On Air: Brand Management

001_Simon Moore BSA Lightning XL Tactical UK-made_8825_MGF2012Airgun Shooter editor, Nigel Allen, looks at how branding is becoming an important part of the airgun industry.

The word ‘brand’ is one of those corporate buzzwords that has changed in its application down the years. Derived from the iron-branding of cattle, its original definition effectively related to ownership – but this meaning has evolved. In the early 20th Century, a brand came to represent a product or ‘trademark’, such as Coca-Cola, Hoover or Mars Bar. But nowadays, branding is perceived at a much wider level.

Companies (even entire industries) are subjectively viewed by an audience for whom the meaning may differ from one individual to the next. Take Apple, for example. It’s an instantly recognisable brand, though may conjure up many different associations to those who recognise it. For example, it may mean: MP3 players, phones, tablets, computers, watches, global business success – or even “that company that turns out overpriced electrical stuff made in Chinese sweat-shops, which is then sold to millions of people around the world who will buy it whether they need it or not.”

So a company’s ‘brand’ is clearly a powerful tool – but how the brand owner harnesses its power will ultimately determine whether the future is a prosperous one or not.Consider Volkswagen: Once a bastion of German efficiency (“If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen”), many will now view the VW logo very differently. Indeed, its brand perception may now be the polar opposite, should one draw the parallel that reliability infers trustworthiness.

While branding is a crucial element in gaining corporate recognition, it’s also important for building market share in a competitive environment, and over the past couple of decades, the airgun industry has certainly borne this out.

Those manufacturers, suppliers and distributors who have attempted to ‘brand’ themselves in some way have, indeed, risen to the fore. As a result, whether subliminal or not, the probability is that many a shooter is using a particular make of airgun because either they feel happy with that brand, or the retailer who sold it to them felt comfortable in doing so.

Airgun Shooter magazine’s demographic is aged 45-plus, so much of the readership will have been around in the 1960s and 1970s (or before, even), an era prior to what I call the ‘airgun revolution’ of the 1980s. The oldest readers will have long considered established names like BSA, Diana, Feinwerkbau, Webley and Weihrauch as ‘iconic’ brands – yet, arguably, Diana and Feinwerkbau have done little to cement their brand association with the UK’s airgunners. The result, in my opinion, is that they’ve lost significant ground, especially to rivals like BSA, which has been extremely forward in promoting its legacy.

Those long-time airgunners will see – and therefore buy – BSA as a brand they’ve come to know and trust down the years. The bonus for BSA is that such patrons will also act as perfect ambassadors for their brand when it comes to attracting newcomers to the sport, too, pretty much in the same way that Apple enjoys self-perpetuating business courtesy of its own ‘fanboy’ base.

Daystate is good example of how creating an airgun identity can build a brand. Founded in the 1970s, the company was but a mere cottage industry in the grand scheme of things, and hardly on the airgun industry’s radar for its first couple of decades. But after its acquisition in 1997 by Rowe Engineering, the new Daystate management team embarked on a fairly extensive marketing strategy based around it being the “founding father of the modern-day precharged pneumatic.” As a result, Daystate is now a well-established airgun brand that’s not only synonymous with the PCP airgun, but a talisman one to boot.

Part of the Daystate branding success came from its early adoption of the new digital age, not just in the hardware it produced (its flagship PCPs use computerised and electronic technology), but in the way it went about putting itself in front of people. They’ve not been alone in doing this, which is why some of the perceived bigger airgun brands also have impressive websites and promote good social media interaction on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Indeed, the airgun shooter is someone who likes to belong, which is why you’ll find many hardcore enthusiasts setting up, running and contributing to unofficial owners’ groups on Facebook and internet forums. Often, such online presence isn’t even supported by the gunmaker (although it is recognised), but it does much for enriching the brand, and on a global basis of course. Rarely will you see anything negative on these fan-sites – and if you do, it’ll very quickly be quelled.

Much like Daystate, Air Arms is another relatively new name in the airgun industry, having recently celebrated 30 years in the business – but it too is considered a huge brand in the airgun world. Part of Air Arms’ success has come from the quality of its airgun hardware, but the company has also benefited from a more open involvement with its end users, a philosophy that many other airgun companies haven’t  yet embraced.

Air Arms, however, sees value in nurturing its customer base. It’s set up teams of shooters to compete in various shooting disciplines, appointed shooting ambassadors around the world and produced much AA-branded merchandise, from baseball caps to pin badges, mugs to clothing. The gunmaker even hosts an annual shoot to commemorate its late founder, Bob Nicholls, near its East Sussex gunmaking plant, to which all current Air Arms owners are invited. Those lucky enough to attend will attest that the friendly atmosphere and level of hospitality shown to them would make it very hard to ever switch to a rival brand.

Armex The ‘family’ aspect is also at the Armex Privileged Members’ Club, which the UK’s official Umarex importer is launching with effect from 1 March. The general principle behind the initiative is an airgun loyalty card, offering rewards to those who invest in the Armex and Umarex brands. The rewards are a mix of airgun-related discounts – on Armex-supplied products, naturally – and, interestingly, non-generic incentives in conjunction with partner brands as diverse as wine suppliers and paintballing centres.

While Armex will no doubt grow the list of benefits to its members’ club, I believe this innovative scheme will be very readily accepted by the airgunner buying into the Umarex/Armex stable, regardless of the incentives. The literature supplied in the gun box, and the corresponding, uniquely numbered membership card that gets subsequently issued, certainly gives the impression that the club is quite an exclusive one to which any airgunner would be proud to belong. In that respect alone, Armex will have elevated its brand above that of its competition in the eyes of customers. It’s another example of how to execute effectively the complex art of brand management.

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