Welcome to Marlboro Country: Philip Morris Stakes a Last Claim in the West

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The iconic cowboy disappeared from television decades ago. But with the help of a Montana dude ranch, the cigarette company is keeping his legend alive.

marlboro-top.jpg Philip Morris Inc.

The invitation reached Rachel Munyon as she returned home to her California apartment one evening in December 2011. Ripping open the cardboard flap of the thick Fed-Ex express envelope, she pulled out a letter.

"Congratulations!" it read: she was a winner in Marlboro's "Rock the Ranch" sweepstakes. All she had to do was fill out the enclosed paperwork and submit to a background check, and she and one guest of her choice would be heading off on a four-day, all-expense-paid ranch vacation. "I just started screaming and freaking out and, like, jumping up and down," she told me.

Rachel called her boyfriend to share the news, and later that night, the two went out to dinner and completed the stack of forms. Several weeks later, they received a package with their finalized itineraries, round-trip plane tickets, a check for the associated taxes, and a pair of MasterCard gift cards to cover the cost of checking luggage. Then came a box holding two red-and-black wheeled duffel bags.

In February, the couple boarded a flight to southern Montana, wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of the Crazy Mountain Ranch.They would join roughly a hundred other guests from across the country, some of the thousands who arrive each year for a luxury stay in the heart of the Rockies, courtesy of Philip Morris USA.

Though most of Marlboro's domestic tobacco is grown in the silt of Appalachia, the brand has long carried a flavor of the American West. The marketing concept goes back to the 1950s, when Philip Morris added filter tips to the product line in response to the first studies linking smoking and lung cancer. Early market research suggested that the public viewed filters as effective but effeminate, and Marlboro, which for decades had been sold as a premium ladies' cigarette, needed a way to stand out from a new set of competitors.

Philip Morris turned to the Chicago-based Leo Burnett agency, whose advertisers dropped Marlboro's price point and long-time "Mild as May" slogan, and staged a new campaign featuring icons of male autonomy: sun-cured men repairing cars, cleaning guns, cupping a flame in tattooed hands, or squinting into the distance over whirls of smoke.

Sales increased 3,241 percent in 1955, the year the new ads rolled out. Those featuring the cowboy -- "an almost universal symbol of admired masculinity," as Leo Burnett wrote to Philip Morris's advertising director in a letter outlining the campaign -- drew the strongest response.

By the early 1960s, just before the Surgeon General's advisory committee issued its verdict on the health risks of smoking, the theme had evolved into the mythical "Marlboro Country," where cowboys in white hats rode horseback between golden grass and blue skies, or sat around a campfire with an open red-topped pack posed next to the crackling flames. The message beckoned over airwaves and from newspaper pages: "Come to where the flavor is."

Then the ads disappeared -- first from broadcast media after Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in 1970, and later from billboards and other outdoor spaces as part of the Master Settlement Agreement in the late 1990s. When the FDA won regulatory control over the tobacco industry a few years ago, the agency tightened limits on the sale of branded merchandise and banned sponsorships of sporting and entertainment events. Tobacco companies also pulled campaigns from many print publications to comply with rules against targeting youth.

As traditional advertising avenues were cut off one by one, Philip Morris started to develop more-direct methods of customer outreach. In the early 1970s, a Marlboro chuck wagon toured the state fair circuit, serving up sourdough biscuits and publicity. The next decade saw the development of the company's customer database, a repository of smoker information drawn from bar giveaways and event signups.

Then in the 1990s, with the Master Settlement looming and the lobby for FDA regulation underway, attention shifted to an emerging business strategy known as "relationship marketing." Where traditional marketing emphasized individual sales, this new model traded in human economics:investments in individual customers, through direct communication and rewards, could pay off in long-term loyalty and word-of-mouth promotion. And so, in the spirit of new enterprise, Marlboro again looked West.

***

Crazy Mountain Ranch is settled beneath the eponymous range -- named, legend goes, after a madwoman who disappeared in its jagged slopes during Westward expansion. Peaks cut into the sky like sawteeth. The ranch's lodge-pole entrance gate straddles grassy foothills about 30 miles northwest of Livingston, Montana, an hour and a half from the nearest commercial airport, at the end of a gravel road that curls like smoke around the rises. Nick Fullerton, the architect who designed the original guest facilities, says that the drive "takes you out of this world that we're in today, and kind of prepares you for the sight once you get there."

The dude operation, surrounded by 18,000 acres of secluded grassland and a working cattle outfit, was known as Deadrock Guest Ranch until Philip Morris bought the place from the publishing entrepreneur Glenn Patch in 2000. Patch had borrowed the name "Deadrock" from the fictional town in the novels of Tom McGuane -- who owns a ranch just over the county line -- for his own creative venture: a full-scale recreation of a 19th-century frontier settlement. He hired Fullerton for the task in the early 1990s. The architect's team hauled together the remains of a few crumbling homesteads on the property, and rigged new structures with reclaimed materials and antique furnishings scavenged from around the region. The town, which Philip Morris later expanded, features some 20 buildings -- including a saloon, a two-story hotel, and a stone jail -- with period facades hiding modern plumbing and electrical wiring.

