The most popular gun the world has ever known was designed by a man who first asked his target market what they needed in a gun, before he designed the gun. Unlike some other gun designers who felt they knew what people should shoot, he respected the value of customer input and asked them for it. It was, after all, a matter of life and death for them.

His gun, in original and improved versions, now is the standard firearm of about 50 countries, is on the national flag of at least one country and has anywhere from 75 to 100 million copies in action around the world. It became that popular not because someone just made a lot of it.

No. It became that popular because it met a huge unmet need in an extraordinary way. Because it was designed on the basis of good insighting work.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was just a sergeant in the USSR when he suffered severe injuries in combat against the Germans and had to stay in hospital for months. He was acutely aware of the need for better firearms, and so was the leadership of the USSR. Soviet fighters were being slaughtered in the thousands by Germans who were equipped with probably the finest automatic weapons designed up to that point, including the first true assault rifle. Kalashnikov spent a lot of time asking veterans what they wanted in a firearm.

Following in the footsteps of the Germans, the Soviet government had in fact commissioned the development of a new bullet, lighter than what was in standard use, to be more effective in an automatic firearm. 

But what kind of gun should be made?

A competition was launched among Soviet gun designers to come up with the best weapon. Just like a competitive pitch among advertising agencies.

Here Kalashnikov’s insighting work came into play. He had asked many veterans what they wanted in a weapon. Just like a good U&A study does, their feedback identified important needs. They wanted a weapon that could fire a lot of rounds per minute. A shorter gun than previous standard firearms so it could be used effectively when fighting inside houses and alleyways. Good enough accuracy at only 300-400 meters, the actual range of actual combat and much less than what the standard rifles of the time actually delivered. A simple weapon that stood up to the harsh conditions of combat. A bigger trigger guard so they could fire it while wearing winter gloves.

Beyond getting feedback, Kalashnikov used his own observations. He saw that their soldiers spoke different languages. Most were illiterate with questionable standards of personal hygiene. And because Hitler’s legions were pressing hard on the USSR, not much time was available for training soldiers. Soon after men were conscripted, they had to be sent into combat.

This is basic good insighting work. Getting the feedback of your customers and interpreting it through the lens of your understanding of their situation – basically the same kind that many good brands today use to produce innovation. First, identify an unmet need, understand what your customers want, and then give them something effective and within budget.

So he went to work designing a weapon that ended up having only eight moving parts and was very simple to use so that his illiterate countrymen could be trained in a few hours on how to use, disassemble and clean it. Even if they failed to keep it clean, it would still shoot. In fact you can bury an AK47 in sand and it will shoot when you take it out, pushing the sand out of the barrel with the first round.

He used a simple mechanism for automatic fire. Knowing it would be abused, he specified a couple of key parts that had to be chrome plated for durability come hell or high water.

Knowing his country was hard-pressed, he designed a lot of metal stampings to keep processing down and speed of manufacturing high.
The rest is history. The most popular weapon ever because of simplicity, reliability, ease of use, tolerance for bad handling, low production cost, and good insighting work.

Benedicto “Poch” Cid is Chief Brand Adviser of Mansmith and Fielders, Inc., the leader in marketing, sales and innovation training in the Philippines with the widest curriculum in Asia Pacific. Learn from him live in the 11th Brand Management Seminar: Understanding Brand DNA and Engagement on April 22-23, 2014. For details, visit, email, call (+63-2) 584-5858 / 412-0034 or text (+63) 918-81-168-88.