F1 – Mission Winnow and the elephant in the room

Many think that Philip Morris International’s (PMI) Mission Winnow initiative in Formula 1 is a fuzzy corporate exercise, designed to hide the elephant in the room: the American Group’s controversial end-products. Is it really like that?

Or is this rather a simplistic judgement, fuelled with preconceived ideas about the tobacco industry’s historical presence in the circuit? How to improve, then, perceptions? Should Mission Winnow consider, for example, a more diversified strategy?

Ferrari’s gorgeous SF21

The new SF21 Ferrari F1 car, that we saw for the first time in Bahrain a few weeks ago, looks just stunning. I admit that my opinion is loaded with my passion for the Cavallino, which dates back to 1994, when I first approached as brand manager the world of F1 and Motorsport. Despite having matured, since then, more than 20 years in strategic (marketing) management in many other sectors and industries, my memories of those years are still very vivid.

I was lucky to closely experience Ferrari’s best racing years. Every GP was a sweet and, almost always, rewarding experience. Those were the times when Michael Schumacher was the King of the sport. Ferrari, the most envied team of the circuit. That car and the red-coloured paddock team have always looked special through their alternate fortunes. The values the brand stands for, are unique and invigorating, regardless of the Scuderia’s performances.

Ferrari is Ferrari. A cult. And so is today’s SF21.

The Ferrari SF21

That burgundy red in the car’s rear, reminiscent of Ferrari’s past (the 125-S), projects itself beautifully towards the brighter red into the front; almost to suggest a parabolic trajectory into the Cavallino’s present and future which, we all hope will be worthy of Enzo’s legacy.

The part of the car’s livery which came most into scrutiny, since its unveiling last March, is the Mission Winnow green logo, which attracted a lot of attention because of its new, striking color.

What’s Mission Winnow? Really?

Mission Winnow is a PMI’s unconventional communication initiative: a content-led platform, where people can not only share their passion for Formula 1 and Motorsport, but also exchange their views on themes like change, innovation, progress, reinvention. All values belonging to high-level racing sports. Mission Winnow’s ultimate objective is, therefore, sharing with the outside world PMI’s corporate journey and creating “a community that celebrates people, the power of ideas and the commitment to drive change”.

The initiative has actually been launched in 2018. Since then, its logo also appeared on the MotoGP’s Ducati bikes. Detractors saw in it a tool to promote tobacco products, circumventing as such the advertising ban laws. Its logo is, in fact, placed where tobacco brands used to appear when their use was still permitted. Therefore, it is quite natural that people make their judgement without looking too much further. It would however suffice to visit their website. There is no trace of PMI’s products. None, whatsoever.

www.missionwinow.com homepage

There is, instead, an open declaration of intent from PMI: “Mission Winnow shares with the world who we (ndr: PMI) are today, our transformative journey, and our values. (…) We understand the skepticism, and we welcome all sides to the conversation. And while it takes time to create bonds and build trust, Mission Winnow is a chance to start a conversation and create an opportunity to listen and be heard”.

Beyond the controversy

I actually believe that Mission Winnow is an intelligent value-based editorial idea which highlights, in many ways, the incredible transformation of this old-economy Group. Today PMI is, in fact, an inclusive, socially aware, tech-led corporation.

Said that, I have read and analysed the statements of its detractors and I can also appreciate their views. I understood why some F1 fans and other stakeholders have misread the platform and often tagged it on social media as “corporate fluff”. Not every opinion is biased. And it is important to listen.

As a matter of fact, I believe that there are ways to improve that negative perception and turn it into a more engaging proposition which may convince a wider audience.

A little bit of context first

PMI, roughly 15 years ago, decided to invest billions in developing a new, technological product through which building a brand-new business future. That decision took a strong vision and a great deal of courage. They declared, during the 2014 launch of their revolutionary product IQOS, that their new goal was building a smoke-free future. In other words, they actually expressed their intention to kill their old cigarettes-based offer and replace it with a smoke-free product. They chose, indeed, to cannibalise their own business. A revolutionary move for the Group and for the whole industry.

PMI, first and foremost, recognised the health-related risks of an otherwise completely legal product; they then invested billions in proprietary technology to develop a reduced-risk product. They finally followed their business development strategy without any certainty of success. And the risk was high: giving up the smoke part of the product, in terms of consumer satisfaction, could be compared to making a bubble-free champagne or a sugar-free Nutella. Well, the huge investment is actually paying back. “Total IQOS users at 2020 year-end were estimated at 17.6 million, of which approximately 12.7 million have switched to IQOS and stopped smoking”. (source: PMI.com)

These results were achieved with no traditional advertising. IQOS, in fact, cannot be promoted in most countries outside their points of sale or the traditional tobacconists. This makes PMI’s efforts much more impressive.

