silent revolution happened during the past years that changed markets forever. For the first time in history consumers were given a voice, and they have been actively using it since, to re-shape whole industries with their feedbacks. Until recent times, businesses had to spend billions in consumer research, building complex and expensive methodologies to learn about their clients’ likes and dislike. E-commerce growth (further boosted by the COVID-19 crisis) and the critical role of consumer reviews changed this situation for good. Companies today can count on billions of spontaneous consumer feedbacks about product/service experience; not only these feedbacks are a treasure trove of actionable business insights of unprecedented quality, they also influence the purchase behavior of billions of consumers worldwide. This opportunity is particularly disruptive for the cigar industry. The very nature of cigars’ retail — heavily based on e-commerce and small tobacco shops — has prevented the category from having access to Nielsen-grade Retail Measurement datasets. E-commerce market data, and Consumer Reviews Analytics (CRA) in particular, are now offering the cigars industry a unique opportunity to have access to Market Performance Data of the same quality provided for years to FMCG companies.
Cigar smokers are connoisseurs and their reviews reflect that
E-Commerce merchants in every category know that consumer reviews drive sales, and the cigar industry is no exception. Since 2015, the leading cigars online merchants in the US have massively promoted consumer reviews, bringing them to a whopping 300,000 (as of Q1–20). JR Cigars and Cigars International have massively contributed to reviews’ growth, with the latter aggressively promoting them among their users in 2018.
This recent push brought Cigars International very close to JR cigars at a 34% share, but it lowered their RQR (Reviews Quality Ratio) to a still respectable 82%. The RQR metric indicates how many “good” reviews exist, i.e. feedbacks that are meaningful, information-dense and rich in opinions; it’s no surprise then that the two professional review sources, Halfwheel and Cigar Aficionado, get a 100% RQR. All the reviews that are very short or too generic (e.g.: “I liked this cigar”) are not bearing any insight, and they are also good fake reviews candidates. But fake reviews are a very rare occurrence in the cigars industry; as a matter of fact, 8 out of 10 cigar reviewers put great effort in writing very accurate reviews; just to put things into perspective, a lot of FMCG categories show a 50% RQR on average.
This is because cigars, very much like wine and meditation spirits, is a category that requires connoisseurship. Cigar smokers are discerning consumers who want to be in the know, and both the storytelling and a detailed smoking experience are a fundamental part of a cigar’s allure, just like a good bottle of wine.
"Fake reviews are a very rare occurrence in the cigars industry; as a matter of fact, 8 out of 10 cigar reviewers put great effort in writing very accurate reviews. This is a category for connoisseurs."
For the same reason, cigar smokers feel almost an obligation to share their experiences with others; and they do it with a greater deal of details compared to other categories, because accuracy means expertise. Thanks to this exceptional quality, consumer reviews in this industry are as influentials as the professional ones (if not more), and they play a key role in the cigars’ purchase process.
Consumer reviews are a beacon in a very crowded market
At the time of this article, more than 700 cigar Brands are currently sold in US, accounting for almost 3,000 different lines, counting up to tens of thousands of different vitolas. Not exactly an easy market to navigate in, and consumer reviews are the beacons guiding this difficult exploration.
Cigars is an information-dense market that is not driven by sheer impulse, regardless the pricing point. The cigar smokers’ consumer journey takes time, as people want to make their purchase choices as consciously as possible.
"Cigars is not exactly an easy market to navigate in, and consumer reviews are the beacons guiding this difficult exploration."
Trial is still admitted (hence the great success of merchant’s samplers), but the Conviction phase plays a key role in the journey; consumers do not want to buy a 30-cigars box only to discover later that they don’t like the product. For this reason, reading peer reviews is the single most important activity for consumers’ Preference in this market.
The chart above maps cigar Brands according to their Average Rating and Net Opinion Score (NOS), a proprietary measure that calculates the polarity of the opinions expressed by the consumers in their reviews. At an average rating of 4,28 (on a scale from 1 to 5), reviews in this category tend to be almost enthusiastic. This means that Brands need to keep very high standards to be preferred, and any Brand below 4.0 is significantly underperforming. The top right quadrant show the Brands that are exceptionally loved, with the infused Tabak Especial from Drew Estate leading the way. The top left quadrant, on the other hand, shows highly-coveted Brands that are also very segmenting; “not for everyone”, one might say. The highly praised Aging Room Brand, Camacho and many other Davidoff Brands belong to this peculiar segment.
