Last month, I had the pleasure of touring the Zippo lighter factory and meeting with some of its executives. It was a fascinating tour in many ways—watching the lighters being made and learning about the company’s history was interesting, of course, but as a family business in a changing environment, it also bears a lot of parallels to the jewelry industry.
Jewelers are struggling with the cutthroat competition of online shopping, commoditization, and the rise of new, non-traditional distribution channels. Zippo, meanwhile, is an iconic brand that has had to find a way to stay relevant when its core product is cigarette lighters in a non-smoking country. Company executives estimate that only 21 percent of Americans still smoke, and of course smoking is forbidden in many public establishments across the nation. Yet Zippo’s sales are as strong as ever and it boasts collectors around the world.
Zippo lighters are an American cultural icon. Between their role in World War II (the company devoted all wartime production to supplying the military and GI’s), and starring in as many movies as some of Hollywood’s top names, the slim rectangle with the arched top is recognizable worldwide. Zippo executives boast that they’ve never had to pay for movie placement. But when the anti-smoking movement began to gather steam, they also knew they needed to find a reason for nonsmokers to buy their lighters.
The basic Zippo lighter hasn’t changed in 70-plus years. Its inventor and founder, George Blaisdell, did make some improvements on the earliest models, but once he refined the product to the point where it worked reliably, the internal mechanism has stayed the same ever since. What does change—and what the company is brilliant at marketing—is the artwork on the outer casing of the lighter. That’s what makes each piece individual, what makes it collectible, and what turns a simple device into a badge of identification. It’s why the company is on track to sell its 500 millionth lighter, and why the Zippo lighter app is one of the iPhone’s most-often-downloaded.
The company has diversified its product line somewhat—even non-smokers occasionally want to light a candle, fire up a grill, or start a campfire, so there are a variety of other Zippo products designed to do these tasks. The firm also acquired Case knives and an Italian leather goods company, to say nothing of the extensive line of Zippo-branded logo goods available at its museum shop.
Where jewelers can take a lesson from Zippo is in looking at their core products in new ways. It’s exactly what the Diamond Trading Company does every few years with its various campaigns. Diamonds don’t change, but how they’re marketed does. There’s the three-stone ring, Journey, and, now, Everlon. Even the Diamond Solitaire Pendant campaign of the mid-90s carries a lesson. Jewelers generally viewed that as a remount sale—and often it was—but even at that, what a great opportunity to invent a new category that turns a harrowing experience like divorce into a celebration of new beginnings. Including, of course, encouraging a woman to trade up the stone for another that isn’t tied to the past.
Or, take the three-stone ring. Naturally, it’s a gift of love for couples, but there’s also a generational theme that can be applied to it. Think, “my mother, my daughter, myself.” What a great present, especially if Mom is divorced or widowed.
Jewelers have a store full of diverse products that each can be promoted in a host of new ways—and jewelry hasn’t been banned in public. And, of course, that’s not to mention how much jewelry also is iconic, and that your store is a pillar of your community.
There’s always a new way to sell an old product.
by Hedda Schupak, Editor, The Centurion