Sales Tips & Tricks: An Inside Look at Sales Promotions Used by the Arms Industry

In 1968 the Kennedy administration closed the Springfield Armory.  For the most part, it ended a long-standing process where the Government designed and produced small arms and medium cannons.  The change resulted in private industry competing for contracts to procure weapons on a “best value” basis that ended up saving the taxpayer money.  The change also meant that private industry would need to develop sales campaigns in order to get their products in front of military customers.  Companies need promotional material, giveaways, and advertisement campaigns.  Some do this well, and others not so well.

Getting a product in front of the military customer not only involves visits to military installations, but also attending shows, exhibitions, and symposiums.  It’s surprising how few companies are good at this.  The first mistake is that they neglect to define their purpose.  There should always be a goal or a mission.  One goal could be to target specific products to customers.  It may also be as simple as making a presence so that the industry realizes a company is still alive.  Sometimes military shows and commercial shows are one and the same, allowing companies to take orders at the show.  One company I worked for set sales goals for these shows and expected their sales team to meet them.  The company almost always returned from the show in the black even after expenses.

The second most important decision about shows is who should attend.  The size of the booth staff should be sized for the show, and ideally the booth should be almost entirely staffed by the Sales department.  Booth personnel should be totally conversant in the technical details of the product line to a level beyond what is written in the brochures.  It is tempting to send members of the engineering staff, but there should be a huge caution here.  Engineers are closely associated with the good and bad of the product line as well as what new products are under development.  Too many engineers enjoy showing how much they know about these projects and their conversations can easily slip into company proprietary or competition sensitive information.  Companies should avoid using engineers as show staff, or at least coach them before every show.

Sales promotion with the ArmaLite Toaster is unique in the industry. (Courtesy ArmaLite, Inc.)

The next big decision to be made is the furniture, and more importantly, the number of chairs.  The ideal number is zero.  Nothing turns off customers more than to see a group of company representatives sitting behind a table engaged in a conversation amongst themselves or checking their emails while ignoring show participants.  From her village in southern Europe, my grandmother brought back an old saying which loosely translates: “the butt is not designed to do work.”  A sales team needs to be off of theirs at all times; buzzing from one potential customer to the next, answering questions and engaging anyone who stops by – even if it’s just someone with a puzzled look on their face.  Alternatively, the staff might be refilling the brochure bins or even just tidying up the booth.  As long as they’re busy, the booth assumes the right atmosphere.

Some shows offer opportunities for potential customers to fire weapons, and these are always excellent opportunities for exposure to new products.  In these venues, smaller companies can have a place at the table with the big boys, giving them an equal opportunity to have military customers try their designs.  At firing demos, there is one thing that every company must keep forefront in their minds, and that is safety.  Shows generally require hold harmless agreements for any accident that might happen, but there is always a liability that goes beyond these agreements.  It is essential that companies pay close attention to show safety rules and heed every warning of the Range Safety Officer (RSO).  I once attended an international symposium that offered a firing demo for all exhibiting companies.  A safety briefing by the RSO preceded the demos and clearly outlined range rules.  The RSO asked for a description of anything out of the ordinary that would be part of the demo, and mandated strict adherence to range safety rules.  One of the foreign exhibitors, the designer of a very famous automatic weapon, was to be the demonstrator of his own rifle.  He attended the safety briefing, but did not reveal his plan for demonstrating the security of the weapon’s sear.  When his turn came, he fired a few rounds in semi-auto, a few in full auto and stopped with a live round chambered and the hammer cocked – held only by sear engagement.  Without even putting the safety on, he grabbed the rifle by the buttstock and with a mighty heave, slung it out in the direction of the impact area.  The gun flew through the air, spinning end over end; at times pointing at the onlookers.  It struck the ground hard, bouncing several times before it stopped.  The designer ran forward, picked it up, and began firing again.  Lucky for all of us the sear held during the impact with the ground, elsewise the results could have been fatal.  The RSO went ballistic and headed over to the company representatives for a serious discussion, taking the show director with him.  Not surprisingly, the company was told that in spite of his fame, the designer would not be welcomed back.  Sure enough, that was the last time we ever saw him.

Hind-D disappears with hot coffee in ‘Sight of Success.’

