The Djarum brand was born in 1951 in Kudus in Central Java, Indonesia. Although originally focused on producing clove cigarettes for the Indonesian market, two decades later, the company was exporting its products around the world, mostly through specialty tobacco shops.
By the 1980s, the US media was taking notice of clove cigarettes. In 1985, Time was reporting on the “clove craze,” led by Djarum and a competitor brand called Jakarta. At the time, US importers dubbed cloves as a “low tobacco alternative” to regular cigarettes, according to the article. Some tobacconists even promoted cloves as a “healthier” alternative, a misconception that remains today. With candy-flavored varieties like Cherry and Vanilla, as well as the mellow aftertaste, a smoker could think cloves were far from lung-cancer inducing.
Into the 1990s, cloves, and Djarums in particular, remained a fashionable choice mainly for college students, bohemian-types and the pseudo-intellectual. One reason was the price: Djarum cigarettes cost over US$ 5 a pack, making it a luxury – that is, until the tobacco settlements in the late 1990s forced the price of regular cigarettes up, almost matching the cost of cloves. In 2004, you can now purchase a pack of Djarum cigarettes for a cool $6.99, still pricey but not exorbitant.
Today’s smokers of Djarum are “upscale, open-minded and adventurous adults who smoke less and appreciate an alternative experience to mainstream cigarettes,” according to Sean Cassar, VP of marketing for Kretek International, the main distributor of Djarum cigarettes in the US since 2001. “They are more occasional smokers who smoke less than a pack of cigarettes each week,” Cassar continues, and their average age is “between 21 and 35.”
Djarum’s popularity among this group is directly related to its unspoken acknowledgment that smokers who choose their cigarettes are fastidious, and want them to reflect or perhaps heighten their sense of self and lifestyles.
Each brand of Djarum plays on the consumer’s desire to smoke something truly distinct. For instance, the Djarum Splash carton features an orange, sculpted surfer and is described on the brand’s website as “created for those with active and sporty lifestyles.” The Bali Hai carton features an underwater scene and is described by the website as “created for those who love nature and adventure.” Key words on the packaging and website are “unique,” “exotic,” “distinguished” and “evocative.”
What’s remarkable about Djarum’s branding success is that it does not derive from pegging its cigarettes as “Indonesian” —at least not at first. The cartons acknowledge the country of origin but do not stress it. This may enhance the “exotic” and “unique” contours of the Djarum brand by introducing a clever bit of mystery into the minds of consumers. To find out more about Djarum cigarettes, you have to want to search out the story of their origin. Some smokers, however, might simply agree with Djarum that the mystique of cloves is parts of their attraction and leave it at that.
What a curious customer would learn is that Djarum is one of more than 500 clove brands that exists in Indonesia, where for over 100 years they have been known as “kreteks” and where their production is inexorably linked to the local economy, culture and politics.
More than 10 million Indonesians are directly or indirectly employed in the tobacco industry. It’s also the largest source of tax revenue for the Indonesian government, after oil and gas, making tobacco producers critical players in the political system. Yet kreteks could never have survived without the fierce loyalty of Indonesians: an estimated 140 million smokers consumed 204 billion cigarettes in 2002, making it the fifth-largest tobacco market in the world.
“Kretek is very much a national symbol as well as a source of pride for Indonesians,” says Mark Hanusz, the author of Kretek: The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia’s Clove Cigarettes. Djarum itself is incredibly popular in Indonesia, and according to Hanusz, “far and away the most aggressive advertiser... in both urban and rural areas.” Along with PT Sampoerna and Gundang Garam, Djarum dominates 75 percent of the Indonesian market.
The dark side of this equation is that smoking clove cigarettes, like all tobacco products, is a public health issue: they’re addictive and consistent use can cause life-threatening diseases. Recent articles and research have even argued that cloves have a higher tar and nicotine content than regular cigarettes. Djarum, along with the other large clove cigarette producers, will need to address the public health issue in the coming years – from its own sense of self-preservation or by compulsion – as countries around the world piece together anti-smoking legislation.
The public health debate is only just beginning in Indonesia, according to Hanusz, who explains it’s “a normal progression of a developing country being able to focus on prolonging life after being concerned about more basic issues like having enough to eat, shelter and education.”
The Indonesian government has promised the World Health Organization that it will restrict cigarette advertising and smoking in public spaces by 2005; however, no political or legislative impetus currently exists to regulate the tobacco industry.
In the US, much of public health officials’ attention is directed toward the growing popularity of clove cigarettes as well as other flavored tobaccos, such as bidis (hand-rolled Indian cigarettes), among American teens. Given the sweet flavors, the exotic aromas and allure of clove cigarettes, this probably comes as no surprise – teenagers want what’s hip, unusual and tasty.
In an interview in 2000 for National Petroleum News, Kretek International vice president Mike Cassar (brother to Sean) acknowledged the effectiveness of Djarum’s branding in appealing to an audience interested in the uncommon smoke: “Because it’s a great package doesn’t mean you’re marketing for a 16-year-old kid. It’s just a nice package. Sometimes people confuse that so that’s why we make a big point of warning labels.”
This might seem disingenuous to some, and admittedly, warning labels – and higher prices, for that matter – do little to dissuade teenagers looking for methods of rebelling. To that end, public officials and policy-makers are looking to more stringent controls: a few US states have already passed legislation to prohibit the sale of clove cigarettes, while a proposed bill currently in front of the US Congress would ban their importation.
Whatever happens, Djarum clove cigarettes have become, like certain brands of cigars and other specialty tobacco, a global lifestyle accessory. Uncommon, select, exotic — just right for its particular crowd.