Friday, March 18, 2011

Got a light? Zippo Lighters expands its mission

Like most of the men of his (debatable greatest) generation, my father was a smoker. He smoked unfiltered Luckies, lightened up with Marlboros (which were at least filtered), then quit entirely when I was in my early teens. This was just about the time he became ill with the non-smoking related kidney disease that would kill him a few years later.

While he was still a smoker, we – his children – often gave him smoking-related gifts for Christmas and Father’sbeanbag Day. Sometimes it was a beanbag ashtray from Woolworth’s, which I’m happy in a non-smoker kind of way to see is still available for purchase. Sometimes a couple of us chipped in and got him a carton of cigarettes. (Not exactly a swell gift to give Dad, but this was pre-Surgeon General’s “revelation” – long after cigarettes were known as ‘cancer sticks’ -  that smoking caused cancer.)

Surprisingly, we never thought to get him a cigarette lighter, and I don’t actually recall if he ever used one.

It does seem unlikely, however, that he made it through four Lucky Strike-smoking years in Uncle Sam’s Navy during Big WWII without having gotten himself a Zippo lighter. (He did, after all, have a pair of ultra-cool RayBan sunglasses – Navy-issue, perhaps – that he used when summer driving for the rest of his life.)

If he’d used a lighter, it definitely would have been a Zippo, the official cigarette lighter of WWII era dads. And one that was definitely marketed as a swell father’s day (The smokin’ dads in ads in the 1950’s were always depicted with the more wholesome, upscale, I-went-to-college-and-wore-bucks pipe, rather than the more raffish, working stiff butt.

Anyway, Zippo, after nearly 80 years in the lighter biz – still family owned, and still making lighters in their Pennsylvania factory – is taking a look at the decline in the numbers of American smokers, which, of course, their product has indirectly help hasten, and is diversifying. They’re branching out into men’s fragrance, clothing, watches, camping gear and other “lifestyle” goods.

In diversifying, Zippo is hoping to trade in on their small-i iconic brand in a way similar to a capital-I Iconic  brand like Harley Davidson, as well as other smoking-related brands like Camel. (While Marlboro has some branded merchandise – or did for a while; I remember seeing windbreakers – apparently my father’s cigarette of origin, Lucky Strikes, was never deemed sufficiently iconic brand-worthy.

Naturally, with the Zippo fragrance, one asks whether is smells like second hand smoke or cigar fumes or something else smoker-ish. (Actually, some pipe tobacco smells pretty good, at least when you’re walking past the smoke shop in Harvard Square.) But Zippo has taken a different olfactory path:

…the new cologne doesn't smell anything like lighter fluid, says David Warfel, Zippo's global marketing director. Instead, Zippo says, it's "woody" and "spicy." (Source: Wall Street Journal.)

Much as I’d like to see Zippo succeed here, I think they’re up against it when it comes to the cologne name-thang.

I do believe most cologne-using men have something in mind when the slap on the old after-shave, and that something is not associated with the word “zippo.” Now “zippo” may, in fact, be what most cologne-using men get most of the time. (Think “unlucky strike out”.)

Thus, men’s colognes are more likely to have names that are more evocative of getting some and/or that at least give good macho. I actually couldn’t think of any men’s fragrance other than Paco Rabanne and Aramis, which was sold on the counter kitty-corner to the one I sold stationery and pens on at Filene’s one Christmas, oh, about 40 years ago.

Aramis fits: it sounds romantic. And Paco sounds rakish enough, proving my point (at least to my satisfaction).

Anyway, I went to check out what men’s colognes are called by going to a fragrance web site.

Most are named for a designer or brand – Calvin Klein, Polo - but a number of them (also) have tags like “Sport” and “Extreme.”  I note that Swiss Army has a men’s cologne, and there’s also something out there (on the discount table) called Randy Moss Grabman. (Just don’t tell the ladies you’re wearing it.) The most peculiar I came across is Eau d’Issey, which sounds way too much like “Oh sissy”. So maybe there’s a chance for a cologne named Zippo, after all.

Zippo has tried to expand its product line before:

In the 1960s and 1970s, Zippo tried to spread its bets by making tape measures, key holders and belt buckles, but all were later discontinued. Zippo even considered making golf-ball warmers to increase driving distances, only to conclude that the legal liability would be too great if the heated projectiles bounced off people's heads. Over the past two decades it has added pocket knives and leather purses.

Although the golf-ball warmers won’t be on offer – and who needs a golf-ball warmer when you can whack your Titlist with a Callaway Big Bertha and if you want to get a bit more travel out of it? -  Zippo will have plenty of goods. They plan on selling them in airport boutiques, kiosks, and stores like Urban Outfitters – which fits with their rock-band business. Fans buy lighters with a band’s logo on them, then wave them around at concerts. (After the Station House fire in Rhode Island, I’m guessing these are outdoor venues.)

I wish Zippo all the luck in the world with its new product lines. Small ($200M), family-owned, made-in-the-USA kind of business. Went with us to the last “good” war. Guarantees their product for life – and that’s life of the product, not life of the user, which is likely abbreviated if he/she uses that Zippo with much frequency.

And I do hope they’ not planning on calling their cologne  Zippo logo.

That flame would definitely be dead.

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