Private industry has realized that it is too costly to have sales teams on the road all the time and there are only a limited number of customer visits and shows that can be afforded.  This makes promotion through advertising a necessity.  Magazine advertisements send a company’s message far and wide giving exposure to potential customers.  The question is often asked, “How many advertisements are enough”?  One ad is good, many are better, and having none is not a good idea.  A company must strike a balance between what is needed to showcase new products or simply to keep the name of the company visible in the marketplace.  In any event, the magazine ad campaign needs to be carefully planned with clear goals and purpose that fit well into the Sales Department budget.

An example of a well-conceived campaign was the one developed by George Coutoumanos, Director of U.S. Government Programs at BEI systems.  BEI produced 2.75” rockets and was promoting them in the air-to-air role.  George decided on a three pronged approach that capitalized on three of the senses.  He began with a simple coffee mug that showed a U.S. Helicopter firing a rocket at a Russian Hind-D.  When a hot liquid was poured into the mug the Russian copter disappeared.  George called this “The sight of victory.”  Mugs with disappearing images are commonplace now, but back in the late 1980’s they were a novelty and a big hit with all potential customers.  George claimed that his next venture was based on his frustration from lack of feedback on the effectiveness of his ads.  He hired an advertisement firm to prepare an ad and took out a full page advertisement in the Armed Forces Journal magazine.  The subject was the same as the mug; a Hind-D under attack from one of their rockets.  The reader was asked to scratch in an area near the rocket launcher and was treated to a sniff of that smell we shooters call “cordite,” indicating the rocket had left the launch tube and was on its way to the target.  The ad accomplished George’s next goal producing “The smell of victory!”  The advertisement was reported in newspapers and media across the country and gave BEI far more notoriety that they anticipated from a one-time advertisement.  For the last part of the campaign, George had his sights set on the “sound of victory.”  He planned to use the same technology in a magazine advertisement that is currently being used in singing greeting cards.  The reader would be treated to the “whoosh” sound of the rocket leaving the launch tube.  For reasons unknown, BEI never did release the third of the series.

One of the best promotional items is the brochure.  Brochures can be simple, yet unappealing, black and white copies at one extreme or completely overdone at the other.  Glossy, full color, multi-page brochures are costly.  Sometimes they are so expensive that they are not given out freely, which begs the question: “What is the point”?

One of the most cost effective brochures in the industry was one used by the General Electric (GE) Company Armament Systems Department.  GE made Gatling guns and ammunition handling systems for all of the U.S. services.  GE found that a simple one page, front and back sheet, was an effective tool for providing potential customers with just enough technical description, specifications, photos, and illustrations to adequately describe the product.  The two-color “green sheets,” as they were called, were inexpensive, easy to produce and not at all unattractive.  GE never went to shows without a huge bundle of them, and since they were only one page, a large assortment could be carried with ease.

Helicopters attack Russian Hind-D with 2.75” rockets in BEI mug.

Promotional material and “giveaways” are often overdone by companies.  Sure, it’s a good idea to have something worthwhile to offer potential customers and distinguished guests, but these items can get expensive and have questionable worth as an effective sales tool.  Besides that, the Government employees may only accept items worth $20 or less, presenting the challenge that the item be both low cost and desirable.

Possibly the best promotional item in the industry is the poster.  Even the highest quality glossy full color poster is relatively inexpensive and its power as a sales tool is often underappreciated.  A really good poster showcasing warfighters or law enforcement performing a mission with the latest guns and accessories can be so eye-catching that few can resist the urge to display them.  Posters are found on the walls in soldier’s rooms, in gun shops, and adorn the walls of the arms rooms at military installation.  All of these places are choice spots for any advertisement.

Posters can illustrate a product or product line in use, or they can also be used to make a point.  Take for example the case of the M240G machine gun.  In the mid 1990s, the U.S. Marine Corps decided to pull their money from the M60 machine gun product improvement program, and terminate their contract with Saco Defense Systems.  From the funds recouped from the cancellation, they awarded FN Manufacturing, Inc. a contract to procure components that would allow them to convert M240 Coax tank machine guns into M240G ground weapons.  This was a major victory for the FN Sales North America team.  I led that team, and those results inspired us to pursue the same with the Army and Navy.

