They're explosive, deadly and you sell them like soap powder

Heather Tomlinson finds marketers shooting from the hip at the London arms fair

This is one of the finest combat knives in the world, made of carbonised steel," enthuses C Ellis Vaughn, a former combat officer in Vietnam turned marketing professional, and now a director of G2 International Marketing. "They are very, very effective," he continues. "The developer [Masters of Defense Knife Company] talked to five of the best knife makers in the world for utilitarian knives. Its blade can cut almost anything."

Mr Vaughn's slick sales patter flows as he shows off his products at the controversial DSEi arms fair in London's Docklands. Army socks, protective jackets and water-filtration systems are also on his stand. But to most of the marketers, selling arms is no different to selling any other product. In fact, G2 markets a wide range of products, from Russian vodka to second-hand computers. "To me, there are similar tactics; every buyer wants the same things," says Mr Vaughn's Russian executive assistant, Alexander Semenovykh. "The customer wants to see it for himself, to evaluate the product, and to get it as cheap as possible."

If you walked around DSEi with squinted eyes, you might think it was a normal trade fair. There are bright colours, glossy brochures, models and video screens demonstrating the wares. But when the gaze comes into focus, the videos are of battlefields - even cluster bombs at the Israel Military Industries stand - and the models are of missiles and bombs, such as the 12ft Tomahawk cruise missile used by the Royal Navy, on sale from its US manufacturer, Raytheon.

The personalities used to promote products are different: Eye Safety Systems, a US company at the arms exhibition, uses a poster featuring President George Bush in a pair of the company's goggles. But marketing professionals say that the core skills are the same, whether selling tanks and guns or soup and soft drinks.

"For any product in any market, [the marketing staff] try to understand the customers' needs," says John Kirkwood, a senior PR official at electronics group ITT Industries. He demonstrates this by pointing out one of ITT's posters, which features a pair of hands cupping a battlefield scene of helicopters and military symbols. "In defence, control is paramount. The idea with this poster is you have that control in the palm of your hand."

All marketers have the same core skills, he says, but good industry knowledge is vital. "A gentleman that has been selling soup will know what stimulates taste buds, but in the defence market what they want is a wireless device that requires few people and gives information."

The advertising agencies are the same as those employed by any other multinational company. US defence giant Northrop Grumman uses McCann-Erickson, the global agency that also works for Nestlé and Microsoft. Northrop Grumman is working with Britain's BAE on one of the UK's most sensitive projects, missile defence. But still, when it comes to designing the promotional material or coming up with a slogan, the agency will offer ideas and the company will pick and choose, the same as any with any campaign.

A big difference, though, says Northrop Grumman, is that while a soup or soft drink marketer does not need to focus on a specific audience, an arms manufacturer can only woo a limited number of customers. "Anybody can go and buy Coke; obviously that can't happen in defence," says a spokesperson.

At the arms exhibition, some displays are targeted at a narrower audience. Oshkosh, a military truck manufacturer, is bidding for a project worth £1.4bn to supply the Ministry of Defence with more than 8,000 military cargo and tanker vehicles. The company is American, but its exhibition stand boasts that it is "committed to the UK" and that it has a production facility in Wales. "We understand the MoD is concerned most about value for money and what the contracts bring to British industry," says Kirsten Skyba, the vice-president of marketing at Oshkosh. "Marketing in defence is the same as any other industry: you are providing information and letting the customers form their own conclusions."

Companies such as LogicaCMG, which sells IT systems for defence and space projects as well as to finance and telecoms firms, split the marketers into specialised divisions so they are experts in their industries. "Every year we have a plan," says Wendy Holt, the defence marketing manager. "We decide what messages we want to get out there and the vehicles to do that." This year the defence division of LogicaCMG is pitching itself as a prime contractor, so its stall features a display resembling the surface of a planet, to show off its involvement in the Beagle 2 Mars probe.

Defence companies don't have unlimited access in their search for new markets. The British Government, for example, restricts the sale of arms to troublespots such as Rwanda or political outcasts such as Iran. But the marketers still beaver away. BAE is selling civil equipment - aeroplane navigation aids - to the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo so it is well placed when the country's arms export ban is lifted. "We are starting to build links ... so when it is time to shop for military equipment, they will turn to BAE," says Rolf Rue, the regional managing director for new strategic markets. "My task is, by the time the political environment is right for trade, to have a relationship in place that will make the customer think of us as a natural seller."

The customers and the products might be different, but arms manufacturers use marketing in the same way as any other industry.

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