Liu Jinghua, Zippo's Asia managing director
Liu Jinghua-led Zippo coasts on windproof lighters' success to diversify into perfumes, apparel, accessories
Selling lighters for 1 yuan (.15) to 3 yuan each to smokers may not sound like an exciting job, much less a well-paying one; but, believe it or not, many Chinese sales agents of U.S.-based lighter-maker Zippo Manufacturing Co have become wealthy doing just that.
That's a story Liu Jinghua, Zippo's Asia managing director, recalls proudly. He attributes the brand's success in China to the romance and luster of the company's renowned windproof metal lighters.
Liu has been Zippo's first employee in China. He joined the firm six years back. The local unit has seen double-digit sales growth all those six years.
Soon after joining Zippo, Liu researched a bit and found that young people crave some kind of status symbols and usually find them in branded products. So, he figured, a smart marketing strategy is key to tapping the segment of young consumers.
"Having the right product, accurate positioning and flexible strategies can get you onto the dance floor, but how a product is displayed can have great impact on consumers' mind," Liu said.
"The biggest market growth points for us are both females and males between ages 18 and 50.
"We found many female customers (in China) are willing to buy our products to gift them to their husbands, fathers or friends, and many of them have become more sophisticated in choosing our products."
Zippo will add more Chinese elements to its lighters. For example, designs featuring a giant panda and a golden dragon will become integral to its product line－an acknowledgement that China has already become its biggest market by sales revenue in the world.
But Zippo's success has been bittersweet. With more and more cities in China beginning to ban smoking at public places, the company has been launching new marketing strategies that cover traditional media, social media, digital channels and online space.
Zippo has also expanded its sales channels from traditional shopping malls to online platforms such as JD.com and Tmall.com this year.
Capitalizing on its brand equity, Zippo launched a wider range of products, from men's fragrances, apparel, watches to outdoor camping supplies.
Sitting in his office in Beijing's trendy Sanlitun area, Liu said the lighter products with designs such as zodiac signs, love stories, famous paintings and military themes have become increasingly popular in China.
The company has been busy sending information about cultural trends and related market information back to its global design centers in the United States.
"We rely on our own research and feedback from our dealers to tell us what sort of designs we should be adopting that will appeal to Chinese consumers," Liu said.
Despite the launch of new products, lighters remain key to Zippo's future in China. The company has staff at its U.S. headquarters to select and design various themes, series and limited editions for its lighters. It also sells outdoor products, men's cologne, watches and pens in other markets.
"We've received a large number of orders for personalized or tailor-made products, even though they need to be shipped from our U.S. plants, indicating the demand in the China market is diversifying as disposable incomes rise," Liu said. "We certainly see China as a must-have and not a nice-to-have market."
Based in Bradford, Pennsylvania, Zippo has manufactured more than 550 million lighters since 1932.
It currently serves more than 160 countries and regions in the world. Besides China, major overseas markets include Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, India and South Asia. It first began marketing in China in 1995.
He Jingtong, a professor of marketing management at Nankai University in Tianjin, said, "Many foreign companies such as Zippo, U.S.-based motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson and the Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV are proficient in launching promotional campaigns through music, art and other culture-related themes. They have worked well in the U.S. and Europe.
"As China progresses on the path to an advanced economy, such promotional campaigns will be a practical marketing tool for global consumption goods manufacturers to use in China for the long-term.
"Once people get to know a global brand and get to understand the products, they usually find them very acceptable."
He may have well added consumer acceptance could make some sales agents, such as Zippo's, wealthy, very wealthy.