Having discussed the rise of civilian firearms training industry, as well as various means of ensuring quality in training services offered, including professionalization, licensing, certification, and apprenticeship, this post will consider one final approach to quality assurance in the gun training industry: BRANDING.
“Brands” originally were physical marks put on animals (and slaves, human beings who were treated like animals) as a sign of ownership. Later, wooden boxes of merchandise like wine were “branded” as a guarantee of the provenance and quality of the product being delivered.
With the rise of the advertising industry in the 20th century (see “Mad Men”), the amplifier on efforts at branding got turned up to 11. Successful brands like Coca-Cola, Google, Mercedes, and Apple don’t just assure quality generically. They suggest a whole host of qualities associated with the brand. Some brands are associated with quality, to be sure. When we say a product is “The Mercedes of,” we mean it is high quality. But other brands are associated with value. So, with Hyundai (my preferred brand of automobile) you don’t get the highest quality, but you get very good quality for the price. Harley-Davidson stands for freedom. Volvo for safety. Beyond motor vehicles, Apple Inc. is thought of as creative, stylish, and liberating.
As the Apple example suggests, one of the powerful aspects of branding is that individuals who consume the products of certain brands also associate themselves with those brands’ qualities. Hence, the popularity of Apple stickers on certain (creative, stylish, liberated) people’s cars (and especially on certain car brands, like Subaru – really, isn’t putting an Apple sticker on a Subaru redundant?).
Some brands are so dominant (at least for a time) that they come to stand for a whole category of products. Like when people say “Kleenex” for tissue or “I’ll have a Coke.” The same is true when a brand name is used as a verb. In the olden times, we used to say “Xerox” to mean photocopy. Today, it’s “Photoshop” for altering a digital image, “Google” for web searches, and “Skype” for online video calls.
There is nothing that cannot be branded. Places can be branded (“I Love NY”, Las Vegas). Services can be branded (American Express, Deloitte). People can be branded (Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods). Indeed, celebrities are not the only people today that are branded. All individuals are encouraged to become their own brands.
So, there are a lot of brands and brands do a lot of things. They assure quality, they convey qualities, they bear reputations, they cultivate trust.
Brands certainly exist in the firearms industry – some old, like Beretta, Colt, Smith & Wesson, Remington, Winchester; some newer like Barrett, Crimson Trace, Glock, Trijicon. But do brands exist and does branding take place in the private citizen firearms training industry?
Certainly. Gabe Suarez is a brand-name firearms trainer, and his brand has been extended to include any number of products and services (as I wrote about after my brief visit to The Suarez Group headquarters last month). Travis Haley’s Haley Strategic Partners sells both branded training and branded products like sights, triggers, and holsters for Glock pistols.
When a brand becomes established, it does not have to produce its own products, but can license its name (for a fee) to be put on products manufactured by other companies. For example, Larry Vickers of Vickers Tactical travels the country teaching classes and also develops branded products produced by Wilson Combat (Vickers Elite 1911), Blue Force Gear (Vickers Combat Sling), and Tango Down (Vickers Tactical Magazine Floor Plates).
But can training itself be branded? Can a firearms training brand license its name (for a fee) to be put on a “product” (i.e., training) “produced” (i.e., conducted) by another company? That is a tougher question.
I think, for example, of Active Self Protection. John Correia made a name for himself by posting and commenting on surveillance videos of offensive and defensive incidents on YouTube. With over 400,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and many of his videos receiving over a million views, Correia is one of the few YouTubers who is able to monetize his video work. He is also evolving himself (and hence his brand) into an “evidenced-based defensive trainer” and “a self-defense and firearms training company.”
Of interest to me here is one way Correia is extending his brand. Speaking to other firearms instructors, he observes:
“If your area is anything like mine, there are bunches of new instructors setting up shop because of the gun boom and the 24-hour news cycle, and many of those instructors are practically giving away their courses. You know that people get what they pay for, and that those fly-by-night classes aren’t worth a thing, but convincing potential students that your courses are worth what you’re asking is not always easy!”
Therefore, as a firearms instructor you need “to differentiate yourself in your marketplace if you’re going to succeed in your market” (e.g., attracting more students). Branding is an established and proven means of achieving market differentiation. This can be done not just developing your own brand, but also by tying yourself to an already established brand.
Although he doesn’t use the term, Coerreia suggests this when he writes:
“Having someone stand behind you as a business of integrity, with quality content and good principles, is a great step in showing potential students that you’re not a run of the mill instructor. You’re an honest-to-goodness teacher who offers incredible value. That’s how to get more students in class.”
For $99 annually (for the first 100 instructors to sign up, “plank holders”), a firearms instructor receives access to the Active Self Protection Instructor Development Portal, which has a number of benefits. Of interest to me here is #4:
“Listing on the Active Self Protection website as an affiliated instructor: Once you agree to our Professional Code of Conduct, you’ll be listed for our 228,000+ fans who are looking for courses in their area. When students need to find an instructor, you’ll show up in their neighborhood!”
Basically, for a fee an instructor can be an Active Self Protection affiliated (“branded”) instructor, listed in the ASP directory. The reputation and trust developed by the Active Self Protection is conveyed through its brand’s reputation and trust to other instructors, in the same way that Vickers Tactical gives its brand’s reputation and trust to other products.
The Active Self Protection program seems relatively new, so it will be interesting to see how things develop. One danger of licensing your brand is that you have less control over the quality of the product delivered. If I choose a firearm instructor from the Active Self Protection directory and have a bad experience, that doesn’t just reflect poorly on the instructor. It reflects poorly on the brand.
The Instructor Development Portal more generally can be seen as a form of brand extension for Active Self Protection, extending out from its core product of narrated videos. When brand extension goes well, it is amazing. Virgin being an excellent example, from music to an airline to space! But companies do well to take note of Law #10 of The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding: “The easiest way to destroy a brand is to put its name on everything.”
This is my last (planned) post on the big picture of the private citizen firearms training industry. I have to get back to work doing primary research. Specifically, I will be talking to trainers and observing training through the end of 2017 and into 2018. I will continue to report on my observations as I go, but not at the rate I have been in the past couple of weeks.
As I am still in the active research stage, I welcome suggestions, directions, comments, and criticisms, either in the comments here or privately through the contact page of this blog.