Marketers can learn valuable lessons from the success of "dark brands", writes Lazar Dzamic, planning director at Kitcatt Nohr.
Mikhail Kalashnikov died on 23 December last year. Had the Grim Reaper travelled on an East Midlands train and arrived seven days late, the inventor of the legendary automatic rifle would be able to hear the sound of celebratory fire from his creation at midnight in the suburbs of many countries around the planet.
The ubiquity of his invention was such that in some societies it became as common as a frying pan.
I know it sounds bizarre, but Kalashnikov’s death made me think of the nature of branding, particularly of recent debates about the ‘return of the USP,’ of ‘native branding’ that stems from a unique (or better) product, instead of just better communications.
Because, if you look at it with fresh eyes, ‘Kalashnikov’ (the rifle) was one of the most famous brands of modern times. It had all the trappings of success: near universal awareness (we heard about it), recognition (we know what it looks like – the signature curved ammo magazine and a sloped gas rebound port) and an immensely strong brand promise (no jamming – full stop). The connoisseurs talked about the unique sound. And so on.
It was a reputation built from the bottom up. A super-reliable product in all terrains and weather conditions, at an affordable price, requiring very low maintenance, with great residual value. Under-specced from the outside and over-specced inside (50% longer system stroke than required, so dirt and lack of lubrication don’t cause jamming; that’s the secret). No one ever got fired (on) for buying Kalashnikovs.
Word of mouth
All of that created a stupendous – and largely user-generated and perpetuated – word of mouth. If the product’s original purpose was anti-social, its brand building was almost exclusively the opposite. Like the product itself, its buzz was always on.
The very nature of that buzz also has all of the trappings of modern marcomms approach. The product was talking to our System 2 – in another en vogue phrase thanks to Daniel Kahneman – but the buzz was directly feeding our System 1.
Reliability was reassuring for the wallet, the rational side of preference, constant exposure created familiarity, while its news contexts created emotional poignancy. No matter how hot, humid, cold, rainy or dusty the scene, the rifle was there, clutched in hands and slung across the backs that saw the chaos, the struggle and the misery large parts of the planet could relate to.
It was drama, it was storytelling, but of a genuine kind; the life itself, there and then, unrefined and authentic, and no effort by the over-designed Hollywood myth machine could tip the scales in favour of Kalasnikhov’s biggest competitor: the less reliable, sensitive, higher-tech, poncy M16.
It was the triumph of low-res content, documentaries trouncing fiction; ‘frugal innovation’ triumphing over R&D budgets.
It dawned on me several years ago that there seems to be a whole parallel branding world existing alongside the ‘official’ one, the one we know as civilian consumers. Some undisputable ‘dark brands’, working branding-wise the same as any other good product (for their respective categories and purposes, not in the universal sense that they are ethically ‘good’).
Strong brand promise
Semtex explosive is another one. Colombian cocaine yet another. Mafia is a brand too. Each of these has a clear, strong brand promise, rooted in the product. If a brand planner were to play with them, what brand stretches and extensions would we be able to concoct?
Semtex could plausibly stretch into fireworks. It could become the Apple of Bonfire Night
My boss, Richard Madden – when I mentioned the notion of the ‘dark brands’ to him some time ago – immediately had a great idea for a credible Kalashnikov brand stretch: ultra-robust, low-spec laptops. The ones that use a crank-handle for power, for example, capable of bringing reliability and access to modern-day IT even to the most remote regions of the Earth. Either that, or going ultra-high spec and creating a virtually indestructible one; a great brand partnership opportunity with Samsonite, perhaps?
Semtex could plausibly stretch into fireworks. Lending its brand name to one of the current manufacturers of the fireworks-in-the-box (light just one fuse on the side of the box and the whole sequence is activated automatically) it could open up a new product niche. Throw in a good design agency for the box and it could become the Apple of Bonfire Night fun.
And for the Colombians, well, it’s probably not a huge stretch for labs that cooked the snuff to deploy the same chemical expertise to create a new brand of pain killers or tranquilisers.
The dark brands teach us a valuable lesson: it always pays off to start with the product first – a better utility. Then, in today’s world, the rest of the ‘native branding’ could be done through context and content. And no mention of advertising whatsoever.
This article was first published on