. In the US of A, a cigarette must be wrapped in fire safe paper. Those little white ridges on the paper of your cigarette? Those are rings of carpet glue (an ethylene vinyl acetate compound) you're inhaling. Tasty, no? Our smokes are wrapped in a paper that is two parts tobacco, one part flax. When you smoke a Hestia Tobacco craft "filtered cigar," or "smoke," or "whatever-you-want-to-call-it," you're only smoking all-natural, additive-free tobacco. Boom. Sales continually confirm that a plethora of folks genuinely appreciate that.
What sets Hestia apart from competitors?
At present, I remain unaware of any direct competitors to my vision of boutique / craft tobacco. Surely there is Big Tobacco, controlling 96% of all tobacco brands (American Spirits are wholly-owned by RJ Reynolds, folks.) But there is no other independent tobacco company trying to create a unique craft experience for those who relish our smokes. Tobacco is one of the most resilient crops in the world, growing heartily on six continents. With continued success, I hope to source unique single-leaf offerings from around the world, similar to what Gaslight Coffee Roasters is doing with their celestial beans.
Oh, and our packs have bemusing quotes on the backside.
What are the FDA's rules for online advertising?
Strictly as a cigar company, Hestia Tobacco has no restrictions from the FDA (other than to not advertise in a way to entice underage kiddos). Most of the ad bans come from external market pressures. Because Hestia Tobacco is engaged in the interstate sale of tobacco goods (bads?) I am prohibited from buying up Google AdWords, or promoting tweets, or any sort of ads/promotions on Facebook.
How do you build your brand while navigating strict marketing regulations?
You grow skin as thick as a turtle. I've always known I was a misanthrope. Perhaps too I'm a pariah. Maybe I just smell? A kind gent from a major Chicago radio station approached me about sponsoring a booth at Lolla. His pitch was, "Let's get Marcus Mumford to smoke Hestia Tobacco." I agreed! We sketched out the particulars of a partnership over breakfast at Bongo Room. He called three days later lamenting that his boss' boss instructed him to quash the deal. No tobacco at Lolla. Lana didn't get the memo.
I met another Chicago publicist for breakfast at Bongo Room who was excited to get to work on Hestia Tobacco. We chatted up some excellent ideas, leaving brunch on a handshake, a budget, and a promise of further business. I never heard from him again.
Maybe the Bongo Room is bad luck?
Knowing that coffee and tobacco go together like peanut butter and jelly, I approached four Chicago coffee roasters, hoping to work together on a co-branded Hestia Tobacco blend. Almost all the folks I spoke with smoked. And all those smokers relished our smokes. Yet none wanted to be associated with Hestia Tobacco.
In fact, of all the professionals I've approached, April Francis remains the only one heretofore unashamed of assisting a fellow Chicago entrepreneur, as she did with the overhaul of Hestia's branding/messaging. We're everyone else's dirty little secret.
I continually search for any avenue to spread the word (mainly press). That's the name of this game (so, um, THANK YOU). When people read about Hestia Tobacco many of them try it out of novelty, and quite a few have stuck around. So, I just shout out my story against the clang of electric guitars and hope someone with a bigger megaphone hears it, and passes it along.
Facebook has previously blocked ads for Hestia. What other sites do you use to advertise your brand online?
So, I have the Instagram. And I do thank G-d for hashtags. When folks hashtag #cigarette, or #americanspirits, or anything else that suits my fancy, I'll thumb over to their squarely artistic endeavor, and recommend that they give Hestia Tobacco a try..."Give us a try, we won't be a drag" is an excellent pickup line. Three-quarters of the time I hear nothing back. And the last quarter is evenly split between folks absolutely incensed that I suggest they try another brand, and those curious where they can be purchased. In short, it's just about as effective as passing out loosies at Big Star.
I'll do those same hashtag searches on Twitter. I've had a few "Hestia Tobacco Marketing" accounts suspended. I've also made some fabulous friends by tweeting about this crazy journey. I now have a great relationship with the guy who does social media at New Belgium Brewing, and quite a few other spots. I've recently found fertile soil at Reddit as well.
As for paid advertising, in the early summer I ran ads on The Village Voice, am currently running ads on The Harvard Advocate (go check out that one), and am in talks with a few other publications, both online and print.
What about in real life?