Following the sale, the FN sales team made preparations to exhibit at the USMC show held in Washington, DC.  We decided to come with something that said “thank you” to the Marines for having confidence in us and our products.  Not only did they adopt the M240G, but also stood up to the Secretary of Defense who, not surprisingly, was against the sale.  Before he became the Defense Secretary, William Cohen had been the Senator from Maine – the home state of Saco Defense.  Posters of the Marine’s new machine gun were also intended as a polite poke in the eye to the other services.  Everywhere those posters were displayed sent the message: “The Marines have a new reliable medium machine gun and you don’t!”

I ordered two different posters.  The first one was a tribute to the USMC motto, Semper Fi, and with a little play on words, highlighted the reliability and firepower of the M240.  The second one was the action shot that showed the M240G in the hands of a real Marine.  We needed a model for the shoot, and the Marines at Quantico Ground Weapons assured me they would supply one.  The FN Sales team went to Quantico armed with an M240G accompanied by Peter Kokalis who was at that time with Soldier of Fortune magazine.  Peter was interested in the story and agreed to be our photographer.  We were pleased when they introduced us to a 2nd Lieutenant from the Naval Academy, fully dressed out for the photo shoot.  He was clean cut, rugged, and handsome, with all the qualities of an ideal Marine.  He had one other notable attribute, the importance of which we did not recognize at the time.  He was huge – not at all disproportionate, just a very big guy.  When the Lieutenant cradled the M240G, it looked like a little toy.  How fortuitous this turned out, since the only criticism of the M240G was that it was too big and too heavy.  Kokalis liked the results of our shoot so much, our Marine ended up on the cover of the same issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine with his feature article on the M240G.

General Electric used ‘Green Sheets’ as a cost effective brochure option.

Meanwhile back at the Ft. Benning Army base, news of the Marine Corp adoption of the M240G was noted but with little apparent reaction.  In fact, the Major in charge of the Infantry Weapons Branch at Ft. Benning told me the Army was absolutely not interested in a new medium machine gun and very politely suggested our time was better spent marketing elsewhere.  The other member of the FN sales team, Sal Fanelli, and I got the message and made the most of our time in the area, traveling a few short miles down the road to the 3rd Battalion Ranger Regimental Headquarters where we promptly sold them M240Gs.  It wasn’t a huge sale in terms of quantity, but it was the first foothold into the Army market.

One year after the sale to the Rangers, I again met with the Infantry Weapons Major again.  He told me that a new medium machine gun had become the number one priority in the Army.  Having those posters everywhere certainly didn’t hurt our cause.   Following a Defense Secretary Cohen-mandated shoot-off with the M60, the Army adopted their version, called the M240B.  To capitalize on this sale and to pick up the remaining service holdouts, the Navy and Air Force, we needed a poster for the M240B.  When asked for support from FN headquarters in Belgium, they arranged for the photo session to take place at Browning, their commercial subsidiary in the U.S.  Professional photographers on staff at the Browning headquarters in Ogden, Utah were assigned to work with us in creating the photo.  Sal Fanelli, arranged for some Utah National Guardsmen to meet us there to be our models.  On the day before the shoot, I rode around with Sal and the photographer looking for ideal settings for the photo.  Most of Utah is brown, not green, so the green camo uniforms of that day were not the best for the shot I had in mind.  We spent over an hour riding around the creek beds – where more things are green, and then rode back up behind Browning’s compound bow factory, with me still unhappy about the sites we’d seen.  Finally, I yelled out, “Stop the car, this is the spot.”  Everyone in the car spun around to look at me trying to figure out what I was looking at.  They saw me staring at a crater in the ground.  The crater bottom was covered in ashes and a partially burned log spanned its breadth.  The Browning photographer looked at me like I was crazy. “You can’t mean here!  This is where we have our bonfires and cookouts.”  “No,” I said, “This is the spot.  This is the perfect spot.”

With the troops and the M240B behind the charred log, the air filled with smoke from Browning’s smoke generator, my idea of a perfect poster picture was achieved.  We passed the new poster out at the Association of the United States Army annual exhibition in October, and everywhere else we exhibited.  The M240B was eventually adopted by the two remaining services.

