Kalashnikov Vodka: John Florey and General Kalashnikov

Kalashnikov Vodka, one of our adopted businesses, officially launched last month amid a blaze of publicity. Ian Wallis caught up with General Mikhail Kalashnikov himself and the company’s founder John Florey

To hear General Kalashnikov describe his first meeting with John Florey you might think you were listening to the retelling of a happy couple’s first date or the opening of a novel by Henry James.

They met at the Institute of Business in Moscow, where Florey was being made an honorary professor. The General spotted an Englishman across the room with “impressive hair”, asked who he was and, having been informed that he was of reliable character, requested an introduction.

Reliability is one of Kalashnikov’s watchwords. The pride in his invention, the AK-47, manifests itself in the simplicity and reliability of the gun. “Any product we deal with should be worthy of the fame of my gun. John said it would be vodka and could be made at the same level of quality,” he says.

And drinking to friendship was the aspect that appeals most to Kalashnikov, he says, who adds that the UK and Russia are united by the friendship borne out of the blood shed together during the Second World War and the fight against Nazism. “People keep asking me about my weapon killing so many and isn’t the vodka going to be perceived negatively. John tells me if we undertake to produce this product then it will only serve to strengthen friendship between these people. And the drunkards who drink all sorts of moonshine will not drink this product. It is of high quality and therefore has to be expensive.”

Finding a unique selling point

To differentiate it Florey and Kalashnikov discussed the venture in detail. “We agreed it has to meet the best in world standards and we should think carefully so that it cannot be faked,” says Kalashnikov. “It is stronger than other vodkas. This is not to make someone sleep faster but to show it is different. And the bottle too is more aesthetically pleasing than others.”

In return for his fees Kalashnikov promises quality control and says he will accept no compromises, having turned down a number of opportunities in the past. “We shall keep the process under continuous control and never agree to simplify anything – never making the speed and amount the priority. We prefer to make less, but better.”

It’s not often a new business makes such a splash in the media. But when Kalashnikov Joint Stock Vodka Company Plc founder John Florey brought the General responsible for the world’s deadliest gun over to Britain for the launch he was guaranteed column inches – particularly with Kalashnikov turning out in full military regalia.

Inevitably, opinions on the brand were divided. For a business to brand itself with the name associated with so many deaths – the AK-47 has, it is said, caused more fatalities than the nuclear bombs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together – was clearly a risk, but the marketing chutzpah of Florey appears to have pulled it off.

While the headline in The Times was ‘An old general’s vodka shot may leave a bad taste in your mouth’ and The Guardian described it as “one of the most bizarre, and some might suggest tasteless, of marketing exercises”, the coverage was at least strong, with some publications clearly revelling in its edginess. And the interest offered Florey the opportunity to state his case and that of the General.

Dealing with bad publicity

When we introduced the business to the magazine in our June issue Florey was well-prepared for the type of questions he was likely to face once launch time arrived. He had ready responses for the history of military associations with well-known everyday brands, such as Swiss Army knives, Saab cars and Army and Navy stores.

This time he also pointed to the Nobel brothers, who invented dyna-mite and other explosives, before having a prize for peace named after them. Kalashnikov, he argues, is no warmonger. And incidentally nor were the Nobel brothers, who honed their creations for mining, building railways and other peacetime applications, before the brutal value was seized upon by others.

Instead, the General is a designer and engineer and proud of his creation for that reason, argues Florey. “A lot of people conveniently forget that he doesn’t control distribution of it.” And the General himself was quick to distance himself from the use his guns are put to. He began work on the machine gun to help his countrymen defend themselves against superior Nazi weaponry so clearly feels a sense of moral rectitude. “The reason weapons are used all over the world is not the will of the people but the politicians who cannot find political solutions to problems,” says Kalashnikov through his interpreter.

As with the Kalashnikov’s origins, attack appears the best form of defence to Florey. “Only Radio 5 put me on the defensive, suggesting it was in bad taste given terrorist atrocities in Beslan,” he says. “Everyone has their own opinion and editorial policy and there will always be critics as well as supporters. We don’t expect to win everyone over.”

Kalashnikov, he argues, is simply a brand name current generations associate with Russian culture. “We’re not going out to cause controversy. If it seeks us we can’t do much about that. But the aim is not to be a controversial brand.” The fact that interviews were sought partly for that reason has done no real harm though.

Growing Business alone took calls from CNN.com, Italian Vanity Fair, Oxford University (for a Russian-themed ball) and two entrepreneurs who have launched their own drinks brands, proving people recognise the cachet. And, in addition to The Times, The Guardian and Radio 5, Florey also held court with the Today programme, Reuters, various tabloids, and Wallpaper, Tatler, Esquire, Front and Maxim magazines among others.

The launch and distribution partnerships signed to date put the business well on track to successfully hit the Christmas market, says Florey. “We’re in six key bars in London – AKA, Alphabet, Lab, The Century Club, The Phoenix and Boisdale Victoria and Bishopsgate – and others are in the offing.”

So far, this has enabled the company to assess how a diverse clientele reacts to the brand. And whether straight or in cocktails, the 41% alcohol by volume shots appear to be slipping smoothly enough down the throats of 20 and 30-something drinkers, irrespective of the controversy.

How to get press attention for your business

While an unusual proposition, Florey’s management of his business’s launch offers clear lessons in how to make the most of press attention:

  • Go to the expense and trouble of having the right people available to talk to in a location central to the local or national media.
  • A photoshoot opportunity is important. The General being in uniform was media gold. Hire a PR company to handle the schedule. It should be managed carefully to create an event worth covering. Florey arranged for press briefings and phot ocalls with himself and the General to be held at the IOD and in a nearby pub.
  • Prepare for difficult questions.
  • Have ready answers and facts to back up statements.
  • Provide all the necessary background information online, including previous press coverage
  • Hold a launch party and continue the marketing. Florey hired “Nikita Girls” to pour vodka shots in bars.

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