So, there is this guy in the early 1930s who one day happens to be at the Bradford Country Club in Bradford, Pennsylvania, for a dance and dinner occasion.
While flaneuring around the premises, he suddenly notices one of his friends who has strolled out for a smoke, and is currently struggling to light a cigarette with an unwieldy looking lighter. Upon further enquiry, our guy finds out that the lighter his friend was using is of Austrian make and performs quite well in windy conditions due to its unique chimney design. A craftsperson at heart, our guy immediately registers the lighter's thin metal build riddled with dents and feels that its design is inefficient and could be made better — right as he watches his friend use both his hands to operate the device.
This guy is George S. Blaisdell, soon-to-be founder of Zippo — who then goes on to buy the sole U.S. rights from the Austrian lighter manufacturer and begins to experiment on a new lighter design. He eventually establishes The Zippo Manufacturing Company in 1932, in the midst of the worst economic times in history: The Great Depression.
Coined after the word "zipper" — a word Blaisdell particularly liked — Zippo lighters have now been considered an iconic symbol of American culture and are trusted by smokers around the world for their aesthetic, premium build, reliability, and of course, their signature click. And it all started with a man who set out on a mission to produce a one-handed lighter that was reliable and windproof.
Released in 1933, the first lighter sold for $1.95 and reflected Blaisdell's motto:
"Build your product with integrity, stand behind it 100 percent, and success will follow."
In line with this core value, Blaisdell, with a flair reminiscent of an uncompromising craftsman, introduced the brand's famous unconditional lifetime guarantee:
"It works, or we fix it for free."
This is a practice Zippo continues to this day, and the company is known to have repaired more than eight million lighters over the decades.
There are many lessons around brand and craft to be learned from Zippo's story.
Although a Zippo lighter is very easy to operate, its actual construction and design consists of 22 parts and requires a total of 108 manufacturing processes — including checking every single lighter for robustness and the signature clicking sound the lid makes when closed.
Here's a short video on how Zippo lighters are manufactured.
Due to their unique windscreen design and fuel delivery rate, Zippos are able to perform in harsh weather conditions and in a variety of climates. They are difficult to extinguish by simply blowing out the flame like regular lighters, and the proper way to extinguish a Zippo's flame is by closing the hinged lid, starving the flame of oxygen and producing that ever so satisfying clicking sound — arguably one of the most distinct sounds ever created; a sound that has carried an entire brand and been a crucial part of its charm.
But a signature clicking sound isn't where Zippo's charm ends. Far from it.
As the company scaled up manufacturing in the 1930s, allowing customers to have their custom initials engraved on their lighters and personalize them, it soon witnessed the start of World War II towards the end of 1941.
The company took a principled stance here, yet again, and decided to completely cease lighter production for the civilian market and dedicate its entire production to manufacturing lighters solely for the U.S. military.
These wartime lighters were made of steel and designed to endure the hardships of war. They were carefully spray-painted in black so as to not reflect light and expose camouflaged soldiers to the enemy.Consequently, with millions of American soldiers equipped with Zippo lighters, Zippo became a symbol of American resilience and toughness throughout the world. The shift to producing lighters for the army strengthened the young company financially. And most importantly, it gave them the kind of exposure and brand association that would have the lighter featured in thousands of movies, television shows, and stage plays throughout the years.
Even today, whenever a character has to signal ruggedness and masculinity that people usually associate with the U.S. armed forces, they are shown using a Zippo.
In the mid-50s, the brand took another stellar decision of stamping date codes on the bottom of their lighters.
While originally intended to help the company identify potential faulty batches of lighters and improve quality control, the date stamping also had a totally unintended but welcome side-effect of adding to the perception of Zippos as collectibles and memorabilia.
So much so that during the Vietnam War of the 1960s, the Zippo served as a form of self-expression for soldiers, as many would engrave their lighters with phrases, pictures, or personalized messages. And the engraved date codes allowed collectors and enthusiasts to accurately signal the era a particular Zippo was manufactured and used, adding to its authenticity.
It's no surprise then that alpha characters like John McClane in Die Hard and action/adventure movies like Indiana Jones and Ocean's Thirteen have featured Zippo lighters.
In 2022, the brand unveiled its global platform, "Live with Confidence."
The positioning represents its longstanding commitment to fine craftsmanship and durability, giving individuals confidence in Zippo products so that they can have the freedom to do what they want, how they want.
Here's the official brand movie with a voiceover that says,
"They say, "In life there are no guarantees."
They say a lot of stuff like that...
"Slow it down."
"Play it safe."
"Hedge your bets."
You gonna listen to that?
You're gonna stop because they can't guarantee you'll pull this off?
No guarantee you'll win?
No guarantee everything's gonna be fine?
In life, you make your own guarantees.
Nobody else will light your way.
Start your own fire and keep it burning.
And we guarantee...
You'll have one hell of a lifetime."
