‘Around 40 percent Indians could be Zippo consumers’: Lucas Johnson of Zippo

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Lucas Johnson of Zippo

The festive season is upon us all and the excitement for a perfect gift to our loved ones is looming around the corner. The e-commerce websites are filled with the discount offers, sales periods and price drop notifications. This is exactly the period when a gifting item like a lighter catches our eyes. And this is that spark in a buyer that Zippo, a global leader in lighters is looking to kindle in this festive season.

Zippo, the US-based lighter brand, opened its first ever wholly owned subsidiary in India, Zippo Lighters India Pvt. Ltd. in 2020. It is now working with a new distribution partner, Bhawar, to expand in the market.

Ujal Nair, the editor for International Business Magazine, had an interesting early morning chat with Lucas Johnson, Associate Vice President Zippo Global Marketing and learnt about the future roadmap of the Zippo brand. In this interaction, he revealed some brief details about his partnership with Amazon.in, Myntra, Tata Cliq Luxury and other e-commerce platforms to strengthen the overall brand value in India.

Here are the excerpts from the interaction with Lucas –

What are your plans for the Golden Quarter of 2021?

We have a lot of things going on this year for the October, November and December months, as you said, the golden quarter of the year. We have particularly a lot to look up to in India. We recently did some consumer research in India to understand our consumer base and now we are utilizing that information for the festive season. Zippo lighters are a great gift and it is something that the people really cherish, almost synonymous to having a badge of honour. 

We want to educate our consumers in India about authenticity. We are tackling some of the challenges with counterfeit as well. 

How big is the lighter industry globally?

The overall US lighter industry is close to half a billion units a year. The market is currently led by Zippo and Bic. From the geography perspective in the US, in general, the sales are evenly distributed. From an age perspective, it is majorly the millennials that comprise our consumers.

What are people’s preferences when it comes to lighters?

There are the flint ones, the non-flint ones, the refillable ones and the non-refillable ones but it is more of a personal preference. We largely see that the interest is shifting more towards the refillable. This is largely due to the product quality, the longevity of the lighters and the increased concerns about the environmental impact. The increasing shift towards the flint and wick style lighters is mostly due to the environmental concerns. 

What are your expectations from the APAC regions?

Our brand is nowhere near ‘established’ in many of these markets and as a marketer it gives me the opportunity to convey the rich heritage the brand has. We are confident that we would be able to do some really good business in many of these markets. In India, for example, we have doubled our sales in the last 12 months and we look forward to doubling it further in the coming 12 months as well. We believe that we can sustain the rapid rate of growth for some time now given the information that we have with us.

Coming to India, what are the preferences of your Indian consumers? What is your strategy based on it?

Our consumer research did not necessarily look at the most popular style of lighters right now. Your input and your tastes in particular, what you are doing with the lighter, what characteristics you are looking for is what counts.  However, we have noticed that there is a big appetite for the refillable style, flint style lighters. 

Image credit: Lucas Facebook

Zippo lighters were present in the Indian market for the past several years, only through the third party distributors. About 10 years ago, we had some decent business in India through these channels but there were some misconceptions going around about our products. There were a lot of dirty distribution channels and parallel marketing and exporting all over the world. We had a really concerted effort to clean up the issue and really understand where our business really is.

Counterfeits and lookalikes are a big issue for us in several parts across the world and that tells us about the desirability quotient. We analysed the socio-economic profiles of the population to understand the consumers who would be interested in buying our lighters. That is when we understood that in India, we have around 40 percent of the population that could be Zippo consumers. So India knows about Zippo as a brand and it gave us a new opportunity to educate them about the counterfeits and lookalikes in the market. That is how we started our own subsidiary company in India, Zippo Lighters India Pvt Ltd.

We are actively looking to hire more people in the coming 12 months as we actively look to add more resources to our distributors.

What are your strategies for the Indian market in the coming few months?

There is the brand marketing activity. Our marketing activity really kicked in here during the festive season. We are positioning Zippo lighters as the lighter for any occasion. It is not just for smoking but for many other occasions. It makes up for a lot of interesting use cases and we see our sales spike during the gifting season. It is gifted in particular to reflect and showcase the particular tastes and interests in the individual. On the other hand there are some promotional activities where we are working with some of the e-commerce platforms. Our upcoming activities are targeted for Flipkart and their ‘Big billion days’ and Amazon and ‘Black Friday Sales’. Tata Cliq is a great partner we started to work with. There are some promotional activities and offers planned for their Diwali sales. There is also one planned with Myntra. 

What are your strategies to combating the counterfeits?

We have a three-pronged strategy to combat the counterfeits. We have hired private investigative firms to work in India with local law enforcement, local customer agents,  to identify and then to enforce action against counterfeiters who are producing counterfeit products in India. So we are trying to cut off the supply of these counterfeits at the source, into and within India. We have been very successful with this strategy with other markets like China. We had several raids in China where we shut down a number of counterfeiters.

The second part is educating the retailers about the issue. We are educating them about intellectual property infringement. We have been taking strict actions against the culprits.

We are working with some of the e-commerce retailers to help them identify other products that infringe our intellectual property. They want to do the things that are right and do the legal thing and that is why we had good success in working with Tata and Amazon. These e-commerce websites have helped us to take down products that are infringing upon Zippo’s intellectual property.

The third part of the strategy is educating the customers. We showcase to them that nothing comes close to the authentic Zippo lighters experience.

What are the opportunities for Zippo lighters in the Middle East?

We work with a number of different distributors in the Middle East. So there is opportunity there as well. However, for this year, we are more focussed on the Indian market than the Middle East but we have our eyes set on that market as well.

As the leader of a premium global brand, what are the aspects to keep in mind for a strong brand following?

The Founder and the inventor of the Zippo lighters, George Grant Blaisdell, had a very inspiring quote that stays strong in this family business – ‘Build your brand with integrity, stand behind it 100% and success will follow.’ So while the entrepreneurs and the retailers may not be building the product, they stand strong with the brand. Stand with a great brand to support you and success will follow.

Article by Ujal Nair

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