Is there anything a snappy rebrand can't fix? Including a gun's reputation as the "the world's favorite killing machine?"
At a press event this week, the weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov unveiled a $380,000 rebranding that includes a new name, the Kalashnikov Concern, aka the Concern, as well as a new tagline: "Protecting Peace." (RT says the Russian version translates as "Weapons of Peace" or "Weapons of the World.") The overhaul gave the Concern's three weapon lines a makeover, and introduced a new line of survival and outdoor gear. Even the AK-47 got a new logo, which will be stamped on every one of the new guns the weapon maker produces.
As plenty of critics have pointed out, the rebrand comes at a crucial moment for the company: Sanctions by the US and Canada have stopped shipments of hundreds of thousands of weapons, and the Concern is reportedly pivoting towards Asian markets in the face of the uncertainty. So what, exactly, can a new identity do for it?
According to Businessweek, the company's officials said at the unveiling that it wants to become "as recognized and valuable" as Apple. The Apple of manufacturing and distributing hundreds of millions of weapons to regimes all over the world. The iPod of the assault rifle market. Shoot different!
But in one twisted sense, it's not a completely absurd comparison. Both companies are unusual in the fact that they have built global empires on a short list of foundational products that don't change very often. Both operate on a global scale, making name recognition and logo design all the more important.
The new AK-47 logo, for example, is a KC with an upper arm shaped by the curving magazine of the gun itself—a magazine that is probably the most familiar to consumers out of all modern weapons. Kalashnikov, for better or worse, wants that curving magazine to be its half-eaten Macintosh apple. Except that, you know, Apple's products aren't designed to kill anything.
Perhaps most shocking part of the overhaul is the marketing campaign that goes along with it, as The Guardian points out. The Concern released a series of brand videos that paint the AK-47 as the tool that played a major role in liberating the people from their colonial oppressors. "Freedom movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America could at last fight back against professional colonial armies," a narrator says according to the paper. "This is a weapon which helped people defend their families and futures, and demand the right to a peaceful future."
This is a vastly romanticized version of history, of course. The Kalashnikov is the most popular assault rifle in the world, and because there is so little oversight in its sale, both by Russia and plenty of other world powers, it is the main currency of complex illegal arms trafficking operations that funnel the weapons into conflict zones, feeding violence and repression.
"The gross misuse of these assault rifles by unaccountable and poorly trained combatants and fighters has been responsible for millions of direct and indirect deaths in Angola, Chad, DRC, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and elsewhere," says Oxfam.
Of course, Kalashnikov isn't directly responsible for those deaths, but painting itself as a champion of the oppressed is an absurdity—though a necessary one. Because of the conflict in Ukraine, many of Kalashnikov's partners aren't buying its weapons anymore. So it's looking for emerging markets in need of cheap, dependable, easily used gun. The Concern lays it out in plain terms:
Eighty percent of all of Kalashnikov output is exported. One of Concern's priorities is finding new and increasing its share of existing markets. This approach was used to pick 50 countries that have the most potential acquiring Kalashnikov military products. Concern already started new market penetration, mainly in the Asia-Pacific and African regions. The most promising markets for Kalashnikov are India and Egypt. Contracts with Thailand and Indonesia were signed recently, and Concern is in negotiations with South American countries.
With a poppy logo and a easy-to-understand message of struggle against the powers that be, Kalashnikov has itself a snappy new sales pitch to go with.
While Kalashnikov hired a Russian PR firm to carry out the job, Creative Review brings up the question of whether designers have an ethical responsibility to vet the work their clients do, asking "would you?" It's a dilemma designers and architects have always faced—and are facing more and more often as they work in autocratic countries—and one with no clear answer. [Creative Review; Businessweek; RT; The Guardian]