As the third-generation owner of Zippo Manufacturing Co, one question always dogs George Blaisdell Duke: “You guys are still in business?” It’s not that people want to be nasty, he says. It’s just that America doesn’t light up as much as it used to, so it’s a reasonable question for the most famous maker of cigarette lighters in the world. And he has a well-worn answer handy. “Well, of course we are,” he says, reaching across his office desk for Marlboros and his own personal Zippo, a silver one with waves engraved on it. “Business is doing very, very well.”
Never better, actually. Despite the 50 percent downturn in the number of US smokers since the heyday of cigarettes in the 1950s, Zippo booked more than $200 million in sales last year—a record—and had the best May and June sales in its history in 2014. Forbes estimates revenue has increased by a compounded 14 percent in the past three years, thanks to a new, non-smoking CEO, Greg Booth, who pushed the 82-year-old manufacturer’s legendary lighters at a younger audience and expanded business in China. New products—a (legitimately appealing) clothing line and camping gear—and its first retail stores added fuel to the fire. “Zippo has maintained its iconicness,” says Timothy Donahue, an industry observer and editor at Tobacco Reporter, “and it has diversified quite well”.
It’s a long way from the first Zippo, created by George Blaisdell after watching a friend struggle to light a cigarette on a windy day in 1932 in Bradford, Pennsylvannia, a small town in the Allegheny Mountains where Zippo is still based. He came up with a windproof chimney and the distinctive hinged lid—and guaranteed the lighter for life, meaning Zippo would continue to ﬁx the lighter as long as its owner sent it to the factory. After soldiers received the lighters in WWII, Zippo successfully marketed itself with a utilitarian, made-in-America image for the following half-century.
Non-family CEOs ran it after the 1978 death of Blaisdell, who left Zippo to his family. By the 1990s, his daughter Sarah Dorn and her son, Duke, had bought out the rest of the clan. “The more family members that are owners, the more directions that they think the company should go. Sometimes the privately owned companies don’t make it,” says Duke, who has since acquired his mother’s stake, too. “Sometimes people get impatient with the lack of temporary success, shall we say.”
Zippo hit just that kind of a rough patch in the 2000s. Duke won’t comment on how far sales plummeted, but his displeasure can be felt in his decision to make Booth the CEO in 2001. (Booth had been running Zippo’s knife-making subsidiary.) With only himself to please, Duke could wait for Booth to ﬁnd the solution.
The average age of Zippo’s customers then still hovered between 30 and 50. It needed to think younger. Or else, Booth thought at the time, “all the buyers will have Zippos in their caskets, like Frank Sinatra”. (The crooner was buried with his trusty silver Zippo in 1998; replicas were handed out at his wake.)
It needed to reach the generation—ages 18 to 24—who were children when Sinatra died. To do it, the company shifted ad dollars from print to Google AdWords and sponsored music concert series. They churned out lighters with Jack Daniel’s imagery and others inspired by the TV show Sons of Anarchy. (Skull images have proved especially popular.) All told, Zippo produced 30,800 unique designs last year—up from 8,900 a decade ago, a 246 percent increase partly owing to a new Zippo.com feature where you can design your own lighter from scratch. Zippo has positioned itself as a maker of talismans, lucky charms—or something akin to customised belt buckles. “The Zippo lighter is a thing of taste,” Booth says. “Sometimes it’s used by folks just as a fashion statement.”