When George Blaisdell invented the Zippo lighter in 1932 in an effort to craft a more streamlined functional American lighter than its Austrian counterpart, smoking was widely accepted. Blaisdell coined the word “Zippo” simply because he liked the sound of it.
According to the Zippo Manufacturing Company, the lighter’s popularity soared during World War II, when Zippo stopped general manufacturing and produced lighters exclusively for the American military. What set the lighter apart was that the company promised to repair it free of charge – a lifetime guarantee, still in force today. The lighter was also commonly used as a promotional item, branded with a company’s logo and handed out to customers and prospects. Such lighters have become prized collector items today.
Zippo became an iconic American symbol of the suave, sophisticated celebrity. According to the company, the Zippo lighter is a mainstay of product placement. The Zippo lighter (and brand) has appeared in more than 1,500 movies, stage plays and television shows since its invention. In the 1960s, fans with hands raised, holding Zippo lighters, would salute concert performers in what became known as a “Zippo moment.”
In recent years, of course, smoking has been frowned upon, leaving Zippo with a significant drop in demand, particularly in the U.S. market. Even so, in 2010, lighters made up more than half of the company’s revenues, with demand in China and Japan remaining strong.
But for over a decade, the company with some two-thirds market share in refillable lighters has been scrambling to remain relevant. Simply put, the company’s most powerful attribute – the strength of its legendary brand name – is responsible for the survival of Zippo.
It was in 2001, according to a 2004 case study in Inc. magazine, that Zippo “officially abandoned the strategic mindset of a one-product manufacturing business and entered the 21st century world of brand management.” That’s when the company began to extend its brand, producing such items as the Zippo Multi-Purpose Lighter and looking at licensing its name for use on non-lighter products. In a nod to those illuminated concerts, the company even started a “Zippo Hot Tour” to recognize up and coming rock bands. These days, the tour has morphed into Zippo’s partnership with Live Nation, sponsoring a “Zippo Tent” and “Zippo Hot Seats Sweepstakes” at rock concerts.
That was just the beginning of putting a little zip into the Zippo brand. Today, the Zippo name adorns over twenty kinds of “windproof” lighters, as well as candle lighters, fire starters, hand warmers, and outdoor utility lighters. But there’s more to the story. Zippo also makes lighter cases, including a special “air case” to stow the lighter in luggage checked for air travel, as well as Zippo-branded pens and watches. The watches carry an embossed logo crown and a mirrored case back with an etched Zippo logo and flame.
Moving even further away from the smoking arena, Zippo last year introduced “Zippo Fragrances,” a division whose first product, a cologne for men called “Zippo Original,” is packaged in a container that resembles – what else – a Zippo lighter that “opens and closes with the famous Zippo click.” The Zippo Fragrances line also includes more conventionally packaged men’s body and hair wash, after shave balm, and deodorant spray.
Zippo Fragrances was launched first in Europe because, interestingly, Zippo has more of a fashionable cachet there. The reason is that, seven years ago, Zippo acquired a maker of women’s leather handbags in Italy, as part of a settlement related to a dispute over using the company’s brand name on the bags, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Ultimately, fashion and retail may be what saves Zippo from the brand scrap heap. In January 2011, Zippo started experimenting with its own travel-retail and duty-free stores that will appear primarily in airports. In February, the company brought a casual clothing line to market. Licensed by a Hong Kong company, Zippo caps, jeans, and additional clothing items will be available through Urban Outfitters and other retailers.
Wherever Zippo ends up, though, there will likely continue to be a huge collectors market for Zippo lighters. The company knows it too – Zippo maintains a popular museum at its Bradford, Pennsylvania headquarters and holds annual get-togethers for collectors in the U.S. and Japan. One way or the other, it looks like Zippo intends to keep the fire burning.