On a guitar with the usual bone or plastic nut, an open string can sound different than a fretted string. This is due to the difference in how the string reacts to metal vs. bone or plastic. A zero fret gives open strings the same tone as fretted strings.
A zero fret may also be easier/cheaper to manufacture than a traditional nut. With a traditional nut, the string slots must be cut precisely to the right depth. With a zero fret, the slots in the nut are cut deep without no need for precision. The nut is only responsible for the horizontal separation between strings; the zero fret is only responsible for the height of an unfretted string. It is presumably cheaper or easier to get the correct height with a zero fret than it is to cut nut slots to the correct depth.
Tuning may be easier with a zero fret, due to lessened friction with the nut (the nut slots can be cut wider when a zero-fret it used).
Over time, a wound string can wear down its slot in a traditional nut. With a zero-fret, that wear transfers to the zero-fret instead. It is possible that the zero-fret will last longer than a traditional nut would.
See also: Zero Fret (wikipedia)