Popularized by the US military during the Second World War, the Zippo lighter iconic, cool, made of chrome or brass metal is falling on some hard times. Well, not the actual Zippo lighter per se, which is famous for functioning well in rough, windy conditions, but sales of the Bradford, Penn.-based product are flagging. The reason? Fewer and fewer people in the US (traditionally the lighter’s principal market) are smoking these days, and that spells bad news for Zippo.
That’s why the company is betting on China, home to more than 300 million smokers and Zippo’s biggest international market (accounting for almost a quarter of their international lighter sales), to continue buying the lighters, according to a recent piece in the Financial Times.
On par with brands such as Harley Davidson, Zippo boasts not only the classic and simply $20 model, but a variety of customized and collectible examples, some reaching into the thousands of dollars. Like the motorcycle brand, Zippo even has a museum. There’s even an “app for that.” The famed windscreen is what makes the lighter a valued product, and its reputation is now allowing it to expand into other related products. Some are good ideas and might fly “grills, lanterns, patio heaters and Tiki torches that they plan on selling next year, in addition to already available pens, bags and watches; some are not so much, such as cologne which worried customers that it might smell like lighter fluid.
Regardless, these brand extensions are a last-resort play on tapping newer markets that could keep the company’s financial future afloat. The FT reported that Zippo expects to sell only 11.5 million lighters — down from 17.3 million in 1996 — representing just over half the company’s revenue.
No question, a reduced number of smokers bodes well for public health; but let’s hope this American company, the maker of a quality, storied product that made its name in the hands of the country’s brave soldiers, can rebrand its success into the next generation.
For more on the company’s future straight from the horse’s mouth — in this case, CEO Greg Booth — check out this Forbes blog video.