This exceptionally rare 1917 calendar poster for State Express 555 cigarettes from our collection, tells the unlikely story of a Western brand that, with one simple trick, became a top-seller in China and was even endorsed by the country’s most notorious “influencer” …
State Express were luxury cigarettes manufactured in the United Kingdom by the Ardath Tobacco Company. The brand was founded in London in 1896 by tobacco merchant Sir Albert Levy (1864–1937).
The idea for State Express cigarettes came to Levy while he was visiting the USA and was a passenger on the Empire State Express train, which broke land speed records with its "Queen of Speed" locomotive No. 999. Levy subsequently registered the numerals 111 to 999 as trademarks for his various tobacco mixtures in the UK on 18 February 1907. The far most successful of these variations was the Virginia tobacco blend of State Express 555, which went on to become Ardath's flagship brand.
With the trademarks formally secured, the company wasted no time to take on the largest overseas cigarette market of the time: In the same year first ads appeared in both English and Chinese language newspapers in China.
These initial Chinese adverts were rather crude and so was the transliteration of the company’s English name to Āěrdá (阿耳达), which translates to something like “ah-ear-reach”. Unsurprisingly, sales remained modest and it was far from the auspicious beginning Ardath had hoped for. To make matters worse, the company had also grossly underestimated how much the market for foreign cigarettes was already dominated by the quasi-monopoly of the powerful British American Tobacco Co (BAT) conglomerate.
BAT was however focused on the middle market segments, appealing to “great Chinese merchants, frustrated warlords and petty urbanites”, while the high-priced top segment remained relatively unexplored. This exclusive niche was precisely where Ardath set its sights when it revamped its China strategy in 1915. With the assistance of local representation from the experienced wine and spirits merchants Gande, Price & Co, State Express 555 aspired to position itself as a brand of distinction for the foreign expatriates and Chinese elites.
The first step Ardath’s new partners took, was to emphasize the premiumness of the company by changing its Chinese name to Yǎdá (雅达), using characters for „excellent” and “reach”. The newly created adverts now also promoted the finest quality of State Express 555’s Virginia tobacco and paper.
This brand relaunch takes us to around the time of our advertising calendar poster, created in 1916. At first glance, the poster design with its historic Chinese theme and the products visually clearly identifiable as cigarettes, appears very well localized. The stunningly rendered and skillfully printed ladies represent the famous “Two Qiaos” (二乔). These Han dynasty era sisters were told to be of exceptional beauty and also featured as characters in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Seemingly clever the brands eponymous numbers 555 are even embedded in the pagoda visible behind the two beauties.
Unfortunately though, herein lay a major problem for Ardath, which was once more ill-advised on local customs: in Chinese culture numerology plays a very important role with certain numbers like 3, 6 or 8 believed to be auspicious, while others such as 4 to be inauspicious or unlucky. Although 5 is generally considered a neutral number, the combination of 555 turned out to be particularly unfortunate: it’s pronunciation in Chinese is wǔwǔwǔ (呜呜呜), reminiscent to the sound of wailing and it is in fact to this day used in Chinese Internet slang for “to cry”.
Not surprisingly, Ardath failed to generate significant sales among the Chinese upper class, even with its second attempt at marketing the brand. With the roaring 20s in full swing, Ardath soon realized that it had no avail to compete with the large British and American incumbents and instead sold the overseas rights to its State Express 555 brand to BAT in 1925.
In China British American Tobacco at that time held an incredible market share of 80% with over 40 billion pieces of cigarettes sold annually. The organization was truly an unparalleled marketing powerhouse, and with one simple trick the professionals at BAT turned the State Express brand around to become the uncontested top seller in the high-end market segment:
They secured the name “three fives brand” (三五牌) as new Chinese trademark and henceforth promoted it to the local consumers in place of the ill-fated 555. How could this small change make such a big difference?
Well firstly, as previously noted, 3 is a lucky number, but even more importantly the pronunciation of 3 and 5 in Chinese is a homophone for xiǎngwǒ (想我), meaning “miss me”. While the numbers 555 still appeared on the packaging, the brand advertisement gradually de-emphasized them and instead highlighted the romanticized “three fives” brand term.
Virtually overnight Ardaths luck in China changed and it soon dominated its high-class niche ahead of Westminster, Garricks and Craven A’s, with sales reportedly exceeding 5 billion units by 1937.
The number one luxury smokes of the craving Chinese bourgeoisie ironically soon also caught the attention of a young revolutionist: According to Mao Zedong's personal physician, 555 was the Chinese leader’s favorite cigarette during the Civil War years and he famously smoked it together with Liu Shaoqi on the day of the Proclamation of the People's Republic of China.
Alas, just as today, no celebrity brand endorsement deal lasts forever: When the Chinese tobacco industry was nationalized a few years later, the chain-smoking Chairman switched to the domestic "Chunghwa” cigarettes. That is until in the late 1960s, when the Beijing Tobacco Corporation created a new brand specially for Mao Zedong called “Zhongnanhai”, named after the Party's government building in Beijing.
State Express 555 cigarettes meanwhile are still successfully sold under license in China today, and even internationally British American Tobacco is regularly rumored to relaunch “Mao’s favorites”, such as most recently in 2001.