I personally found the visual of a veteran soldier having been saved from a bullet shot due to the Zippo in his pocket to be a brilliant way to reinstate the ruggedness and durability of a Zippo, and convey its ability to "simply work" in crunch situations.
"Live With Confidence is more than a tagline. It speaks directly to who we are as a company – built in the USA with pride by people confident in craftsmanship. It also embodies who our customers are and how they aspire to live.”
— Lucas Johnson, Associate Vice President of Global Marketing – Zippo
This messaging, uncompromising craftsmanship, and principled behaviour are not just for the public. Like a few other truly authentic brands, Zippo has always looked after its employees, viewing them as the firm's biggest asset.
For example, in 1946 when a serious problem with lighter flints was discovered, Blaisdell ceased production and shipping immediately in order to fix the problem. During this time he continued to pay his employees even though no revenue was coming in.
Zippo is a lesson in intangibles that often go ignored at the expense of scale.
You know, there's an ongoing debate on Reddit where you will find many posts asking,
"Which one is better: a Bic or a Zippo?"
Bic, for those of you who don't know, came up with mass-market plastic lighters that were known to be cheap, disposable, and perfectly utilitarian. If these Reddit discussions are anything to go by, you will realize that these Bic lighters are often better than their way more expensive Zippo counterparts — especially when it comes to their resilience to water and their longevity in terms of fuel.Some reasons why people state Bic lighters are better than Zippos:
- Cost: People don't mind as much if they lose a Bic or if someone steals it
- Maintenance: Unlike a Zippo, whose fuel can evaporate very quickly in hot conditions, you don't have to refill a Bic that often
- Size: Bics, being made of plastic, are fairly lightweight and small, meaning you can fit other stuff in your pocket along with it
But does that affect Zippos and their value proposition in any way? Not quite.
As you will see from the following screenshots, the differentiation Zippo lighters offer over other brands has scarcely to do with their utility and a lot to do with what I can only call "intangibles."
As you can see, Zippos, like all good brands, cannot be seen from a purely utilitarian perspective. Although lighters are commodities and are often viewed as pure utilities, seeing a Zippo as a utility would be simply too reductive.
To emphasise this point, I'll use an excerpt from the book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, where author Susan Freinkel writes:
"Certainly plastics enable the mentality that makes it all too easy for a person to simply discard an object when it is used up with little thought about the consequences. The era of disposability has fundamentally changed our relationship to the things surrounding uswhether of our own manufacture or nature's."
"Although Zippos, like Bics, are mass-produced and made from humble materials, there is a thriving collectibles trade in them; not the case for Bics or other disposables. Collectors like the advertising logos and themed images Zippo has always printed on the sides of its lighters. Bic has done the same; it offers limited-edition lighters each year, which are decorated with NASCAR heroes or sports-team logos or nature-themed pictures of wildlife and trees. Still, collectors have little interest. "We don't really consider they are lighters," said Judith Sanders, a member of collectors club called On the Lighter Side. Ted Ballard, an Oklahoma lighter lover who used his collection of forty thousand lighters to create the National Lighter Museum, sniffed at the idea of collecting Bics. 'It came to a pretty sad world when people would accept a plastic lighter as a a thing they'd carry in their pocket," he told me. "There's no esteem to it."
“Why do people "esteem" their durable lighters but not the throwaways?
Technically speaking, there's not a huge difference between a Bic and a Zippo. Both rely on essentially the same mechanism to make fire: fuel released through a valve and sparked by the turning of a flint wheel. But the fact that a Zippo can be refilled and a Bic cannot bespeaks a world of difference. If you can't reuse or repair an item, do you ever really own it? Do you ever develop the sense of pride and proprietorship that comes from maintaining an object in fine working order?
We invest something of ourselves in our material world, which in turn reflects who we are. In the era of disposability that plastic has helped foster, we have increasingly invested ourselves in objects that have no real meaning in our lives. We think of disposable lighters as conveniences — which they indisputably are; ask any smoker or backyard-barbecue chef—and yet we don't think much about the tradeoffs that that convenience entails."
For George Blaisdell, making a lighter was not just about producing a utility. It was also about taking pride in his craft.
You need to understand that a brand is not just its logo or its tagline: it is the set of all sensations, memes, associations, and images it invokes within its audience.
Hence, there are a lot of vectors along which a brand can establish a clear differentiation. But any differentiation, to be maintained, comes with a clear acknowledgment of trade-offs and all the costs that the business will have to bear in order to faithfully maintain it.
Zippo is a great example of a brand that grew solely due to the values of its founder and the decisions he took based on them: decisions that may have come at a significant cost, but were bore happily, nonetheless.
Craftsmanship is synonymous with uncompromise. And a brand is synonymous with trust, integrity, and going beyond and doing much more than what was strictly needed.
Zippo is a legacy brand today that gets hardly talked about when it comes to branding. Nevertheless, it serves as a remarkable lesson in what it means to have values and what it means to stick by them.