Travis Haley is no stranger to brands and branding. He served as CEO as one of the best known brands in the gun industry – Magpul Industries – from 2009 to 2011, when he left to start Haley Strategic Partners. Now his dragonfly logo is emblazoned on Haley Strategic branded Bravo Company Mfg. rifles, Surefire flashlights, G-Code holsters, and even Skinny Goat coffee.
When he is not wearing dragonfly logoed shirts and pullovers, Haley himself dresses like he is under a sponsorship agreement with the outdoor technical gear brand Arcteryx, accented with the obligatory Salomon brand performance footwear and Oakley brand sunglasses. He likes brands.
And why shouldn’t he? Travis Haley himself is a brand. (Recalling Jay-Z’s memorable line, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”)
But when it comes to gun training, Travis Haley disdains brands.
How, then, do we reconcile this with fact that the diplomas students receive upon completing the D5 Disruptive Science Handgun course refer to the “HSP Triangle of Shooting,” and that the phrase “Disruptive Science” itself is trademarked?
I have previous written about branding in the gun training industry as one method of quality assurance (alongside professionalization, licensing, certification, and apprenticeship). “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.
A brand assures quality, conveys qualities, bears reputations, and cultivates trust. When Travis Haley puts his Haley Strategic brand on a gun training course, he most certainly is assuring quality and conveying qualities associated with the reputation and trust his brand bears.
So, what’s his problem with branding in the gun training industry? His problem is that people associate certain brands with particular shooting techniques to which they become so emotionally attached that they don’t critically engage what they are learning and why. The formulas become formulaic. People follow recipes rather than learning how to cook.
Haley considers the Weaver technique an American brand of shooting. Likewise the Modern Technique of the Pistol codified by Col. Jeff Cooper and taught at Gunsite. When he made his splash in the gun training industry with the Magpul Dynamics “Art of Firearms” DVDs, Haley wanted to introduce people to an “experience” rather than simply create a new “technique.”
But the new “dynamics generation” turned the experience into a recipe. At the same time the dragonfly was evolving. “I’m glad the Magpul videos went away,” Haley told me last year. “Because my training has developed and evolved since then.”
When he told his followers not to buy the Magpul Dynamics videos anymore, this caused (or, perhaps, exacerbated) a rift with Pantaeo Productions, for whom Haley had more recently made “adaptive” handgun, carbine, and kalash videos. Pantaeo pulled the videos from their website over Haley’s suggestion that training videos should have “an expiration date” (though curiously the videos are available on the Pantaeo site today).
How then do we understand the anti-branding brand that is Haley Strategic’s Disruptive Science handgun training?
In two ways, I think. The first has to do with the “disruptive” half of the equation. In his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term disruptive technology. Disruptive technologies break in some dramatic way with past ways of doing things, as evident in common examples like personal computers, email, smart phones, and social media. To the extent that Haley’s approach to training is disruptive, it cannot simply connect back to existing techniques and make incremental improvements. It has to mark a radically new way.
The second has to do with the science half. “There is no such thing as a Haley Strategic shooting method,” Haley tells his class. “Because I didn’t create gravity or psychology or physiology.” The claim is that he is simply drawing on the same science that applies in any aspect of human performance to shooting. But science also changes. Yesterday’s scientific truths are not today’s or tomorrow’s.
In the final debrief of the course I observed, one of the students enthusiastically praised what he had learned, particularly the classroom portions. He concluded by saying, “I drank the Kool-Aid.” To this Haley responded with a note of caution to his new disciple:
Uh, the Kool-Aid, right. Be careful with that because tomorrow I may change the flavor. Nothing is set in stone. That’s what I mean by be adaptive, right. What we’re teaching now might change. There are things that constantly change. . . . That’s our job every single day, to not fall into those recipes and systems and programs.