Life after Death
When BJ Cunningham created Death Cigarettes in the early 1990s, many thought he was a cocky young entrepreneur who wanted to stick two fingers up at the establishment by promoting what everyone was trying to deny: that cigarettes killed.
Even now, 15 years on, he’s still proud of what he achieved. “I’ve smoked since I was 14,” he says. “Fags rule, they’re great, that’s why people find it so difficult to give up. They always deliver. What we were doing was being honest.”
Cunningham’s ethos is simple. Marketing should be about honesty. The Enlightened Tobacco Company – the company behind Death Cigarettes – broke boundaries, and, it later proved, legislation.
“When I started Death, it was about honesty,” says Cunningham. “We were saying, ‘If you smoke, you’re going to die and die horribly.’ I still believe that. If you start smoking, you already know it’s going to kill you – it’s just about which brand will kill you.
“Why aren’t products marketed honestly? Why isn’t there a beer called Pissed? Or a butter called Coronary? With Death I sensed a market opportunity to launch a brand honestly, a brand consumers would buy into because they would react to the ‘who are you to say what I can and can’t do?’”
Needless to say, Cunningham’s not a fan of the smoking bans which are now in place in Scotland and are on their way in England. “The people who are behind that are pink-tinged, aubergine-eating curtain twitchers,” he rants. “They should be locked up. The smoking bans are a hypocrisy and laughable. There is no reason to go through this legislation. It just creates another consensual crime, when we already have too many consensual crimes.”
Cunningham is a softly spoken, passionate man. Having studied economics and social history at Exeter University, he went onto complete an MA in 3D Design.
“It’s really a grand way of saying pottery,” he laughs. “I’d never really made any decisions. I studied economics and social history because they were what I was best at. The whole idea of choosing what to do was alien to me.”
He had a privileged upbringing. His father worked in finance and the family lived all over the world, with a young Cunningham residing mainly at boarding school. “I had a very protected background,” he says. “When I graduated from university, I was desperate to not get a job, I think because I was so comfortably numb for so long. When I went to do 3D design, that was my first actual ‘choice’. I loved the way you could create form with your hands. I loved the spirit of ‘I made that’. That’s what really led me onto doing my own thing.” At 41, he’s discovered that there is little to be afraid of in life, and feels his five-year-old daughter is the most important achievement he has made.
When talking to him, it’s hard to believe this confident and obviously successful man was nearly £1million in debt in the late 1980s after his first business went wrong. After a few years of travelling, Cunningham set up a classic car import business called the Karma Connection. This started when he bought a Carmen Ghia on a trip to LA and was offered a considerable amount of money for it when he brought it back to the UK. “I hitchhiked from Hong Kong to Tibet, and then flew to LA, where I bought the Ghia,” he says. “When I was bringing it back, the customs man who was clearing it offered double what I’d paid for it, so I took the money and went back to LA where I bought two more.”
Unfortunately, the market collapsed overnight when the Government changed the tax laws on importing cars. Cunningham was now £876,000 in debt.
“It was a good lesson,” he says. “If you owe the bank £5,000 you are a bad debt, but if you owe them £876,000, you are a good customer. I was terrified. But I learned that I could still breathe, no one had died, I could eat and I could work. So I thought, ‘So fucking what?’ You come to a realisation that it’s no longer about shitting yourself – it’s about realising you can’t fail. When you’re that far down, the only way is up.”
Cunningham launched Death in 1991, and went through countless court cases before The Enlightened Tobacco Company was wound up in 1999, although the brand is still sold in certain boutique shops around the world.
“You can’t sell a product unless it’s on a shelf,” he says, pragmatically. “It sounds obvious, but the shelves which tobacco is sold on are owned by Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher in this country. They didn’t want our honest product next to their brands. So they controlled it.”
Since 1999, Cunningham has launched an advertising agency, Kunder & Co, in London, with the backing of a parent company in Copenhagen. In 2001, he sold the agency to his business partner. “I was very lucky,” he says. “I sold in August 2001, just before September 11. Since then, the agency has consolidated back to Copenhagen.”
He now focuses his energies on marketing his wife’s company, Georgina Goodman Shoes, for which he is using the same brand strategy that he used with Death – honesty.
“It just happens that the product is shoes, but we’re building it as an international luxury brand. Marketing is about expressing who you are, and doing that clearly. Sometimes marketing is about not doing business with people. A lot of shops would love to stock our brand, but we don’t let them as it’s not right for our brand. It’s about having 360-degree vision and being consistent.” He also runs a brand consultancy, Brand Evolution Workshop. “What is lovely about my position now is that I can be choosy in what I want to do,” he says.
“The biggest problem that clients have is that they’re bad at briefing. Most of the time they have problems expressing exactly what it is they want. The whole thing boils down to knowing what it is you want to do, knowing how you’re trying to say it, saying it clearly and doing what you say you’re going to do. I’m going to talk about love. Do not be afraid, but be in love with what you do. Cast no shadow.”
BJ Cunningham is a keynote speaker at this year’s annual Marketing Society of Scotland Conference which takes place in Edinburgh on 1 December. For more details, and booking information, go to www.marketingsociety.org.uk.