"What's a Zippo?" my daughter asked as I pulled out the promotional lighter the iconic company sent me months ago.
"Nothing that would interest you," I answered, as if I had been caught rolling a joint. There's that reflex protectiveness that kicks in for parents even when your kid is well into teenhood. It is the impulse to disavow your own pre-parental past in a vain attempt to seem like a model of uprightness. She sees an object that so predates the disposable lighters of her lifetime that even the basic functionality of Zippo is alien to her. I, on the other hand, see all of the many things I lit with Zippos that I would prefer not to share right now.
"It's a lighter," I finally say.
"How is that a lighter?" she asks.
I am trying to get into the head of someone born in 1992 who was just dropped into 1976, and here is a brushed steel slab that offers no clue to her about what it does. I flip the top to show the workings and realize that in her eyes that enormous wick, the pad that needs to be filled manually with putrid fluids, and that big honking wheel and flint mechanism must look prehistoric. Suddenly I feel like Fred Flintstone with a dinosaur-powered lawn mower.
"Cool. Can I have it?"
"You don't smoke." I am old, but I am not doddering. It only takes but a nanosecond for Dad paranoia to set in. "Do you?" This is a question that no kid can answer quickly enough to reassure a parent. "Do you?"
"Nooo! And don't lecture me. Before I came along you smoked like a train."
True, of course -- more like two trains, in fact. But I counter the deflection by deflecting in return and showing her the Virtual Zippo app that continues to be perhaps the most downloaded iPhone app of all. She gets into the skins, which make the unadorned real-world model she was coveting seem bland. And she is off and running on a half-hour personalization bender of the sort her generation has perfected, the real lighter now out of mind. Some basic tricks of distraction still work on her after all of these years.
And Zippo itself is well aware of its app's appeal. Now at a staggering 10 million downloads, Zippo and marketing partner skyrockit released version 2.0 this weekend, and it plays right into my daughter's hands. The new Virtual Skins Store lets her find scores of skins to buy at 99 cents each. Skyrockit CEO Jon Vlassopulos says the upgrade satisfied the two major needs of both the brand and the consumer. According to the thousands of reviews and comments on the iTunes store, people wanted more skins. "We gave them what they wanted," he says. They want badges.
But this time, they saw a business model in here. What the company is looking for is a new source of revenue. "The Zippo guys have an ambition by 2013 to have up to half of their revenue from non-lighter-related products. As an agency we tried to help," says Vlassopulos. Ninety-nine cent skins may not build the Zippo fortunes necessarily, but it helps solidify the brand's association with all the other things its target audience loves, especially music. The brand is involved in over 260 concerts a year. In-venue text-message programs reinforce the availability of the app. And the skins in the store are strong on bands and artists. In just the first days of the Version 2 release, Bob Marley is the top-selling skin.
Vlassopulos, who came to skyrockit from the branded entertainment division of Endemol, has always seen apps evolving into platforms where brands can build new products and revenue streams. Ultimately, the Zippo brand's connection with music could be linked via the app to ticket sales, concert information, and direct music downloads. The virtual goods store is that first step. Vlassopulos admits he doesn't want to press either the brand or the users of the app too far too fast in that evolution. "We want to keep the partner and the fans in step," he says.
For all the time Virtual Zippo Lighter has been near the top of its category in the iTunes store, it is still attracting over 100,000 downloads a week, says Vlassopulos. One of the other things skyrockit built into this version is better analytics, so now the company can see user activity in much greater detail. In fact over 1 million sessions have been counted in the few days since the app's new version arrived. About a third of downloaders have checked out the new store, and Vlassopulos reports "significant purchase of premium skins."
Yeah, I know at least one young lady who has been making that new Zippo business model work.
"Ooh, Bob Marley," my daughter squeals.
"Hey, how do you know about Bob Marley?" I bark. "More to the point, what do you know about Bob Marley?"
"Nothing, Dad. I don't smoke. I don't smoke ANYTHING, okay? Can I buy this one?"