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Why hasn’t JUUL caught on in the UK?

JUUL is America’s most popular e-cigarette by a wide margin, and it’s well known throughout the world – even in regions where it isn’t officially available yet. For the first several years of its existence, however, it wasn’t possible to buy JUUL here in the United Kingdom. At the time, JUUL was available in only one nicotine strength – a whopping 59 mg/ml – giving it almost triple the maximum nicotine content legally allowed here for e cigarettes. Therefore, it wasn’t possible to sell it here.

In 2018, JUUL finally launched in the UK with the lower nicotine strength manded by local law – and the public greeted it with a collective sigh. While JUUL has certainly enjoyed a fair amount of mainstream success here, it hasn’t enjoyed anywhere near the level of popularity that it has in the United States, where it outsells other e-cigarettes in traditional retail outlets by a three-to-one margin. It also hasn’t become a cultural phenomenon here as it has on the other side of the Atlantic.

JUUL has also attempted to expand to other regions around the world, such as India, South Korea and the Philippines. In those regions, the public response to JUUL has ranged from indifference to outright rejection.

So, why hasn’t JUUL caught on in the UK? Backed by an investment of billions of dollars by tobacco giant Altria, one would think that the JUUL brand would be much bigger here than it is. Let’s explore three potential reasons why JUUL hasn’t enjoyed the sales numbers in the UK that some people expected.

No unique value proposition

One of the biggest reasons why the JUUL brand has had such success in the United States is because, at the time of its release, it had a unique value proposition in that it was released alongside a new and patented form of e-liquid called nicotine salt e-liquid. Compared to standard e-liquid, nicotine salt vape juice had greater smoothness and could deliver as much nicotine as a tobacco cigarette without causing throat irritation. The more efficient nicotine delivery almost instantly made JUUL the brand of choice for American smokers who wanted to switch to vaping.

In the UK, two factors have limited JUUL’s sales prospects.

  • At the time of its launch in the United States, JUUL was the only e-cigarette brand with nicotine salt e-liquid and a cigarette-like nicotine strength. It took several years for JUUL to launch in the United Kingdom, and by that time, most of the vape shops here already carried nicotine salt e-liquid.
  • In the UK, the Tobacco Products directive limits the maximum nicotine strength of any e-liquid to 20 mg/ml. In the US, JUUL’s standard nicotine strength is 59 mg/ml – and at the time of its release, no other brand offered anywhere near that nicotine strength. The fact that JUUL can’t be sold in higher nicotine strengths here has prevented the brand from carving out a unique niche.

Considering those two factors, the JUUL brand doesn’t have the differentiating features here that it did upon its release in the US. Effectively, it is just another e-cigarette brand, and it has to compete on equal footing with the many other brands that exist here.

No social media blitz

The JUUL brand’s first three years in the US market were characterized by a massive social media blitz in which JUUL positioned itself as a fashionable lifestyle brand for young people. When the brand entered the market, JUUL held expensive launch parties in posh locales, ran lavish ad campaigns featuring young, attractive models and paid social media influencers to promote the brand.

In the United States, JUUL’s youth-oriented marketing has had a serious consequence in that more than 5 million school-aged children in the US now vape – and the majority of those children prefer the JUUL brand. US government officials have even accused JUUL of marketing to children intentionally.

Launching an e-cigarette brand with an enormous social media push – as JUUL did in 2015 – was something that could only ever happen once. Instagram and the other major social media platforms have since changed their rules and no longer allow influencers to advertise vaping products.

Without that social media push, however, JUUL lost another of its potential differentiating factors in the UK. It’s even possible that a social media push from a vaping brand wouldn’t have had the same response here that it had in the US. In the UK, people view e-cigarettes as health products rather than lifestyle gadgets. Among e-cigarette users here, there seems to be little desire for vaping devices to appear trendy or fashionable.

Lack of public trust

In addition to the other factors mentioned above, it is also possible that JUUL hasn’t enjoyed a significant level of success here because the brand’s history of youth use has harmed its reputation. The US vaping epidemic is worldwide news, and it’s no secret that the JUUL brand is at the centre of that controversy.

It’s also no secret that JUUL received a $12.8 billion cash infusion from tobacco giant Altria – the maker of Marlboro cigarettes – in 2018. Although Altria only purchased a 35-percent stake in JUUL, the investment effectively makes JUUL a Big Tobacco brand.

In terms of public trust, then, JUUL has a serious double whammy on its hands. The brand has been directly accused of intentionally marketing and selling its products to children, and Big Tobacco’s lengthy history of doing exactly the same thing is well documented. It is entirely possible that some smokers have consciously avoided trying the JUUL e-cigarette simply because they don’t want to contribute to the controversy; many of them likely became hooked on nicotine as youths themselves.

The vaping industry began as a network of small businesses who operated independently from – and consciously avoided any potential connections with – Big Tobacco. Those small businesses have collectively worked hard to earn and maintain public trust. It’s possible that JUUL’s lack of success in the UK stems at least in part from a lack of desire among the public to cede any portion of the vaping market to Big Tobacco.

John Saunders/London Loves Business