How to trademark a sound, according to Zippo
Trademarking a noise takes years of patience, documentation and Hollywood testimonies, at least if Zippo’s recent experience is anything to go by.
The company has officially trademarked the sound of its lighter being flicked open and sparked in the US. It is planning to to file for similar intellectual property protection in the European Union, Canada, China and India.
The aural status, which is often referred to as a ‘soundmark’, has only been granted to a select few brands. It’s a common misconception that Harley-Davidson is one of them (the motorcycle marque attempted to trademark the growl of its engine in 1994 but abandoned the application after six years of legal gridlock), however MGM’s roaring lion, Intel’s chimes and even the "ho ho ho" of the Jolly Green Giant are all protected from imitation by the US government.
Now the metallic clatter and swish of a Zippo flame joins this club – yet it wasn’t an easy process. The brand first filed for the audio trademark back in 1999 but, much like Harley-Davidson, it gave up on the scrupulous process a little over two years later.
This time around, however, Zippo had Beth Seals on side as its general counsel. The lawyer joined the company in 2016 and put her experience in intellectual property and trademarking to use almost immediately when she was asked to take another shot at the soundmark.
“One of the crucial pieces we got right this time, that may not have been as strong in the past, is the evidence,” said Lucas Johnson, senior brand manager, global marketing at Zippo. “Part of the application is our responsibility – or burden of proof to use the legal term – to say this is a unique sound.”
To stake this claim, Zippo dipped into a pool of pop culture. It needed to prove the lighter’s sound was iconic and instantly recognizable, so gathered testimonies from the filmmakers and prop masters who placed the Zippo in more than 2,000 Hollywood TV shows and movies, including Indiana Jones, Pulp Fiction and Die Hard.
“We even had statements that we gathered from the [dance] group Stomp,” recalled Johnson. “They do an entire musical number based around the click of a Zippo lighter and the strike of the wheel against the flint.”
Once testimony was gathered Zippo submitted its textual application alongside a clip of the noise in question. This was already on file: the brand had previously taken to the studio to record to the “official” sting of a “crisp, clean Zippo click”. Then, after the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) had given its own conditional approval, the application was opened up to dispute from other companies and competitors.
USPTO found no significant or substantial claims against the filing (Harley-Davidson, by contrast, received objections from nine of its rivals).
“Once that part of the process was done we were issued the final soundmark,” said Johnson. “We were extremely thrilled when that happened.”
Why did Zippo put itself through the process, knowing it had already failed once before? Johnson explained the legal campaign was predominantly undertaken for reasons of product design protection, however, the result will also augment its marketing collateral in the age of the sonic logo.
“It certainly made sense with everything that’s going on [around voice and smart speakers] to re-examine the application,” he said. “We recognized the increase in importance – or at least the increased visibility – of a [brand’s sound] among the general population.
“We won't centralize marketing around that sound ... but this will certainly play a part in future marketing because it is so iconic and so well-known.”
Zippo’s latest campaign is, at least, underscored by the Zippo click. The brand teamed up with Buzzfeed to celebrate its new trademarked status by creating two tongue-in-cheek autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos. In the first scenes, the close sound of Zippo being lit is meant to induce feelings of comfort and relaxation.
The partnership is indicative of Zippo’s wider marketing strategy. Johnson notes his brand falls under the double-edged sword of an 86-year-old heritage: Zippo is iconic, but staying relevant is always a challenge. Its current solution is to forgo traditional above-the-line in favor of branded content and experiences, such as a live music program dubbed Zippo Encore.
“We find ways we can deliver value to consumers through something they naturally enjoy doing,” said Johnson. “Our goal is to do interesting things where consumers talk about us.
“I'd much rather have consumers talking about us, than us talking about us.”