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Reefer Madness At Havatampa


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REEFER MADNESS AT HAVATAMPA

Not many of the folks down at sleepy little Havatampa Inc. know much about fads in the inner city. So it came as a shock to the Tampa-based cigar manufacturer when sales of one of its products--a $1-per-five-pack cigar known as the Phillies Blunt--suddenly started shooting up. Blunts, it seems, have become a status symbol among inner-city youths--immortalized in song by the likes of Latino rappers Cypress Hill. "It's a real head-shaker," marvels Ruth Bruzel, a Havatampa senior vice-president. "We didn't even know these rap musicians were singing songs about us."

A pleasant boost to sales that any company would enjoy? Hardly. This new popularity of Phillies Blunts has become what Westport (Conn.) marketing consultant Peter Flatow terms "a very tough problem" in damage control for the 87-year-old, closely held Havatampa.

The reason: Blunts are now among the paraphernalia of choice for urban pot smokers. On the street, to "get blunt" means to slice open a blunt--a generic term for a flat-ended cigar--and restuff it with marijuana. The result is an extra-large joint veiled by the odor of cigar smoke. And with the resurgence of marijuana smoking, the trend is spreading among suburban Generation Xers, as well.

PIRATE CAPS. What's a company to do? Havatampa has found it cannot do much to dampen drug users' enthusiasm for its product. It has decided instead to focus on protecting its brand's image. Phillies Blunts' red and white logo has been showing up--largely in pirated versions--on T-shirts and caps nationwide, making it almost as synonymous with pot-smoking as the marijuana leaf was in the 1960s. "It's been trademarked since the '50s," says Chief Executive Thomas D. Arthur. "But we'd never had occasion to enforce it before this."

Havatampa's solution: It approached a small company, Not From Concentrate, in New York City that already was bootlegging the logo and struck a deal. In return for maintaining quality control and avoiding any direct association with marijuana, the marketer has exclusive rights to reproduce the logo on shirts, caps, and sweatgear. Now, says Jeremy Hurely, a co-founder of Not From Concentrate, "it's our best seller." Still, for every legitimate T-shirt sold, lots are still bootlegged.

Meanwhile, to avoid the appearance of profiting from the products, Havatampa is donating the $24,000 in royalties it has earned so far to inner-city charities. Apart from that, executives say, about all they can do is wait and hope that smoking a blunt one day goes back to meaning puffing on a cheap cigar.Julie Tilsner in New York


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