There are other items besides posters that the customer will wear or keep in prominent places where others may see them.  Tie pins and tie tacks used to be very popular giveaways back when almost all businessmen wore a tie.  They were a great advertisement tool since there was a connotation that the wearer endorsed your product.  If you think about it, few would wear something from a company or product they didn’t like.  Nowadays, the casual dress code makes tie tacks less practical and with more women active in the industry, even less of a good idea.

SHOT show attendees flocked to Knight’s booth for ‘Reliable Followers.’

At one of the SHOT shows, Knight’s Armament Company was searching for the right giveaway that would meet the following criteria: 1. The customer will keep it and use or display it, 2. The item will meet Government giveaway cost guidelines, and 3. The giveaway will be inexpensive enough so that a lot of them can be given out.  In the months prior to the SHOT show, Knight’s conducted an independent research program and had developed a new follower for the 5.56mm magazine.  High speed video and extensive testing showed this new follower to be far superior to the one issued with the M16/M4 magazine.  For a SHOT show giveaway, these were packaged up with a nice little note to let the user know they were for “reliable Knight’s followers”.  The little followers were very popular at the show and proved to be an inexpensive, yet effective means in getting an extra boost of traffic at the Knight’s booth.

Coffee mugs are also a great advertisement for firearms and accessories.  They are inexpensive and meet the Government’s price level guidelines.  While they are an enduring reminder of the product and company, they can also have a unique role in military circles – particularly at the Pentagon.  When the sales team from FN Manufacturing, Inc. was trying to sell the spade-grip equipped M240D to replace the M60D as a helicopter door gun, we spent plenty of time up in Washington D.C. at the Pentagon and at the nearby Navy Annex.  Our Navy and Marine friends there told us the secret of the mug.  At the Pentagon and at other places where military and DoD personnel work and congregate, the sudden appearance of a coffee mug illustrating a new product is taken as evidence that a program to procure the item has been funded.  Our M240D program didn’t have any funds designated but they advised us to show up next time with some M240D coffee mugs.  Sometimes, they explained, more money seems to find its way into funded programs – or ones that appear to be funded.  We passed mugs around in Washington, down at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and everywhere else we found helicopters and helicopter programs with M60Ds.  Of course, the high reliability and effectiveness of the M240D was the reason it became adopted, but the mug proved to be an effective marketing tool along the way.

Sometimes a promotional item seems to make no sense at all, questioning the wisdom of the promoter.  Take for example the unique promotion offered by ArmaLite.  Early in the history of ArmaLite, its owner, Mark Westrom, struggled to make ends meet.  Mark was making plans for exhibiting at the SHOT show at a time when the market for his AR-10 was weak.  He was in a competitive market where show specials, like a free gun case, cleaning kit, or other accessories were used to sway buyers.  Mark wanted to do something, but it had to be something he could afford.  Those of you who know Mark will probably agree that of all of the people in the firearms industry, he has far and above, the greatest sense of humor.  This meant that ArmaLite’s SHOT show special also had to be funny.  “Why not give away a toaster?”  Mark thought.  Mark went over to Wal-Mart, made a deal for a bulk purchase of white toasters, had them silkscreened with the ArmaLite logo and took them to SHOT packed in the same Wal-Mart box they came in.  Buy a gun, get a free toaster!  His outlandish offer became an immediate hit.  Calls started coming in to find out if the toaster could be purchased without a gun order.  Mark reported to me that he recently saw an ad on the Gunlist website with an AR-10 for sale.  The seller made it clear he would be keeping the toaster.

Mark points out that the toaster really had two purposes.  One to be funny and the other because it’s an appliance, it sits out where people can see it.  The toaster continues to be a sales promotional item to this day.  When I called Mark to fact check this story, he half-jokingly told me he wondered if there existed some sort of “item manager at Wal-Mart for toasters” who can’t understand why a tiny town in eastern Illinois has such a huge demand for a certain white toaster.  Another one of Mark’s promotions is a very attractive, well-made, yet reasonably priced ArmaLite wall clock.  Every time someone checks the time, they can’t help but think: ArmaLite.  This action is precisely what reminded me of the story.