Missions getting blurred. Banks, brokers and...


April 10, 1993

TALK ABOUT missions getting blurred. Banks, brokers and insurers are stepping on each others' toes these days. Others are stepping on theirs. Supermarkets have long tried to sell anything a customer could want. Now it's financial services as well.

Supermarkets started competing with the post office years ago, selling books of stamps at face value. Some larger chains installed automated teller machines where you could do your banking, not just get cash for their goods. Many accept banks' debit cards in payment for purchases, the equivalent of a check.

Now some of them are getting hard to distinguish from a bank's drive-up window. The other evening one of our colleagues, on his way out of town, suddenly realized he was low on cash. He had passed the last bank ATM he knew about. But there was a market he occasionally shopped at just ahead. He pulled up to the door and --ed inside, hoping to find a MOST machine.

There wasn't one, but a helpful clerk said the market would give him up to $50 on his debit card if he bought something -- anything. He grabbed a tube of toothpaste and headed for the express line, extolling blurred missions.

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FOR STOCK analysts mystified by the 23 percent free-fall in the value of Phillip Morris after the company lowered its cigarette prices to combat generic brands, this department has an explanation not found elsewhere.

As we all know, the company's identification with a bellboy shouting "Call for Philip Morris," belongs to the era when Lucky Strike Green went to war.

PM's huge profits in recent decades have come from the Marlboro cowboy, one of the most potent product promotion gimmicks in marketing history. The personification of the Great Frontier, he rode the Marlboro brand to the top of the charts.

Today Marlboro commands an astounding 25.8 percent of market share, more than three times greater than its nearest rival, Winston. One of its unopened red and white packs passes for currency in Moscow and other soft-money entrepots. And yet? And yet? Beginning in 1989 Marlboro and other name brands began to lose sales to generic brands.

Was it a matter of money? Were addicts of coffin nails willing to give up the real thing for an off brand at half the price? Sure.

But how's this for another reason: In 1989, Ronald Reagan ceased being president! The Hollywood actor who embodied all outdoors, who loved chopping wood on his ranch, who even rode a horse in some cowboy Westerns was suddenly off the screen. And with him went the American politician who most closely approximated the Marlboro man.

This department does not know if the Marlboro cowboy will soon go the way of the Philip Morris bellboy, but we know that the stood taller, squinted further and rode into many more sunsets.

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