Why criminals make terrible brand ambassadors

This year heralds a dubious centenary – the invention of the notorious M1 Thompson sub-machine gun or ‘Tommy gun’ as it became known.

If you picture a 1920s gangster like Al Capone then he’s probably holding one.

However, its origin was rather different to the now infamous association.

During WW1, infantry soldiers of both sides were extremely vulnerable to heavy, fixed machine guns.

They’d try and take some territory and get mown down very quickly, often within a few yards of their own trenches.

They only had slow firing rifles and pistols and even if they made it into an enemy trench,  they’d often be overwhelmed in seconds.

The big machine guns were far too heavy and impractical carry with them so were only really used for defence.

This resulted in a long drawn out stalemate and massive casualties.

General John T. Thompson of the United States Army realised that to help break the stalemate, infantry soldiers needed a devastating, rapid firing weapon they could easily carry.

So he left the army, took a job at Remington and set about designing one in his spare time.

The M1 Thompson sub-machine gun was portable and killed very effectively, very quickly.

The only problem was, the war ended just as the weapon was perfected.

So it had nowhere to fight.

Thompson’s new manufacturing business, the Auto Ordnance Company (AOC) still tried to sell the M1 to the army

Unfortunately, they thought it was far too expensive and ironically, used too many bullets.

AOC managed to sell a few to the US postal service(!) to protect lone delivery men from violent robbers but overall, it was a bit of a sales flop.

It had no relevance in the eyes of the authorities and armed forces.

AOC hadn’t grasped the importance of being strategically interesting.

Coincidentally, the following decade in the USA saw the introduction of Prohibition.

Of course, whenever something really popular and addictive is outlawed, there’s a huge amount of money to be made by criminal gangs filling the vacuum.

Successful criminal gangs are notoriously ingenious, finding clever ways to circumvent the law and steal from each other.

Unfortunately for AOC, they had quite a bit of stock lying around and so became increasingly desperate to sell it.

The M1 Thompson was (amazingly) made available via mail order to the general public.

The relatively high cost didn’t matter since 1920s gangsters had plenty of money.

They’d also understood the M1’s strategic interest to their business – the ability to intimidate and when necessary, kill rivals very quickly and easily.

The most well-known example being the Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 when seven members of the same gang were murdered in a few seconds.

The M1 Thompson sub-machine gun suddenly became relevant again.

Despite government regulations put in place, it became the vicious gangster’s weapon of choice, which limited legitimate sales somewhat.

You could say that AOC’s brand management was a bit lacking.

If it hadn’t been for WW2 coming along, AOC would have gone out of business, such was the downturn in orders.

So if there’s a lesson here, it’s that if you don’t fully understand the relevance of your brand then someone else may find it for you.

To be relevant, you need to be interesting.