Branding In The Gun Business

posted on October 7, 2009
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A brand is a company’s identity, its DNA. How the public perceives a product is through its brand more so than its actual functionality. A brand determines whether you view a product as dynamic or dull, the sign of coolness or the mark of a rank amateur.

If a brand makes you want to own its product because you associate those products with an identity that you find desirable, the brand is strong. Rolex is a strong brand. HK is a strong brand. Harley-Davidson is a very strong brand.

If you could care less about the name on the package and are buying solely for price or utility, the brand is weak.

Branding is more important than any other single aspect of marketing, more so than even the quality or performance of the product itself. As anexample, I inform you that you just won the Industry Insider’s Surprise Lottery. You can take your pick of one of two revolvers, free.

Both revolvers are identical in caliber, barrel length andfinish. One is a Colt, the other a Ruger. As you scoop up the Colt, I point out to you that from a mechanical, engineering and metallurgical standpoint, a New Model Blackhawk is demonstrably a better gun than a Third Generation Colt, but you’re not listening.

You’re fondling your new thumb-cocker as you lovingly read the emblazoned Single Action Army on the barrel and see the rampant Colt prancing on the sideplate. You’re far more smitten with the brand than the product.

If I would have placed that same Ruger beside an Italian-made Uberti, you would have pounced on the Blackhawk. Regardless of whether the Ruger is a better gun, the Ruger brand is stronger.

Branding in the gun business is heavily influenced by the overall conservatism and traditionalism of our industry. Although only time will tell,Taurus might never have as strong of a brand as Smith & Wesson. Why? Because Smith & Wesson has been making handguns since 1852, which is ahuge head-start in any race, let alone a branding race.

The fact that Taurus is a foreign brand is irrelevant. Heckler & Koch, one of the strongest brands in the gun business, is foreign. Glock is foreign. SIG is foreign. Benelli is foreign. Beretta is foreign. Domestic companies might have a slight edge in terms of brand appeal, but not nearly enough to overcome other factors.

What are the factors that make for a strong brand in the gun business?

An historical association is definitely important. When a small-time military surplus dealer from Illinois, Bob Reese, bought the name of a storied old New England arsenal in the late 1970s, a brand was born. Today Springfield Armory brands itself as “America’s oldest name in firearms,” which shows how much stock the company places on historical significance.

An association with technology or innovation is another important factor in brand appeal. Kel-Tec is so named to get tech into the brand. Magnum Research squeezed a word with scientific connotations into its name.

There are a lot of family names used as brands in the gun business. Beretta, Colt, Winchester, Smith, Wesson, McMillan, Jarrett, Pachmayr, Hornady, Leupold and the one that has been ingrained more deeply than any other—Browning.

Browning might well be a case study in branding. Browning doesn’t manufacture a single product,yet its catalog is replete with every possible category of sporting goods from hip waders to gun safes to archery equipmentto winter coats to, yes, even guns. Browning, of Morgan, Utah, has no factory; its products are made by vendors.

Browning is essentially a branding company that does an exceptionally good job with its deer-and-antlers logo known as the Buckmark. They even have an ad campaign to “Show us your Buckmark” to win a prize. Entrants have submitted Buckmark tattoos, snow sculptures, iron sculptures, custom painted motorcycles and, I've heard, even children so named. “This is my boy, Buckmark Jones.”

A “Belgian Browning” has great cachet, meaning a gun made in Herstal, Belgium where John Browning licensed his name and several designs to Fabrqiue Nationale. That the Browning Hi-Power pistol is made in Portugal makes not a whit of difference to the brand—the Browning name says it all.

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