Juul recently deleted months of social media posts, including ones with images of cool-looking young people vaping Juuls. This spring it made major changes to its website, which had prominently displayed a Juul surrounded by luscious-looking images of fruit and the words “Mango, it’s back.” The site is now a more sober-looking affair, featuring video of adults vaping with a tagline “For smokers. By design.” Across the top of the page, visitors are invited to “learn about our youth prevention efforts.”
A nicotine fad’s origin story
Mr. Bowen, 42, and Mr. Monsees, 38, the company’s founders, met in 2003 in a graduate product-design program at Stanford University, bonding over brainstorming sessions and cigarettes. Both had been smokers since their teens, and both have since quit; Mr. Monsees regularly uses a Juul.
The culmination of the program was a masters thesis, and both had struggled to find a worthy subject. In 2004, about six months before the thesis was due, they got to talking about their smoking habits and, within days, were excitedly sending emails back and forth about developing an alternative to cigarettes.
Big tobacco companies were experimenting with e-cigarettes, but there was no real market for them until around 2010, when NJoy, an Arizona company, became the industry’s first darling. By 2013, e-cigarettes were a $1.7-billion-a-year business, still only a small fraction of the $90 billion cigarette business.
But then NJoy gambled on an e-cigarette that looked virtually identical to a cigarette. It was a mistake, said Craig Weiss, the chief executive who pushed the so-called cigalike strategy and now consults for Juul. As NJoy’s fortuned flagged, he said he realized that people didn’t want a product that looked so much like a cigarette that it still left them with the stigma of being a smoker. NJoy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2016, later re-emerging.