Zippo's burning ambition lies in retail expansion, company says

BRADFORD, Pa. — 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 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 Chief Executive Officer Gregory Booth 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 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 — and that the company learns quickly that selling jeans, or any other product, comes with a whole menu of unique business complexities.

"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.

Another branding consultant who founded the self-named in Washington, D.C., said Zippo's plans remind him of the success that 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," said Lucas, noting that Swiss Army luggage is as rugged as its trademarked multi-purpose knives.

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