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The Data-Driven Evolution of US Army Marketing Tactics

The year is 2019. The location: US Army recruitment office. The layout is open. The posters interactive. The tablets are on. It is here we find a 17-year old male, who has come to the crossroads of high school graduation, only to find the decision between military service and college education more difficult than he ever imagined.

A US Army recruiter, however, explains during a virtual meet-up with interactive presentations that there is a middle ground between diploma and uniform, between dorms and barracks, and it lies between the lines of the US Army contract on the US Army mobile app. This is a dimension whereby people serve their country in noncombat roles and the Army serves their soldiers with education. It is an area the US Army calls the future of military marketing.

This tactical marketing shift, much like tactical combat shifts, is a response to a situation. Technologies and trends are changing, and the Army has to change with it, if it hopes to capture the attention of America’s youth. The Army’s prime demographic, Gen Z, is not as receptive to combat posters or combat flyers or the combat commercials of yesteryear, according to US Army Recruiting Command. Today, the combat angle is more difficult to promote in the face of combat-related documentaries and the easily accessible information about combat-related PTSD and suicide.

The Army’s marketing mission now dictates an alteration to “establish a new brand.” This will not come easy, as Army tradition has not always been publicly aligned with innovation, but then again, war has a way of changing things.


Today, in the breaks between professional football games or a national car race, a popular dramatic show or an award-winning movie, US Army commercials will be shown. The commercial has images in black and white, the music is triumphant orchestral. A seasoned, yet warm narrator voice speaks to the viewer about how before there could be a nation, there had to be people willing to fight for it. The narration goes on to say: “No one knows what problems tomorrow will bring, but we know the U.S. Army will be called upon to help solve them. Our team is made up of doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and combat troops. We’re highly trained, adaptable and ready for anything. We are U.S. Army Soldiers and through every win, every day — we make a difference.”

To the untrained eye, this is a traditional US Army commercial. However, upon closer inspection, the narration is indicative of the modern marketing of the US Army. Notice the repetition of plurality, such as “we,” “them” and “team.” This is not by accident.

In 2015, the Army Marketing and Research Group and McCann Worldgroup developed the “Army Team” marketing campaign. The impetus for the change was to move away from the individual-focused marketing tactics of the past, as well as, the emotional and physical enhancements of the “Army Strong” campaign. Instead, the focus of the “Army Team” campaign was/is to impress on the civilian audience the Army’s elite institution is seeking new members. Furthermore, the goal of the campaign is to highlight the variety of jobs within the Army.

“Research has shown that Gen Z is all about making a difference, a difference for family, for community, for their country, for the world,” said James Ortiz, the director of marketing at the Army Marketing and Research Group. “Now we want to educate them on how our organization can enable them to make this difference.”

The Army Marketing and Research Group and the US Army Recruiting Command are now attempting to educate through a variety of mediums. From television commercials, to social media, to virtual meetings, the modern marketing schemes of the Army are trying to use all modern technology to speak with today’s youth about the benefits of the institution.

In the face of an all-volunteer force and easily accessible information to PTSD and soldier suicide, the Army and its marketing efforts have no choice but to evolve with the times.


As early as the Civil War, the Army’s marketing tactics revolved around compelling the individual citizen to join.

World War I recruitment posters displayed the slogan: “It’s Up to You – Protect the Nation’s Honor…Enlist Now!” A World War II Army posters famously depicted Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer and saying, “I Want You for US Army.” A Korean War poster showed a soldier in uniform standing under the slogan: “The Mark of a Man.”

Many of these posters and recruiting ads rarely included the benefits of the Army. Instead, the Army focused its marketing efforts into telling the citizens how they needed their help to fight and protect the country’s freedom.

“The Army has historically marketed to the individual, focused on the individual,” Ortiz said.

Right around TKTKT, as employment opportunities flourished, the Army began marketing to individuals as a way to improve their standing in life. Most famous was the “Be All You Can Be” campaign, which lasted nearly 20 years until 2001.

In January of 2001, the Army introduced the “Army of One” campaign, which replaced “Be All You Can Be” in the wake of recruiting problems.

The “Army of One” campaign, much like marketing military campaigns before it, marketed to the directly to the individual and his/her willingness to enlist.

But the campaign, which was launched in conjunction with goarmy.com, was created to de-emphasize the benefits of the Army in its recruiting literature, including college tuition and signing bonuses. Studies by the Army Marketing and Research Group showed people were already aware of these benefits.

The advertisements spoke directly to the individual’s contribution and how an individual could change things. The commercials highlighted themes, such as “I believe one soldier can make a difference.” There was no mention in these commercials about the benefits of the Army or the varying occupations within the institution.

In 2001, the waging of war also radically changed. The Army embarked on one of its most famous military movements in the past 30 years. It was called “The Surge.” Developed under the working title, “The New Way Forward,” the military mission was announced in January of 2007 by US President George W. Bush during a television speech. The surge required an increase of the number of American troops in order to provide security to Bagdad and Al Anbar Province in Iraq. Five Army brigades (almost 20,000 soldiers) committed to Iraq as part of the surge were, bringing the number of Army brigades in Iraq from 15 to 20.

