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Sure Footing : Catchy Name Helps Zog Industries Thrive With the Surfing Crowd

June 19, 1990|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frederick Herzog was a young surfer who did not take the world of business altogether seriously.

He was shaping surfboards in a garage near Santa Barbara in 1972 when he decided to earn some extra money by selling his own brand of surfboard wax, the sticky stuff that surfers spread over their boards for better footing. He chose, in a flippant gesture, to call it Mr. Zog's Sex Wax.

"I thought it was a great comment on advertising. You know, the ultimate Madison Avenue scam," said the 45-year-old entrepreneur, who still goes by the nickname Zog. "I was just having fun."

Such fun proved to be great marketing. Today, Zog Industries in Carpinteria is the world's leading manufacturer of surfboard wax largely because the name Sex Wax has become a pop icon, according to Surfer Magazine and other experts.

Surfers from Malibu to Australia to Japan know Zog's emblem and its image, which is sophomorically rebellious, perfect for a young beach crowd that buys fluorescent wet suits and decal-covered boards.

"The catchy name gets people's attention," said Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer Magazine. "Zog is the single leading brand on the market, and the name has a lot to do with that."

In fact, the moniker has overshadowed the product. Zog Industries, which Herzog owns outright, has sales of almost $2 million annually, but only about $540,000 of that comes from the 1.5 million bars of wax it sells. The rest is revenue from shirts, hats, decals and even sandals with the Sex Wax logo.

Zog is not without detractors, however. School officials in San Diego have banned his clothing because of its racy name. So has Disneyland. But the controversy has only boosted Zog's popularity with young people. About 2,000 shops worldwide carry his products, and his sales, which doubled each year in the early years, have settled into a steady 10% annual increase, he said.

"The guy is sitting on a gold mine," said Dave Kanarek, manager of Perfect Balance Surf & Ski, a sporting goods store in Agoura Hills. "When you walk into a surf shop, the Sex Wax name jumps out at people."

Lest anyone suspect that this success story is one of form over substance, pay a visit to Zog's small factory and warehouse. Eleven people work there, blending the wax and pouring it into molds, freezing it and packaging it. Clerks use computers to keep track of inventory and distribution. Employees stay busy amid blaring stereo speakers that are positioned throughout the building.

"We work hard," Zog said. "The name Sex Wax has brought us a lot of attention, but surfers would have dumped us in a minute if they didn't like the wax."

Upstairs, in a makeshift lab, technician Nathan Skinner labors over test-tubes and a hot plate. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to make surfboard wax--simply blend paraffin and other waxes with chemicals that cause the stuff to spread smooth and sticky. Yet Skinner is deadly serious about the "secret sauce" that goes into Sex Wax.

Eighteen years ago, the chemist was making candle wax in a hobby supply store next to Zog's surfboard shop. Surfboard wax was a relatively new product then--for years, surfers had simply used chunks of paraffin, which was difficult to apply--and there was only one brand on the market. Zog asked Skinner if they could come up with another kind.

"I said, 'Sure. What's surfboard wax?' " Skinner recalled.

Working from Zog's surfing experience and Skinner's scientific know-how, the two men concocted Sex Wax. They developed variations to suit different water temperatures at surfing beaches worldwide. They added coloring and scents such as pineapple, coconut and lemon.

Zog and Skinner made another subtle, albeit important, decision. They shaped the bars in palm-sized disks, instead of squares. Circular bars are more difficult to mold and package, but surfers immediately took to the shape, saying it was easier to grip.

"Zog was the first to package wax in an attractive way," said Brad Bonhall, editor of Action Sports Retailer, a trade journal.

In the early years, Zog sold mostly in California. He drove up and down the coast, stopping at each surf shop along the way. His only competition was a San Marcos company called Wax Research.

"We slugged it out on the highway," said John Dahl, Wax Research's owner. "We loaded up our trucks and if I was there a day earlier, I'd get most of the business. If he was there first, he'd get it."

In time, Zog outdistanced Dahl. More and more East Coast shops began asking for Sex Wax as the product became familiar by word-of-mouth with little advertising. As Sex Wax caught on, Zog quickly made T-shirts, hats and decals.

"Let's just say it was great marketing," said Dahl, who remains the second-largest presence in the market.

Every year or so, Zog added another piece of clothing to his line. He and Skinner followed up with two more brands of wax: "Really Tacky," which is stickier than its predecessor, and "Navel Wax," which is used on bodyboards.

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