Think for a moment about the first time you set foot in a walk-in humidor. You’ll remember a few details immediately: the burst of air as the door swung open, the change in air pressure and the feeling like you’d stepped into a tiny tropical paradise hidden from the world just outside the tobacconist.
If you think harder you’ll also remember your nerves: the rising tension as you looked around the room and felt overwhelmed. Even a decade ago, cigar shops presented encyclopedic choices from Arturo Fuente to Zino. It would have been hard to pick something on your own even if you knew something of cigars, but cigarmakers have escalated the arms race in recent years. It’s not about facings, it’s about the face.
Some of the design alterations have been practical. The Fuentes have long included Boveda humidification in their super premium cigar boxes, such as those for Fuente Fuente OpusX. In certain years they’ve also released collector’s sets packaged in humidors made by Prometheus, and their Destino al Siglo comes packed in boxes that resemble books. General Cigar Co. launched its Partagas 1845 line with an innovative box design just two years ago, allowing merchants and witting customers to angle the box and gravity feed the next cigar as you would see in a dispenser. Alec Bradley Cigar Co. released its Fine & Rare collection in a special chest that presents each stick in an individual housing, calling to mind the foam-padded silver briefcases you’d see in action movies that carried jewels and other black-market items between mob families. Glen Case of Kristoff actually packages some of his older lines with a layer of scrap tobacco, adding a sort of “Easter grass” aesthetic to each box of Kristoff Corojo, Kristoff GC and other lines.
If you nodded your head to any of those examples, then the marketing is working. Everyone wants to be the memorable cigar, the one that’s easily recognized in the humidor—the one that if, God forbid, you should forget the name of, you can still explain to your tobacconist with a few key words about how it looks.
But a few companies are taking that idea a leap forward. “There are so many cigars in the humidor, and you need something to catch the attention of the consumer. We need that wow factor,” says Nish Patel, executive vice president at Rocky Patel Premium Cigars. “It’s not just about being visible, it’s about being the lady in red, or the only guy at the party in a white dinner jacket. They’re seeing this sameness problem as an opportunity.”
“For me design is always the No. 1 thing,” says General Cigar Co. creative director Michael Giannini, who has spearheaded General’s considerably creative Foundry line of cigars. “It’s gotta be cool and it’s gotta reflect what you’re trying to say. Because you don’t have a lot of time to get people’s attention…so when you get it very subconsciously, that’s when you win.”
“We have a saying here, about the sea of brown,” says Davidoff director of marketing Richard Krutick. “When you walk into a humidor, you’ve got brown shelves, brown boxes, brown cigars. And if you’re a guy who doesn’t know anything about cigars, and you walk into a humidor, you’re wondering what the hell am I looking for. So you have to break through the crowd. You have to be disruptive.”
While the Davidoff brand has excelled in the packaging wars, it’s really Avo that has been the standout. Recent years have seen boxes shaped (and lacquered) like a piano, and hinged boxes that open and sit upright like music books. The company has even included flash drives full of backstory and media, ostensibly including DVD-extras with the feature. This year’s Avo birthday cigar played again on the piano theme, offering a long single-tier box with black lacquer shaped to look like the keys of a grand piano.
One of the most memorable boxes of 2012 was the Rocky Patel Fifty, a 50th birthday smoke presented in a numbered, orange-velvet-lined box adorned on the outside with Swarovski crystals. “It was for Rocky’s 50th,” says Nish Patel of his brother. “We wanted to do something elegant and beautiful.” But Patel is also quick to point out that there are other ways to do “unique,” such as The Edge, a foot-banded cigar parked in conspicuously rustic 100-count cases. “When Edge first came out it was very unique. Nobody was putting cigars unbanded in factory trays,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be loud, it just has to be unique. He’s got to be able to say ‘wow.’ That’s what we’re looking for: that ‘wow’ factor.”
Giannini knows the wow factor well. Recent additions to the Foundry brand have included several over-the-top boxes, including a giant V-shaped upright box, and a cartoonish four-panel box shaped like a bundle of dynamite. “When I did Plutonium, the idea was it was just harkening back to my days of Wile E. Coyote—and I thought it would be a really cool expression to actually make a brick of dynamite. So then I went after chasing having these boxes designed, which, none of these boxes are easy to do.” Giannini says the innovation has pushed his factories to improve, and they’ve met the challenge aggressively. “[We’re] really taxing our box factories to come up with these unique shapes.
Because what they were used to doing—what most of the industry is used to doing—is squares and rectangles. And for me it’s really trying to have that emotional connection to the product as soon as you see it. So that’s what gets you there, and then once I get the consumer there it’s just picking up the cigar, and the blend lives up to the packaging.”
“The cigar is an experience, so it should be akin to unwrapping a gift,” says Eric Hanson, executive chairman of Klin Group, which produces Hammer + Sickle. “That’s the first experience a consumer has with the product, so we take it very seriously.” Hanson knows well the problem of setting yourself apart. As a company that first sold spirits, he says it was natural to release his original products in glass boxes. “All the traditional stuff didn’t really fit what we were trying to do.”
The glass box is unique among an industry collection of natural and painted wood. But it took a few tries to reinvent the wheel. “Yeah, we failed with it twice,” says Hanson. “We had a lid issue early on, we had a clarity issue early on, so this is the third iteration of that particular box.”
That innovation can have other implications down the line. In Hanson’s case, his glass box has found even more uses in its second life. “We get so many pictures of fish [swimming in the glass box]. We’ve got a picture from one woman who uses it as a cookie jar.”