In order to meet numbers, the Army had to change its standards, according to statistics compiled by the Defense Department and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Boston-based National Priorities Project. They showed that the percentage of new Army recruits with high-school diplomas plunged from 94 percent in 2003 to 70 percent in 2007. Additionally, the percentage of what the Army called “high-quality” recruits – those who have high-school diplomas and who score in the upper 50th percentile on the Armed Forces’ aptitude test – declined from 56 percent in 2005 to 44 percent in 2007.

Statistics and reports such as these began to alter the image of the Army in the public light. A Pew Research Center survey in February of 2008 showed among 1,508 adults, a majority said the US made the wrong decision in using military force in Iraq, while 38 percent said it was the right decision.

In 2006, the US had been at war in Afghanistan for five years and Iraq for three. The

number of active-duty Army soldiers had climbed each year since the beginning of the wars from 486,542 to 519,471. During these years, the Army advertised and marketed much as they had in the years prior to the war, through brick-and-mortar recruitment centers, events and commercials. Recruiters, guided by USAREC Manual 3-06, were trained to market to individuals through several different tactics.

Face-to-face prospecting is a recruiter’s attempt to contact a lead, or prospective soldier, in person. Ideally, according to USAREC, face-to-face prospecting should be carried out in the “recruiting unit’s target areas to coincide with telephone prospecting activities.”

Perhaps a recruiter’s most well-known tactic is called area canvassing. From visiting popular hangouts, to posting at businesses, to running a tent at an event, the recruiter is asked to developed potential prospects by answering questions and approaching potential leads.

The final Army recruiting or marketing tactic is the school recruiting program. Recruiters involved in the SRP will mentor students, hold presentations and give speeches.

“The SRP is the cornerstone of Army recruiting,” said the USAREC Manual 3-06. “It was designed to create awareness and interest in available Army programs among students, parents, educators, and school officials.”

In 2007, the Army changed the slogan to “Army Strong.” The difference between “Army Strong” and “Army of One” is slight but influential. “Army Strong” was geared less toward requesting civilian participation and more toward the emotional and physical advantages the Army can give to the individual.

While many news outlets at the time speculated as to whether the Army made the marketing decision out of necessity, Ortiz said differently. The decision to adopt “Army Strong” as a theme, according to Ortiz,” was due to how well the theme resonated with recruits and soldiers at the time.

“With time though, we noticed, the Army needed to focus on the great institution and what it can do for the individual,” Ortiz said.

While the “Army of One” campaign was designed to subdue the Army’s benefits, such as tuition repayment and signing bonuses, the “Army Strong” campaign was created to illuminate not only those benefits but the physical and emotional as well. Developed by McCann Worldgroup, the slogan was meant to convey the idea that if a person joins the Army, he/she will gain physical and emotional strength, as well as, strength of character and purpose.


A year after the Afghanistan war ended, the Army rededicated its marketing and advertising efforts to “enterprise the brand.” The first step in this process required the Army Marketing and Research Group and McCann Worldgroup create a new campaign. A 60-second, black-and-white commercial focused on the many aspects of service and sacrifice, while highlighting the virtues of joining “the Army team.” No longer focused on the individual, the marketing campaign aimed to impress the civilian audience by presenting the Army as an elite team seeking new members because, as the narrator says, “there is important work to be done.”

The “Team” initiative, as it is called in the Army, has established a major presence on social media through hashtag and veteran outreach campaigns. The Army Marketing and Research Group developed the “I Became A Soldier” campaign in 2015, in an effort to present a human element to the soldier stigma.

“We urged veterans to hold up signs about why they became soldiers and post them to our social media pages,” said Alison Bettencourt, chief of communications at Army Marketing and Research Group. “The campaign wound up trending, and because of that, it became one of the first times we had validation outside of the military community.”

Social media was also a platform for the US Army Recruiting Command, which utilized the networks to communicate with soldier’s families.

“There was a mother who continued to post on Twitter messages of concern for her son who had entered basic training,” Payne said. “We were able to speak with her directly, assuage her concerns, and she actually wound up thanking us by sending us a box of personal messages for the soldiers here.”

Establishing this emotional connection, said Ortiz, is paramount to developing Gen Z  youth into supporters, leads and future soldiers.

“We have noticed social media is a place Gen Z goes to validate information, answer questions and develop a better understanding of who we are and what we do,” Ortiz said. “From our part, we see this as a call to action to deliver the right information and educate them on how this institution is like no other on the planet.”

This is not to say, however, that the Army has done away with their traditional marketing and advertising. Currently, the Army, according to US Army Recruiting Command, continues to market to the community through fixed-base phone calls, direct-mail and email campaigns, area canvassing, face-to-face prospecting and school outreach programs.

“We know most of these children will never join,” said Payne, “but if we can effect change in the community, that’s what we are there to do.”

That precisely the mindset behind creating the Army’s most recent recruiting/marketing tactic: March2Success. The Army sponsored program offers free standardized test preparation for civilian tests, as well as, military aptitude tests.