In this scenario, it is very important that a company knows exactly how their Brands map out on merchants’ websites. Consumer reviews are a low-perishable kind of content; this is absolutely fantastic for Brands that can count on a lot of positive reviews, but it is a terrible curse for those that have an excess of negative ones. Brands like H. Upmann need to act carefully, because they have significant amounts of negative reviews that will be visible for a long time.
What cigar smokers really care about?
Reading and understanding 300K consumer reviews in one breath is no easy feat, and this is where Artificial Intelligence comes to help. We asked our A.I. to identify the key performance topics of the category, as they are defined by consumers’ spontaneous words.
12 different types of opinions, spanning from Aroma to Texture, are expressed here. Not surprisingly, aromatic descriptions account for one third of the total mentions. But the volume of mentions say nothing about what topics really drive consumers’ decisions. Category’s professionals consider strength and intensity to be essential aspects of a good cigar, and yet their mentions account only for a mere 4,2% of the total. Does it mean these performance drivers do not matter? Not necessarily. Further analysis will help us discover what are the most influential drivers, i.e. those that move the final rating the most.
We can find the answer in the Key Performance Drivers map shown above, where we identify 3 key areas:
- POINTS OF PARITY: this area includes the drivers that consumer tend to mention when they are happy. There’s no big room for improvement here, but a Brand must perform at least on par with its competitors;
- POINTS OF DIFFERENCE: mention of drivers in this area bring the rating significantly down— these are aspects people are usually unhappy with. This is an area of potential differentiation, where Brands have an opportunity to up their game and win over competition;
- IRRELEVANT: these 2 areas include performance drivers that have no significant impact on the rating.
The two key performance drivers smokers are very unhappy with are:
- BUILD, i.e. the tobacco quality and the assembly of a cigar, and
- DRAW & BURN, i.e. the ability of the cigar to stay consistently lit and burn at an even pace to allow a pleasant smoke.
INTENSITY might sometimes have a negative impact on reviews, but it doesn’t significantly move the needle. A Brand wanting to lead the market must know these general dynamics, and must also understand what are its weaknesses and strengths in consumers’ eyes. Relying only on a fancy concept to win the market is not enough; it might stimulate trial, but the only road towards success (and profits) is to carefully profile your Brands against the competition on the most influential performance drivers, and improve performance accordingly.
DRAW & BURN is really an opportunity area for category players. As shown in the chart above, very few Brands show a positive Net Opinion Score in this area. All the other Brands have at least some occasional issue on this topic that often overturns an otherwise positive aromatic performance.
Learn to speak your consumers’ language
Today Artificial Intelligence can help you discover powerful insights from a huge cloud of indistinct Big Data, in ways that were impossible before. Behind every Key Performance Driver listed here there’s a list of keywords automatically identified by our next-gen geometric A.I., that analyzes reviews as a complex matrix of geometrical connections. This approach provides x10 more recall than a normal NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology, and x50 more than a human-made list. This extraordinary feat means that no opinion slips outside of the analysis, significantly reducing the risk of selection bias. As an example, consumers use a variety of more than 1,000 aroma descriptors for cigars. A vocabulary in its own right, that needs to be studied and understood to successfully communicate with consumers. Thanks to its unparalleled accuracy, our A.I. teaches us consumers’ “secret” language, revealing the existence of a specific category’s vocabulary.
The word cloud above is populated with all the keywords that represent an aromatic trait. It is interesting to notice hw cigars smokers use the noun “flavor” to describe a pleasant aroma, while “taste” is used in reference to negative ones. Knowing these language nuances is essential to communicate effectively to consumers, as the wrong word would subliminally convey negative emotions to their unconscious. Similarly, when referring to the piquant notes of some cigars, smokers use the adjective “peppery” as a negative connotation, whereas the same concept is expressed positively by using the term “spice” and all its variations/derivatives. Multiply this phenomenon for each and every key performance driver, and it will be clear how imperative is for Brands to learn their consumers’ own language.
The advent of consumer reviews has changed the way companies understand market dynamics for good. Today a world of opportunities unravels as Artificial Intelligence and Big Data merge to create powerful datasets of unprecedented width and depth, offering a rich gamut of insights. Today companies can see their market with unprecedented clarity; the time of blindness is eventually over, and the cigar category is no exception.