In real life, I spread the love. I wander the streets. People smoke. I offer them two sticks of grace and a knowing smile. Most are grateful, some become regulars. Still others think I'm Satan. There are downsides ... I was kicked out of a bar last month in Denver for solicitation. A couple sidled up next to me at the bar, and the guy had this quizzical look on his face when he saw my pack of smokes. He picked it up and asked if he could try one. "Take two!" I blurted. And the three of us stepped out for a smoke. While walking back inside, the bouncer directed me to pay my tab and leave. He was of great girth, and I of heavy head. Who knew solicitation came in all shapes and sizes too!?
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to chat with the ad guy who pretty much invented the Marlboro Man. He was a really cool dude. I'd read all about him, and finally had the chance to call him. I had played out the whole conversation in my head. He was tobacco marketing (aka Don Draper). He would recognize what I was trying to build, and realize it was awesome! We would have beautiful children.
The conversation lasted one minute and thirty-eight seconds (I have the screenshot buried somewhere). He told me to give up, that he wouldn't wish the life of a tobacco salesman on his worst enemy. He then instructed me to not contact him again, and hung up. I count obstinacy among my greatest virtues.
For many people, smoking has a negative stigma. In light of this, how do you get people to promote your product and tobacco in general?
First, let's rephrase the question: "For all people, smoking has a negative stigma." Nobody, and I mean NOBODY (not even me) wants to be dumped in the "smoker" category. And this is my great struggle. If someone asks you, "Do you drink?" and you say "Yes, I do," they likely do not presume you are an alcoholic, shamelessly addicted to your bottle of... SkinnyGirl margarita? There is an accepted spectrum of alcohol consumption. But alas, if asked "do you smoke?" an affirmative answer conveys you are a "smoker." Tobacco consumption is generally viewed as a binary: one is a smoker or a non-smoker. I am trying to redefine this. And yes, it's nearly impossible. But Sisyphus needed something to do. So I continue to ferret out the Gwyneth-Paltrow-one-cig-a-week smokers. You're out there. I see you. Come give Hestia Tobacco a try.
Forty million American adults still regularly enjoy tobacco in its various forms. And honestly, once people try Hestia Tobacco and realize what a better product it is, they want to tell their friends. We've only been in production for four months, and I receive a few emails a week from exuberant customers who are sharing their smokes with their friends. Three days ago, a girl in Oakland told me she was taking all of her smokes to Burning Man to use as currency and spread the word. I have some cartons headed off to New York Fashion Week with the director of a swanky studio. I can't put a price tag on this granular organic response. It's just awesome. And makes me smile. And inflates my already-oversized ego.
Hestia has more than 5,000 followers on Instagram. How did you gain such a large following?
Oh, boy. Here we go: Tom Cruise rocks lifts on the red carpet. Beyonce lip-syncs at Presidential inaugurations. Hestia Tobacco bought 5,000 followers on sale for $49.99. Fake it 'til you make it, no? Since that purchase a year ago, Mr. Zuckerberg continues deleting about 1-10 a day (doesn't he have anything better to do?). I'd estimate @HestiaTobacco has about 1500 legitimate, interested followers. And I'm quite proud of that number. And that is a direct result of my campaign I run on most #AmericanSpirit smokers.
What kind of photos do you share?
I share two things: ads and photos. The ads I share are often of the cheeky someecard-esque variety. I cook these up in my copious amount of free time. Occasionally, kindred spirits send in suggestions. The ads often push a few buttons. At least one has lost a customer or two. And then I also just share photos of folks enjoying fine tobacco wherever it is I happen to be traversing. Lastly, I recently began incentivizing our customers by offering discounts for #HestiaTobacco hashtagged photos. But this project remains in a nascent stage.
What advice do you have for small business owners who want to grow their social media presence?
Honestly, buying followers is like renting a Regus office space for social media. Decry it all you want, but it made Hestia Tobacco look more legit. This journey has made me scrappy. And I'll take any edge I can find.
But surely you mean real growth, no? My real growth has occurred through direct engagement. One at a time. I thought the day would come when, you know, I was cool enough that folks would just want to follow me because I had so much gravitas. And it hasn't happened on the social networks, either. Many folks have honest questions. And I'm the only one out there in Hestia world right now who can answer their questions. And they resonate with such direct involvement, and want to support my little fledgling company.
What's the hottest thing happening in social media right now?