The ranch operates as a customer retreat eight months out of the year, shutting down during the cold, gray stretch before the first snow falls and again while grass fights through the melting slush. Every rugged detail is carefully calibrated. Employees dressed in red western shirts and cowboy boots pick up guests and their duffel bags from the airport in a convoy of tour buses. More employees, on horseback, wait along a stretch of road between the entrance gate and the frontier town. A dispatcher radios the riders after the convoy passes through the gate, and when the first bus crests the hill just before town, they gallop out from behind trees, whips cracking, to lead guests down the slope onto main street.

When Rachel and her boyfriend arrived in the ice of February, the horses were stabled, but the buses were met by more employees in red shirts and boots who carried their bags into private rooms. Each bed was piled with gifts: a Stetson hat, boots, wool socks, a heavy and light jacket, and five packs of each guest's preferred Marlboro-brand cigarettes, selected in the pre-trip paperwork. (The pile used to include a number of smaller gifts, but the ranch recently switched to a system of wooden tokens, good for $150, which can be used to "purchase" digital cameras, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and other souvenirs at the General Store.) The only place guests could spend their own money was inside the saloon bathroom, where a quarter-fed vending machine dispensed pain medication.

Depending on the season, daytime activities at the ranch include trips to nearby Yellowstone Park, skeet shooting, river rafting, scenic horseback rides, and cross-country skiing. During their winter visit, Rachel and her boyfriend mushed a dog sled, rode a zip line between stands of Ponderosa pines, and spent a day snowmobiling on the upper bounds of the property. "I was calling my mom every day saying, I can't believe this, it's getting better!" she said. After gourmet dinners, guests gathered for parties in the saloon with live music, entertainment, and an open bar. One night,employees built a bonfire on an outdoor patio and passed out skewers of chicken and rattlesnake meat, while wood and tobacco plumes twisted toward the stars.

***

Rachel discovered the Crazy Mountain Ranch eight years ago, when she turned 21 and logged onto Marlboro's Web site for the first time. She'd started smoking Marlboro Menthols when she was 17, but Philip Morris, like all the major U.S. tobacco companies, restricts direct marketing communications to smokers 21 or older -- a voluntary measure, according to the company, to prevent contact with an underage audience. (The site's age-verification form, which requires each visitor to enter his or her name, address, last four social-security digits, and preferred smoke or smokeless product, is also a funnel to the mailing list.)

On the site, Rachel came across a gallery of ranch photos, showing people having fun against a backdrop of beautiful scenery. She had never been to Montana, but had always loved Western movies and cowboys. The site shared few details about how to visit, though, and none of the friends or family members she asked had heard about the place. Then out one night in early 2011, she met a guy whose girlfriend had won a trip and brought him along. He raved about the experience, and Rachel was mesmerized. She scoured the web for information in past winners' blogs, and started placing daily calls to Marlboro's 800 number, bombarding the customer service representatives with her interest in going.After almost a year of persistence, she received a form for the limited-entry Rock the Ranch sweepstakes.

Marlboro selects other winners straight from the customer database, in a process David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria Group -- the parent company of Philip Morris USA -- would describe only as "more thought than randomness." Mike, an IT consultant from Alabama whose friend Shawn received an unsolicited invitation seven years ago and invited him as a guest, thought at first that the offer must be a scam. Shawn had signed up for a Marlboro promotion at a bar one night in college, about 10 years before, but had since quit smoking. Now he was being offered the vacation of a lifetime, for free?

"It sounded too good to be true," Mike told me. "There's a catch. We're going to get out there, and they're going to try to sell us a timeshare, or there's going to be some brainwashing session for Philip Morris." He completed the required paperwork and packed his things in the red luggage that arrived one day in the mail. But, he said, "I think I was still skeptical until we got on the plane."

He arrived at the ranch to find scarcely a trace of the Marlboro brand.The ranch property isn't exempt from federal or state regulations, like the law that any object featuring the brand -- right down to the dinner menus -- must also carry a warning from the Surgeon General. But Philip Morris also seems to avoid subtler opportunities to push their products,even asking employees who smoke to take cigarette breaks in an alley between buildings, out of guests' sight.

Mike's suspicions faded as he shot clay pigeons, tried out a branding iron, and hiked with Shawn through the mountains. "In retrospect, and prior, certainly, to going on the trip, I just kept going over in my mind: what could possibly be their motive for doing this?" he said. "During the trip itself, it was not really something that was on your mind, just because you're having so much fun."

