Ready, Aim, Misfire

Ready, Aim, Misfire

The Kalashnikov Concern, maker of the famed AK-47 assault rifle, recently announced a rebrand complete with a fresh slogan and shiny new logo.

For those who have never seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie or watched CNN, the AK-47 is truly iconic.  Devilishly simple to operate, relatively cheap and ridiculously easy to maintain, for decades it has been the weapon of choice for ragtag armies, Hollywood action flicks and, sadly, terrorist groups.

A subsidiary of the Russian state-run company Rostec, the Kalashnikov Concern now seeks to re-position the rifle as a “weapon of peace,”  an effort for which they reportedly paid the Moscow-based agency Apostol the equivalent of nearly $400 thousand.  Accordingly, Apostol produced a slick marketing video offering a sanitized version of the weapon’s infamous history, one that downplays its role as an efficient killing instrument in countless global conflicts, even gang shootings here at home.  Of course, the clip also fails to mention that, in many bereft, war-torn parts of the world possessing an ‘AK’ is seen as a bizarre symbol of manhood.

Point blank:  marketing can’t do everything.
Kalashnikov’s foray begs some important questions, the first being quite basic:  Can a company truly transform its image through marketing?  Why, yes, it can.  Avid creative minds, abundant funding plus a profusion of digital and traditional marketing venues make the process straightforward if not easy.  But the next question is harder:  Given these tools, and the world’s insatiable appetite for content, can a brand alter not just its image but long-held consumer perceptions through the force of marketing alone?  No, not really.

Transformation takes more than pulling a trigger.
Compared to changing a company’s culture or brand essence, marketing campaigns are a cinch.  No unruly employees to fire.  No agonizing executive retreats.  No corporate firebrands falling on swords.  No hollow pep talks, mission statements and PowerPoint® presentations.  Just find a good agency, write a check and you’re done.

Yet, while a rebrand is relatively simple, shifting public perceptions is difficult and frequently impossible.  It may not even be advisable.  As I have always said, a good brand attracts and repels.  For the most part, standing armies and insurgents don’t gobble up AKs because they want to wage peace.  Nor are peace mongers part of Kalashnikov’s target audience.

Brands, it turns out, are a lot like people; and people don’t change overnight.  As our friends and family do us, consumers are good at judging the true character of companies based not on what is spun, but on real events and personal brand experiences.  Thus, most will find it hard to accept the AK-47 as a weapon of peace when it is so often seen amid images of death, or cited in news stories as the means by which people are shot, wounded or killed.

Not long ago, when the price of gas was sky-high (along with profits, shareholder value plus fat government subsidies), ExxonMobil regaled us with a campaign touting their aim to help mankind.  Likewise, while Gulf Coast residents were still cleaning gobs of tar off their feet, BP launched self-serving ads in concert with their efforts to avoid blame for the nation’s worst oil spill.  No one bought it.  No one should have.

Trading on the sins of the father.
Shortly before his death in 2013, Mikhail Kalashnikov, the AK-47’s inventor, wrote the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church asking if he should seek forgiveness for creating a weapon responsible for so much pain and destruction.  The folks at Rostec must have winced when they heard that.  Based on the gun’s continuing popularity, they should have hailed it as good branding.