Emily Tan
Mar 26, 2012

Video: Zippo's global marketing chief David Warfel on keeping a classic current

HONG KONG - In an exclusive interview, David Warfel, global marketing director of Zippo, chats with Campaign Asia-Pacific about the challenges of expanding and updating a classic brand.

wide player in 16:9 format. Used on article page for Campaign.

When Warfel joined US lighter manufacturer Zippo in 2008, the iconic company was going through a crisis. Despite emphasising that Zippo sold a ‘portable flame’ and not a tobacco product, the decline in smoking in some markets had started to impact its sales. From a peak of 18 million lighters sold in 1996, the Bradford, Pennsylvania-based company sold only 11 million units in 2010.

Realising it was in danger of extinction, the company brought marketing veteran Warfel on board with the plan to expand its product portfolio and its’ global reach. “It was on their radar for a number of years, and the last four years we’ve been following a strategic development plan laid out when I joined,” Warfel said.

Of major concern were what products to add to the company’s expanding product line. Since 1932, 90 per cent of Zippo’s revenue has stemmed from the manufacture of the windproof lighter.

“There‘s a number of issues that govern the decision to introduce a new product to the Zippo line," Warfel said. "Does it fit our distribution system? Another issue could be manufacturing and sourcing capabilities. The driving factor, however, comes from the market. Is it something it expects, wants, can it make their lives better or easier?”

Following a survey, the brand found that consumers were willing to embrace an expanded Zippo line, if it held true to certain characteristics. “Zippo’s core values are seen as rugged, dependable, authentic, durable and American in tone and nature,” explained Warfel. “Regardless of the product, whether it’s men’s accessories or for outdoors, we want to make sure it reflects those values.”

Over the years Zippo has expanded its line to include candle-lighters, gas-powered hand warmers and camping stoves. It’s widened the portfolio further with a range of men’s accessories and even a men’s fragrance which yes, comes in a bottle that looks and clicks like a giant Zippo lighter (no, it does not smell of tobacco or lighter fluid).

Progress has been rapid. In 2011, fully 40 per cent of Zippo’s revenue came from its new products, a number Warfel hopes to see grow to 60 per cent.

The brand has also been making strides in expanding its global footprint. Although available in 160 countries, the company's business was still very much based in the US. “Over the past three years, our business has grown globally by 22 per cent. Markets outside the US now represent 60 per cent of our revenue, and Greater China has overtaken Japan as our largest market after the US.”

To better connect with a younger, less cigarette-addicted audience, Zippo has turned to music. The connection? The longstanding tendency of concertgoers to hold up a lighter to show their appreciation for a ballad or encourage an encore—a gesture that has gone from cool to cliché and back again.

The brand took part last year in more than 250 music events worldwide via Zippo Encore. Warfel was in Hong Kong to support Zippo’s sponsorship of The Underground, a live music showcase for local bands.  Zippo has signed up to support a series of live music showcases throughout the year, starting with the event’s 100th official show, for which Zippo has produced a limited-edition lighter.

In a nod to the digital age, the company also offers a Zippo app for concert fans who prefer to hold up a virtual flame. The app has scored well over 10 million downloads across multiple phone platforms. 

“Zippo has decided to engage in the music space because it’s where our audience is,” explained Warfel. The brand's key target market are males aged 18 to 24 and the “number one characteristic” this category uses to define their personality, is music. “It’s a means of maintaining relevancy and being in the space where our customer is.”

All this is part and parcel of meeting the double challenge of protecting a heritage brand while keeping it up to date.  “We have to maintain the core essence of the brand and understanding the brand for the consumer,” said Warfel. “When we introduce a new product, it has to hearken back to the key characteristics of dependable, rugged and authentic.”

Zippo also has to ensure that the message the brand is communicating is relevant. Part of it is communicating through music, and the rest is ensuring products introduced are relevant and useful to its consumers, said Warfel. “We need to keep step with the cultural and merchandising changes.”

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