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As lighter demand dims, Zippo strives to keep cachet lit; Maps ways to cash in on durable image

Zippo lighters have retained their retro cool even as the tiny northwestern Pennsylvania company that makes them gets ready to celebrate its 80th anniversary and 500 millionth lighter next year.

But with pressure increasing on folks not to smoke, Zippo Manufacturing Co. is hoping to capitalize on its brand by offering a wider variety of products -- from watches to leisure clothing to cologne -- through kiosks and Zippo-brand specialty stores designed to showcase the durable image reinforced by each distinctive lid "click" of its brass-encased, lifetime-guaranteed lighters.

Realizing that producing 18 million lighters a year in the mid-1990s was probably the company's high-water mark -- Zippo's 550 employees will produce about 12 million lighters this year -- the company started marketing research before Gregory Booth, president and CEO, was hired 10 years ago.

The surveys asked consumers the question Booth must answer today: "What kind of products could we sell other than cigarette lighters that people would accept as Zippo products?"

The research shows the company -- tucked into a valley above the Allegheny National Forest about 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh -- could sell other products -- if they fit Zippo's image, which Booth describes as "rugged, durable, made in America, iconic."

"It has to be something that feels like Zippo," Booth said of the travel bags, backpacks, watches, sunglasses, jeans and leisure shirts, wallets, pens, liquor flasks, outdoor hand warmers, playing cards and even a fragrance. Manufactured by Italian perfumer Mavive, it comes in a lighter-shaped canister -- and yes, a lid that clicks.

Marketing experts said all that makes sense provided that Zippo's new products stay true to the brand.

"A brand is just a story attached to a product. Like any narrative, it carries sensation. Zippo's story is 'manly independence,' " said James Twitchell, a marketing expert whose book "Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism" argues that Americans have increasingly turned to brand names, instead of religion, for their identity.

"As long as this narrative is in place, it can be attached to any other product as long as the product doesn't contradict the story line," Twitchell said, noting Eddie Bauer-branded sport utility vehicles, nonetheless, stay true to the sportswear company's image of "wanderlust."

Booth insists Zippo's plans are built on solid market research and, perhaps as important, are fueled by necessity.

"We knew we were invested in an industry that was under pressure and knew we could go the way of the Hula Hoop and not do anything about it," Booth said.

Instead, Zippo hired David Warfel three years ago as its director of global marketing to capitalize on his branding experience with Xerox, Kodak and Ray-Ban.

The newest wing of the company's headquarters is a showcase for Zippo's plans. It features a Zippo kiosk and what's known as a "shop-in-shop" -- a tiny Zippo store meant to take up residence inside a larger department store -- and a prototype Zippo specialty store, which the company plans to put in overseas shopping districts.

Zippo will push its expanded product line overseas, at first, because foreign consumers are familiar with the brand's durable image without it being "almost umbilically tied to cigarette lighters," Booth said. U.S. consumers "are so tied to Zippo lighters that it's tough for the customer to make the jump to these other products."

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