Gurkha Cigar Group founder Kaizad Hansotia claims his boxes, some of which resemble old chests, others gleaming cubes, never get thrown out when the cigars have gone. “They keep it. And it becomes an heirloom… a lot of people say ‘I have your boxes from 10, 15 years ago,’ so it’s good to see that people keep our boxes.”
“People not only look at the boxes… they can use them,” says Patel. “They can be decorative pieces. That’s something they want along with the cigar.” Most cigar smokers will know the fascination that non-smokers have with emptied cigar boxes. You’ve probably seen them remade into purses or guitars, holding old keys and knicknacks in garages and workshops or simply stowing secrets in a back corner of a closet. “It’s brand marketing,” says Patel, “because if they keep these boxes they’re always looking at it.”
Hanson has used glass and other nontraditional materials as well, from metal to leather, and even marble. The only wooden box that Hanson has ever done was for a project called Second Growth. That project was meant to create a blend that paired perfectly with wine, and used Bordeaux barrels as the wood source. “I gave them to an Irish boat builder who took the staves and created cigar boxes,” he says.
None of this is to say that innovating the cigar box is easy or whimsical. Krutick explains that everything is carefully considered along the path to the humidor. “Everything has a purpose, so if we’re doing a packaging piece, it reinforces a story we’re trying to tell,” he says.
“Each one of my cigars basically has its own pedigree, its own style,” says Hansotia, who mentions specifically his Cellar Reserve line: “It looks like something someone’s been storing for years and years, like a wine barrel.” Hansotia knows the balance that needs to be struck between cigar and packaging—His Gurkha 125th Anniversary cigar was named No. 9 cigar of 2013. But the box—a hardwood treasure chest decorated with brass fittings—is equally noteworthy. “It’s a British colonial box. In the old days people used to go across with trunks on the East India ships—old steamer trunks. And I wanted to do a smaller version of a jewelry box kind of trunk for the 125th.”
Making creative boxes sometimes comes with a learning curve, especially when working with more fragile materials. “We had to learn some things with this stuff,” says Hanson. “I didn’t realize that the shipper plays football with these things. We had a lot of breakage early. Once we got through the glass, we took a lot more time and a lot more care in understanding the go-to-market part and what it has to go through.”
Lacquered boxes can also be a trip line for some producers. “You have to be very, very careful,” says Krutick, who acknowledges that bad lacquer jobs can affect not just presentation but also affect the taste and smell of the cigar. You’ve probably smelled similar off-notes in the past, when you cracked open a fresh box and found that the dominant aroma inside the box was not tobacco but paint or adhesive.
But the biggest hurdle is not the trial-and-error game with new ideas: it’s the cost. Patel has a very utilitarian explanation of the relationship. He sees packaging as sort of an exploitable necessity. “Most of the money should go into cigars,” he says.
“Packing is just an added cost.” Hanson estimates 14 percent of the total cost of his cigars comes from packaging. Avo typically is able to release its limited editions for around $13 a cigar—not an outrageous price if you consider the packaging as part of the final equation. There’s a balance that has to be struck between creating that aura around the product, and still being able to turn a profit. Davidoff’s special editions retail for even more, sometimes at suggested retail prices of more than $30 per cigar. “Especially when you think about a brand like Davidoff,” says Krutick. “It’s about the whole experience. It’s about getting that box, breaking that seal, opening the box, getting the smell of the cigars. It’s about that 360-degree customer experience. But you have to watch your packaging costs, or you’re not going to make any money on cigars.”
Recent years have seen other marketing innovations as well: a car-shaped limited-edition box from Nestor Miranda for his 70th Birthday, ceramic jars from Viaje. Daniel Marshall has gone so far as to coat cigars in gold leaf before offering them in 10-count coffined humidors for about $100 a cigar. Everyone is looking for ways to make a statement about the cigar before it gets lit. The conventional wisdom has evolved: people know they have to get products into the hands of customers. The battle line is drawn on those seconds of hesitation when you’re standing empty handed and thinking “What do I want
As for the packaging wars, they’re heating up. Hanson mentions copper and ceramic as future vessels. “We’ve played with copper a couple of times, we’ll use it at some point,” he says, with eagerness. “If you get the right copper, that patina is just this beautiful beautiful light green.”
Hansotia has a couple of materials he’s working with now including teak and graphite. “People forget that original humidors a hundred years ago were not cedar. It would have been made out of mahogany or made out of teak wood. But it’s so expensive nobody uses it anymore; they use cedar.” Hansotia is also playing with box designs for his next releases, eyeing graphite materials found on knives.
Hanson says that even at each year’s trade show he resists the urge to look at what other people are doing with their packaging. “I don’t do it for a reason: because I don’t want to get caught up in the sea of sameness. It’s very easy to do.” He says he’s happy with what the company produces because it fits the products well. As with most of the avant garde packaging crowd, Hanson is satisfied with what’s been accomplished so far. “At the end they’re gorgeous. I think it’s the right level of unique. It delivers the brand in a unique way without being over the top. We’re not faking anything.” Krutick, likewise waxes poetic on the topic. “When I think about it from a Davidoff perspective, you know we’re a luxury brand, and luxury brands have to be presented in a certain manner. Obviously the cigars are paramount…That’s what everyone’s smoking, that’s what everyone enjoys. But there’s the ambiance around it.”
They’re all looking ahead to this year’s trade show, where they’ll deliver a new round of cigars in new presentations. And in one way or another they’re all echoing what Nish Patel says: “You should see this year. It’s gonna blow you away.”