“The Army is striving to create quality members, whether it is for the community or its institution,” said Kelli Bland, chief of public affairs at US Army Recruiting Command. “Recruiters can use this program to build a direct connection with the community, where less than 1 percent serve, and say, ‘Look at what the Army is doing for you.’”

Even with new marketing, the Army has quite a challenge on its hands. From a height of 566,000 in the fiscal year 2011, the Army’s end strength shrank to 490,000 active-duty soldier in the fiscal year 2015. The number may actually have to decrease to 450,000 or even 420,000 depending on the agreed upon funding levels of the National Defense Authorization Act scheduled to be voted on in November.


The Army is able to generate a lot of viral media around the imagery of the Army soldier upon returning to the States. From tribute events, to music festivals, to celebrity visits, the public established a support system for the American soldier that had not been seen since World War II.

The Army does have some refined marketing and advertising clarity in the NDAA. One of the leading platforms for soldier appreciation was believed to be the major sports leagues, such as the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and MLS. Prior to the start of games or during halftime, the Army was able to market the organization through surprise homecomings, reenlistments or flag ceremonies. The act was seen as an established network of appreciation built by the major leagues.

Yet, in November of 2015, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake released a report offering new details about how the Department of Defense paid professional sports teams and leagues for patriotic displays honoring American soldiers. This issue was with the National Guard marketing program, which is currently separate from the Army, and other services. The report resulted in changes to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2016, prohibiting the expenditures and calling on leagues and teams to donate the money to organizations that support the military, veterans and their families.

“In all, the military services reported $53 million in spending on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams between 2012 and 2015,” read an excerpt from the report. “More than $10 million of that total was paid to teams in the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Soccer (MLS).”

Moving forward, the NFL has agreed to return the $724,000 that taxpayers spent on patriotic tributes. In addition, the department of defense, according to the current 2015-2016 NDAA will limit “the use of funds for sponsorship, advertising, or marketing associated with a sports-related organization or sporting event until the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness reviews and reports to Congress on current contracts and task orders for sponsorships, advertising, and marketing.”


In 2008, the RAND Corporation, Center for Military Health Policy Research, published a population-based study that examined the prevalence of PTSD among previously deployed Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom service members. Among the 1,938 participants, the prevalence of current PTSD was 13.8 percent.

However, as the wars continued, the numbers increased. As of 2014, there were about 2.7 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and according to RAND at least 20 percent of those veterans have PTSD and/or Depression.

“If asked by a lead or their parents about the dangers of war, we have to be honest, and say, ‘Yes, there are dangers,’ but then explain what most people don’t realize is that most of the Army’s 150 jobs are not combat related,” said Sgt. First Class Steven Payne, innovations noncommissioned officer at US Army Recruiting Command. “This kind of transparency helps build trust with the lead and his/her parents.”

The effects of war also resulted in an increasing number of veteran suicides. Roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2014, the latest year available, more than 7,400 veterans took their own lives, accounting for 18 percent of all suicides in America.


Two years ago, the Army started to use the first virtual recruiters. The program launch required recruiters meet with leads in virtual meeting rooms to provide them the initial information about the Army and the institution’s incentives.

“If a female lead wanted to meet specifically with a female soldier, and a female soldier happened not to work at the lead’s local recruiting center, they were able to meet virtually,” Payne said. “We want to be able to match lead with the best recruiter possible.”

After two years of virtual meetings, the Army increased the technological abilities and assets of the recruiter through a variety options. The first addition to the recruiting tactic was the Army Career Explorer, or ACE, mobile application. The app allows leads to read and review information about any and all of the jobs in the Army.

In addition, leads are asked to provide in the initial form what drew them to seeking out information on the military. The US Army Recruiting Command is then able to see the statistics on this application with an analytical dashboard, providing them a clear understanding of what leads come from what campaigns.

“Our goal is to develop the app to the point, where a lead could actually fill out all of their information, sign all of the secured documents and only have to go into the center for their final paperwork,” said Payne.

The innovations noncommissioned officer has taken it upon himself, as many recruiters have, to reach out to the community through video games. Payne spoke to other video game players about the Army through Twitch, a video platform and community for gamers.

“The network allowed me to speak with people about the Army and answer any questions they may have had,” Payne said.

These efforts, including the technological advances, have produced a very successful recruiting year for the Army, according statistics by the US Army Recruiting Command. This fiscal year, September 30, new active-duty recruits will hit the desired mark of 62,500 and the Army reserve will reach its mark for the first time in five years with 15,400.

And when that 17 year old is recruited in 2019, the offices will look very different than today. Currently, the brick-and-mortar centers have a traditional layout with desktops, desks and posters. The communication is driven by cell phones, land lines and emails. The presentations to leads are created on PowerPoint and presented on television screens.

Yet, over the next two years, the US Army Recruiting Command anticipates redesigning all 1,500 recruitment centers around the country, beginning by the end of 2016. The modern office designs will include an open layout, tablets instead of desktops and interactive presentations to educate the youth and community.

“We want America to understand the institution for what it is, and we know through research that America does not value the Army to the extent it should,” Ortiz said. “When we ask Americans what they want their Army to be, [what] they actually describe is [what the Army really is], and when they learn this they are much more willing to give us support and join.”

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