Light my fire

What do you do if you’re one of the world’s most famous lighter companies and the number of smokers is dropping?  If you’re Zippo, you look for ways to capitalise on your ‘cool’ image and extend your brand into products ranging from watches to leisure clothing.

Zippo hit its zenith around the mid-1990s with 18 million lighters a year. Today, that figure’s dropped to around 12 million lighters a year and the hunt is on for products that are, in the words of president and chief executive Gregory Booth, “rugged, durable, made in America, iconic”.

It seems to be a standard operating procedure these days. Brands hit a certain scale and then look to diversify in order to fish in other waters, or else, their iconic products hit their use-by date and they start looking for ways to sweat their assets, or someone brings a brand back from the dead and looks to add product lines to what they hope is its revitalised equity.

Sadly, many of these diversifications don’t strike me as strategic. They are reactions or speculations – planned perhaps, but reactive or speculative nevertheless. And like all sequels to the original story, some will work but many will simply not live up to the original.

Simply attaching a brand to a catalogue of goods does not guarantee success. Diversification has to make the brand stronger, more relevant, more accessible – not just look to draw on the existing equity in order to cast a wider net.

The good news for Zippo is that they seem to have spotted the problem well ahead of time and planned carefully for the transition. They will just need to make sure that whatever they do has line of sight with their on-going story, rather than on depending on recognition alone.

If you’re tempted to go down this route yourselves for any of the reasons mentioned above, here’s my questions:

  • If you introduce this new line as part of your brand, what are you asking the consumer to believe?
  • Is that a reasonable belief? Will it make sense for them? Does it extend what they already believe about you?
  • Will it intensify the loyalty that your customers have for the brand?
  • Why are they going to believe your new story over the story they’re already hearing from another brand for whom that product line is core business?

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