In the beginning there was NJOY. The Arizona-based company was founded in 2006, and made some of the first vaporizer electronic cigarettes to gain mainstream recognition. NJOY's flagship product, Kings, look just like cigarettes, with a faux tan-brown paper filter that squishes like foam even though it fulfills no physical purpose at the base of a cylindrical white tube. The tip even lights up.
With NJOY-like cigarette lookalikes, "there's nothing you can do to elevate the experience," said Adam Kustin, the vice president of marketing for the vaporizer company V2 Cigs, which is pioneering new vaporizers as well as fresh branding tactics. It's Kustin's job to figure out how to capture the vaporizer market as it matures, responding to trends like loose-leaf vaporizing, cannabis wax, and vape modding (see cloud-spewing as an extreme sport).
The vape market is indeed changing as it grows—V2 found that the market for e-cigarettes began to fall second to "open-system" vaporizers for the first time in 2014, cresting $1 billion in sales. The market has entered a period of mergers and acquisitions, according to a recent report, and is projected to reach $25 billion globally by 2025.
"Rechargeable e-cigarettes, followed by personal vaporizers and mods, will soon take over the top market positions in terms of revenue generation," the report notes. V2 is already moving into these categories, but change is difficult, even with a newly popular device. For the most part, vapes still look a lot like cigarettes.
V2 is a sneaky company, organizing itself more like a fashion brand than a technology producer, giving marketing pride of place. They sell under three separate brands: V2, the traditional e-cig label; V2 Pro, the high-end, futuristic line; and Vapor Couture, a blatantly female-oriented e-cig vertical available in shades of pastel pink.
There have been innovations, like the V2 Pro Series 3, a cylindrical gunmetal-colored stick that come with a Macbook-style magnetic charger and a series of three pop-in cartridges. The cartridges are designed individually for the usual e-liquid, loose-leaf, and wax, a potent newcomer to the cannabis game. The cartridges are "smart," electronically communicating with the vape's base to control the heating process based on the material in the cartridge. "It's a very plug-and-play engagement. The battery becomes this platform," Kustin said. "The cartridges, you can kind of call them apps, in that regard."
But that comparison to smartphones is getting a little worn out. Rather than enhancing functionality, the company is mostly providing window dressing. The newer V2 Pro Series 7 is a further extension of the usual vape aesthetics. Larger and more solid than its predecessors, it has more in common with the Pax vaporizer, which is often compared to Apple products. V2's version, however, comes with the removable cartridges, a more comfortable plastic mouthpiece, and a decidedly non-minimalist case of glittering blue metal with raised ridges. "With Series 7, we wanted to be a little more bold," Kustin said. "People are less concerned about the stigmatization of smoking or vaping."
No matter the form, however, vaping still fails to deliver quite the charge of consuming burning tobacco. "Most smokers will continue to use cigarettes as well because e-cigs don't completely fulfill their needs for deep lung hit or rapid nicotine absorption," Kustin said. "Consumers recognize that as, it's working, this is how smoking should feel. They crave that."
Now that vape mods have well-established circles, manufacturers like V2 are developing form factors more driven by function than a need to look like a regular-old smoke.
Rather than chasing old sensations, the better strategy might be to pioneer a new path. Vaporizer companies are dealing with the rise of customization and carefully calibrated "desktop" vapes (think the classic Volcano) by allowing users to alter their own experiences more easily.
To compete with cigarettes, "combustion can alter the level of nicotine," Kustin said. "Having that mouth feel is important, too. That's where voltage comes into play." The more voltage, the higher the heat, the more vapor coming from the vape. The trend toward mass-market customization is also apparent in the Steampunk-style vapes made by Storz and Bickel and recommended by The Wirecutter.
V2 is also hoping that its cartridges will provide some level of flexibility for the unknowable future of vaping and possible new "apps." "If tomorrow some chemist comes up with a new medium, let's call it 'pellets' or 'sand,' and you have this new technology, what do you do?" Kustin said. "Our product is future-friendly. We could create cartridge number four, and you could consume whatever that future medium is."
I have something of a personal relationship with vape-futures. I had asthma as a kid, and spent hours at a time hooked up to a nebulizer, a small machine that vaporizes medicine into a mist that is inhaled into the lungs. I have visceral memories of sitting on the couch holding on to an ice-cream-cone-shaped appendage at the end of a long tube connected to a humming box that disgorged sickly clouds of vapor, clammy and thick enough it poured over my hand like a Ghostbusters outtake if I didn't consume it fast enough. (I am literally getting nauseous as I write this.)
The experience stays with me mostly for its sheer unpleasantness, but at the time I couldn't handle a sharper, faster inhaler and vapor was still a niche medium, a vice to be experienced in private. Perhaps for the best, vape aesthetics aren't trending in the direction of the nebulizer. But I wouldn't be surprised if we got there sooner or later, sitting on our couches, consuming clouds of various and intermingled substances, mixing our own nebulous cocktails of liquid, wax, and leaves at the press of a button, no fake cigarettes involved.