Back to Formula 1 and Motorsport

PMI has been supporting Scuderia Ferrari for 45 years now. 

Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher (credit: autosportfoto.sk)


Since the advertising ban, there have been attempts to use different logos when the Scuderia was racing in countries where tobacco product bans were strictly imposed.

It was however clear, that those solutions were not made to stay for the long-term.

So, why did PMI choose to keep being involved in motorsports despite being banned from openly pushing their products?

Partnerships at the base of strategic marketing

PMI have always been at the forefront of strategic marketing, which is so much more than mere communication. They perfectly know its centrality in business development. Because they’ve for ever lived under the world’s scrutiny, they had no choice but being forward-thinkers, innovators, always striving for the highest possible quality. As a matter of fact, PMI’s business activity has always been centred on the importance of partnerships. 

The professional relationship with business partners is based, in PMI’s world, on mutual values, active cooperation and innovation on all fronts. 

The Ferrari team (credits: www.formula1.com)

I lived that and I know it is still the case. This has always counted much more than the massive commercial transactions at the base of the commercial deals. Excellence, teamwork and consumer focus have been a constant professional approach with both suppliers and partners. Ferrari have fully shared that entrepreneurial approach. What its brand stands for, is a perfect fit for PMI, and it continues to be like so. However, their communication objective is actually totally different from the past.

From brands promotion to corporate communication 

Riccardo Parino, PMI’s Vice President Global Event Partnerships, has stated:

(… through Mission Winnow) we want to increase awareness about our scientific and technological developments and on how we are transforming our organisation and our business through the power of science and technology.

Riccardo Parino, PMI, (credits: Motorsport.com)

PMI, therefore, want their stakeholders and the larger public to understand the authentic motives and scopes of their business vision. They want to contribute to improve the tobacco industry’s ethics and image. They need people to get rid of their preconceived ideas about them. PMI’s innovation process of bold change, big ideas and brave action needs an explanation, once and for all. And they chose to do so in partnerships with all those corporations who share exactly those values. It was, therefore, absolutely natural that Ferrari would still be the perfect partner to execute their strategic marketing vision. A vision which sees PMI focusing now on corporate communication, as opposed to brands communication.

The company matters more than its products

Mission Winnow is a deserving attempt at opening a constructive dialogue with the outside world on what drives PMI’s change and why. It is innovative because it uses interesting storytelling, through an editorial platform, to discuss about life and business challenges. They offer a community forum, a show that explores the pursuit of excellence, a podcast about change and transformation, and more.

Why then are some fans struggling with it?

The problem with fans engagement

the Ferrari crowd (credits: sfcriga.com)

I believe that the quality and nature of the content they produce on the Mission Winnow platform is perfect for a B2B audience. Or, even, for that type of fan interested in deeper conversations. Professionals, entrepreneurs and business thought-leaders, who are struggling with change themselves. They can appreciate a place where they can share their worries, discuss solutions or, simply, be inspired by the published stories.

Mission Winnow, however, appears on a Ferrari Formula1 car. It therefore talks to a much bigger F1 fanbase, who looks for very different content: sports insights, unique F1 angles, fun, excitement. They certainly do not want to read about how humanity can reset the world. There is, in other words, a mismatch between storytelling and the wider target of potential “winnowers”. And this causes the larger public’s scepticism about the whole initiative. Which is a shame.

The elephant in the room

I appreciate the value behind Mission Winnow and I believe in the authenticity of PMI’s declared intentions.

However, companies who want to speak to large audiences, need to develop different content and distribute it in different formats, depending on the targets they want to serve. PMI, through Mission Winnow, is currently serving only one and it is, in my view, a wasted opportunity.

They could do much more with the values PMI want to celebrate, legitimately. A corporate communication for various types of sports fans through intelligent, customised, value-based media content. It could be imagined, carefully designed and implemented. It would be fantastic. It’s the “what to tell them” and the “how to tell them” that need tailored to the different recipients, so to let EVERYONE understand and appreciate the why.

One of the many things PMI taught me in Strategic Marketing Management is to try and always answer the question: what’s in it for me?

That is, for me, an effective way to get rid of the elephant in the room.

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