Overseas, Zena may not have the brand recognition of other Swiss heavyweights like Nestlé or Swatch, but the company has been assisting Europeans with their cutting, peeling and julienning needs for more than 60 years. Its two top sellers are the STAR and REX peelers, constructed of stainless steel and aluminum, respectively.
Where other companies specializing in kitchen implements (think OXO, Cuisinart and Henckels) have pumped up their presence with flash-driven websites and aggressive marketing campaigns, Zena has quietly and steadily built up its reputation by concentrating on a limited inventory (there are fewer than a dozen products in its lineup, including the STAR and REX, two plastic peelers and an asparagus peeler), a minimalist design, an affordable price point and product longevity.
“Quality and price are important for the brand, as is the fact that we can say the products are 100 percent ‘Made in Switzerland,’” says owner Peter Newec, who inherited the Zena stewardship from his father. “We have a very good (and in Switzerland, popular) design. Our unchanged product design is also one of our strengths—the design of the REX is now more than 60 years old. There are many people who have been using our peelers for years, and they’re happy that the design remains the same after all this time.”
There’s nothing fancy about either of the trademark metal tools, but their functionality is what’s propelled them to the top of the potato-peeling pile. The concave handle features two “grasp troughs” for easy maneuvering, and the peeler is equally easy to use for both righties and southpaws. A side knife takes care of notching out potato eyes, while Zena claims the flexible pivoted blade can adapt to nearly any peeling situation.
Zena is almost completely specialized in the production of the REX and STAR, churning out these two models and sets of swiveling blades from an old factory just outside of Zurich. “We’re a very small firm—12 people in production,” Newec explains. “It’s expensive to invent new products. We tried to produce and sell peelers like the MAGIC and PENDO, but the STAR and REX are just more popular.”
But even though his homeland has acknowledged the power of the peeler (the REX even appears on a Swiss postage-stamp series), Zena as a brand is virtually unknown outside the confederation’s borders. “In the past, we didn’t do anything regarding marketing—it’s difficult and expensive to build a brand,” acknowledges Newec. “And until the year 2000, we had no problems selling our product without any marketing efforts.”
After a few difficult sales years at the turn of the century, however, Newec was forced to reassess brand strategy. “For a long time, the name ‘Zena’ wasn’t even on the sales card,” he says. “I redesigned the sales cards, adding the Zena name and a new logo. It’s a challenge, though, to design a sales card that’s good for all of the markets we’re working in. In some countries, I’m not able to sell the peelers using the new sales cards—the old card is more well-known after 30 years. I believe our customers and importers have better ideas about marketing in their specific sales areas. It’s going to take some time.”
Zena also launched a website to increase its global presence, but, like its products, the portal sports a minimalist design and the most basic of information. “Now with our homepage, we are getting a lot more [outside] contact,” says Newec. “But most of the contacts are private individuals looking for us to send one peeler from Switzerland to the U.S.—that’s not our business.”
The company is slowly building up a worldwide customer base, most of them importers and distributors. There are even a few people who have taken on the Zena cause as unofficial brand ambassadors, including Joe Ades (aka the Potato Peeler Man), who’s made a name for himself on New York City street corners with his Zena peeler demonstrations and bulk sales.
Newec acknowledges that individuals like Ades have helped build up a presence in markets that previously may have appeared impenetrable. “I’m sure Joe has helped us,” he says. “We have several contacts that started by buying a peeler from Joe. He’s probably also the reason why almost all of our U.S. distributors are on the East Coast. Since Joe is using our old display card, though, it still takes some work for someone to find us.”
After a few years of declining sales, Zena has once more achieved sales figures it had back in 2000. “In the U.S., our sales figures are rising, but we’re still new in the market,” he says. “But I believe more and more people are peeling their own vegetables, and in difficult economic times like these, our products are selling well.”
An a-peeling concept, indeed, for the little Swiss company that could…