This story first appeared in Huffington Post January 22nd, 2013.
I’m in awe of the NRA.
As an outsider (aka Canadian) I see an organization whose continued existence as a political force defies logic.
So what makes this org tick? How has it continued to grow in stature, membership and power, even as other countries boost gun regulation? How has it maintained its unbending ‘cold dead hands’ stance in the face of mass shooting after mass shooting? Is it a brand with staying power, or is there a hole in the NRA’s futureproof brand armor?
Whether or not you agree with its mandates or methods, I believe the NRA model can provide valuable insights for anyone setting out to build a futureproof brand.
Lesson 1. Futureproof foundation
The essence of every futureproof brand lies at the intersection of the brand’s and audience’s value system.
In the case of the NRA, this is a slam dunk. America loves guns. From the Wild West to Tarantino, guns evoke every feeling from freedom to outlaw spirit, mastery of one’s domain to sticking it to the man. (Sometimes I wonder if the love has actually crossed over into a fetish, but that’s another story)
More than meshing with Americans’ love of guns, however, the NRA has found another bond higher up Maslow’s hierarchy: freedom. The NRA’s vision equating gun ownership with patriotism and self-determination meshes beautifully with the core American value of liberty.
Interestingly, the trigger that caused the NRA to ‘ladder’ its stance was an incident of extreme gun violence. Prior to the 1960’s, the NRA was a gun club for hobbyists, and an education / training organization. Only after the JFK assassination did gun ownership become politicized – and the NRA started down its present path.
Lesson 2. Futureproof structure
The NRA is has some fascinating futureproof elements in its structure. Interestingly, these elements are entirely transferable – they can be replicated by any organization or brand. Really.
Sociability – The NRA communicates tirelessly with its grass roots membership. And with messaging that swings between the poles of alarm (“They’re taking our guns!”) and jubilation (“We stopped them from taking our guns!”), the communication is more exciting than the average brand’s inane attempts at socializing (“Same cola, different can!”)
What’s more, the NRA encourages its members to communicate their affiliation to outsiders with everything from logo hats to bumper stickers. Not unlike Mac owners, when you think of it.
Design – The NRA doesn’t talk about guns much. In fact, the organization has so effectively woven imagery of firearms with imagery of freedom (assault rifle, meet American eagle) that it really doesn’t need to talk about guns at all. I would challenge it has made its platform unspoken – you can understand it without words. If design is about making complex concepts intuitive, the NRA has done a great job.
Sustainability – Generally, I use sustainability in reference to environmental and social good. But in this case, I’d like to broaden the scope to examine the self-sustaining nature of the NRA’s structure.
The NRA is ubiquitous at gun shows and dealerships, encouraging newbies to join at the moment of purchase. At this point of entry the steady stream of NRA communication begins, cementing the newbie’s position as ‘one of us’ vs ‘one of them’. This adversarial stance is extremely effective at cementing loyalty and building stable membership. Not to mention soliciting donations.
Move up from the grassroots, and you see a very sustainable structure. Member money, along with massive funding from firearms manufacturers, finances lobbyists and buys loyalty in government. The NRA has created such an effective political machine that even in the wave of outrage sparked by the Sandy Hook shootings, commentators wonder if it will be possible to get any form of gun control passed through Congress.
So now we’ve moved from the grassroots to the pinnacle. And from the pinnacle, victories and threats are endlessly communicated back to the grassroots. This creates an endless loop of reinforcement, new membership, and leadership emboldened to push the NRA agenda. A very sustainable model indeed.
Lesson 3. Futureproof Brand?
Buckminster Fuller once said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The NRA is very much a product of its environment. In an America gutted by Wall Street, discouraged by moribund government and partisan politics, and displaced economically by China, the NRA provides security. They’ve taken my house, my job, my kid’s future – but they can’t take my gun.
If there is a hole in the NRA’s brand, it is progress. The NRA as a political movement isn’t moving forward. If anything, it’s a movement cemented in nostalgia, trying to recreate a simpler past.
The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. I believe the political NRA age won’t end because we eliminate guns. It also won’t end if we beef up our mental health care. Mental instability and guns and economic insecurity go hand in hand.
No, the NRA’s brand will only diminish if we decide to embrace an optimistic future. Something that sweeps us up the way the 1960’s space race did. Unfortunately, I have not seen anything like that brand today.