This hands-off approach, of course, has its own marketing role. Tobacco companies have traditionally hitched their brands to abstract concepts, appealing to the desires and aspirations of their intended audiences as much as to their taste preferences. Relationship marketing, which exploded at the close of the 20th century, presented an opportunity to relate those ideas without the frame of a television screen or magazine spread. Camel targeted its base of trend-conscious urbanites with a "VIP Club" whose members could access special travel deals and product discounts. Virginia Slims, whose cigarettes were usually featured in ads dangling from the fingertips of attractive, fashionable young women, solicited sweepstakes entries for a $50,000 shopping spree.

Marlboro bought up acreage. "One of the core elements of the Marlboro brand are these ideas of spirit, freedom, and adventure," Sylvia said. "The goal of the ranch out in Montana is to really allow the consumers to really experience those elements firsthand."

Internal documents made public as part of the Master Settlement Agreement explain Marlboro's own stake. In the two years prior to the purchase of the Crazy Mountain Ranch, Philip Morris had rented Patch's land -- along with another ranch in Montana's Gallatin Valley and a third in Arizona -- for occasional smoker promotions. Company communications discussing future marketing strategies refer to the success of the ranch promotions in developing loyalty and conversation among those most coveted demographic groups: young smokers and their friends.

"This program generated news and excitement among young adult smokers," one executive wrote to Marlboro's vice president in a memo discussing the planned ranch purchase. According to post-trip surveys, ranch visits increased the likelihood that both winners and guests -- particularly those between 21 and 29 -- would purchase Marlboro in the future. Trip winners also went on to purchase Marlboro significantly more often than other types of cigarettes. The vast majority of visitors reported leaving the ranch with an improved image of the brand, and a high likelihood of telling their friends back home about the experience. (Both winners and guests must be 21 or older to be eligible for the trip, but Sylvia declined to comment on whether the invitations target young customers in particular.)

Marlboro has become the top player in the American tobacco market -- controlling 43 percent of retail as of 2012 -- with a strong base of young and loyal customers. Marty Barrington, the CEO of Altria Group, announced at a consumer conference last fall that Marlboro had outscored every major competitor for brand equity -- a measure of customers' likelihood to choose a product over similar options in the marketplace.

He also highlighted the "excellent demographics" of Marlboro smokers: the brand's share of 21- to 29-year-olds is higher than those of the two largest competitors combined. While the approximate retail value for sweepstakes prizes in the last few years has been roughly $5,000, a single pack-a-day smoker can contribute tens of thousands of dollars to Big Tobacco's coffers over a lifetime, even after discounting federal and state taxes -- and before adding revenue from new customers drawn in by extension.

And if the Crazy Mountain Ranch offers Marlboro rare sanctuary from pressures beyond the fence, it does no less for those who visit. Most states have passed laws against lighting up in restaurants, workplaces, or bars. Smokers are gouged by excise taxes while their habit is decried by public health campaigns. In the frontier town, cigarette smoke is invisible in ubiquity -- a relief, for some, from attention off the property, which may threaten sales more than any advertising ban. Although Rachel said she understands the social stigma against smoking, and doesn't plan to be a smoker for the rest of her life, she enjoyed the brief respite offered by the Crazy Mountain Ranch."If I'm out shopping, [or] leaving a restaurant, I don't smoke till I get to my car," Rachel said. "Because you do get looked at a lot. It's hard."

Her experience reflects a changing market, one that clouds the outlook for cigarette promotions like the ranch. "The rate of cigarette smoking in the United States has been declining for over 30 years, and we expect that it will continue to decline," David Sylvia told me. A recent Gallup poll found that just one in five adults reported smoking in the previous week. That rate that has never been lower -- it's less than half of what it was when Marlboro's cowboy first gazed past the camera. Philip Morris's cigarette sales flat-lined last year, just above a three percent industry-wide decline.

In October 2011, with business flagging, Altria announced a plan to cut $400 million in costs, primarily in "cigarette-related infrastructure," by the end of this year. Opportunity is rich overseas: in 2008, Altria spun off its foreign operations to free them of U.S. legal and image entanglements, and Philip Morris International has been reaching into markets like China, where some 40 percent of the world's cigarettes are produced and smoked.

But "cigarette smoking still is legal in this country," Sylvia said, "and Philip Morris USA will continue to try to market in a responsible way so that when adults who do smoke decide which brands to choose, that they'll choose Marlboro."

Along with the rest of the industry, Philip Morris has been emphasizing the small but growing smokeless category, and some companies are expanding into new territory altogether (Lorillard, one of Altria's major competitors, recently purchased a company that manufactures electronic cigarettes). According to Sylvia, "One of our goals is to find ways to reduce the harm related to tobacco use. What that means for the long term, for the Marlboro brand, and thus the Marlboro ranch? It's hard to say."

The pursuit of free land in the West is, after all, a dated idea. The U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed in 1890, and the Crazy Mountain Ranch is marked with the footprints of earlier pioneers: stretched out in the southern shadow of the Crazies, where William Clark passed on his return journey from the Pacific coast, its buildings raised from fallen ones. But for now, the parties and the promise carry on in Marlboro Country, as the sun burns down into the western horizon, glowing orange and then extinguished.

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Sarah Yager is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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