Burning for You

Zippo has been an iconic American brand—but these days, it's lighting campfires

Even if you’ve never smoked a cigarette, you know that…sound. It happens when the stainless steel lid pops open under the pressure of the cam spring—a crisp, metal-on-metal “click” that precedes the snap of the flint wheel. This is the sound of someone—most likely a Humphrey Bogart-type with stubble on his chin—firing up a Zippo lighter. The sound is so iconic it’s been sampled in pop songs, while the lighter itself—scarcely changed since its 1933 debut—has appeared in over 1,500 movies and TV shows, from Apocalypse Now to Dragnet.

Most brands today would kill for that kind of cultural ubiquity. And yet most brands today would probably not kill to be Zippo. Why? Consider the ads on these pages. Zippo’s inexorable association with smoking, a socially suave habit that delivered steady sales for decades, became the very thing that has singed its image in recent years. These days, Zippo is hoping that other products will keep its fire burning.

When renowned portraitist Jack Wittrup drew the smooch-covered dandy in the 1953 ad at right, Zippo was at its cultural and commercial apogee. Butane Zippos were standard issue to troops during WW II. As a result, millions of American men were already sworn to the lighter that had not only fired up their Luckies, but because it also lit up instrument panels and heated cans of food rations, sometimes saved their lives. War correspondent Ernie Pyle famously called the Zippo lighter “the most coveted item on the battlefield.”

This loyalty among the Greatest Generation would serve to further deify Zippo for their baby boom progeny. For postwar lads like the one at right, a Zippo thus became the figurative embodiment of becoming a man. Marcus Hewitt, chief creative officer of brand consultancy Dragon Rouge, points out that “the boy’s giddy because he’s just been kissed—but the lighter is the hero. This is what’s made him grown up: the kiss, and getting his first Zippo.” (The kid was going to use it too. The average U.S. smoker of 1953 lit up 3,650 times that year.)

But we all know what happened next. Ever since the mid-’60s, when the Surgeon General first linked cigarettes to cancer, smoking has steadily declined. Zippo’s image also took a hit as its lighters became symbols of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Lighter demand ebbed. The 1998 production figure of 18 million lighters dropped to 12 million last year. As Zippo CEO Greg Booth recently told The Toronto Star: “Items like the Zippo pocket lighter are going to suffer from pressure on tobacco. If we want to be profitable and a growing company, diversification has to be part of the strategy.”

So, that man with the ice in his beard on the opposite page? That’s diversification. Harnessing its long-standing popularity with men and its indelible associations with fire, Zippo now sells an Outdoor Line that includes everything from emergency fire starters to hand warmers. Hewitt doesn’t take issue with that strategy. “With the ruggedness and the flame that never goes out, you could argue that this is truer to the brand values [than the cigarette lighters],” he said. But by their very definitions, brand extensions mean a departure from the original product, and in this case, Hewitt can’t fight the impression that a degree of magic has been lost. “There a cheeriness and sensory abundance in the first ad, but the second is bleak and—ironically—cold,” he said.

Maybe that’s what the Zippo hand warmer is for.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.