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Zippo’s burning ambition goes beyond lighters to retail expansion
Question of the Day
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., based in Bradford, Pa., is hoping to capitalize on its brand by offering a wider variety of products - from watches to leisure clothing to cologne - 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 probably was the company's high-water mark - Zippo's 550 employees will produce about 12 million lighters this year - the company started marketing research before President and CEO Gregory Booth was hired 10 years ago.
The surveys asked consumers the question Mr. 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 Mr. Booth describes as "rugged, durable, made in America, iconic."
"It has to be something that feels like Zippo," Mr. Booth says of the travel bags, backpacks, watches, sunglasses, jeans and leisure shirts, wallets, pens, liquor flasks, outdoor hand warmers, playing cards and even a fragrance, which comes in a lighter-shaped canister (and, yes, a lid that clicks).
Marketing experts say 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,' " says James Twitchell, a marketing expert whose book "Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism" argues that Americans increasingly have turned to brand names, instead of religion, for their identity.
Another branding consultant, who founded the self-named PaulJLucas.com in the District, says Zippo's plans remind him of the success Victorinox Swiss Army Brands Inc. has had selling watches, luggage, clothing and fragrances.
"It's all high-quality, and they did it right, and I buy their stuff," Mr. Lucas says.
His advice is to stick to products closer to a brand's core. That's why he likes Zippo's still-on-the-drawing board plans for patio gas grills but isn't crazy about the idea of Zippo cologne - as lighter fluid is the only other liquid odor associated with Zippo.
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