In the trenches of the U.S. military’s new marketing campaign, you’ll find ammo for your own rebranding efforts.
Just like in the old days, the military wants you. But these days, Uncle Sam has a better pitch. With the help of big-time ad agencies and sleek messages, the stalwart armed services have modernized their marketing and advertising — and attracted a new generation of recruits in the process.

Targeting the teens and twentysomethings raised on hip TV images, video games, and Internet information overload, it’s not surprising that the military decided to spiff up its brand names. When the U.S. Navy hired renowned director Spike Lee to craft a handful of ads, and then launched its “Accelerate Your Life” ad campaign, new recruits scrambled to join up.

But it’s the Army that has really catapulted to success with its daring brand revamp. In 2001, it dropped that beloved 20-year motto “Be All You Can Be” for a more personalized approach — “An Army of One.” The organization put its $100 million-plus account into the hands of consumer-goods expert marketer Leo Burnett USA, and for the first time since 1997 hit its goal of 120,000 active and reserve recruits — a target it hasn’t missed since.

“Although at first it may seem a radical departure from tradition, ‘Army of One’ seems to take a similar self-focused theme like ‘Be All You Can Be’ and puts it in a contemporary frame,” says marketing consultant Michael Markowitz.

It wasn’t just the message that changed. The media changed radically — because it had to. And the way the Army used market research and new technology to remake its image can be adopted by many other businesses, particularly those with Gen Y customers. Perhaps even yours.

The first step: Know your market. Burnett started compiling info on potential recruits even before it won the Army’s business. Preparing to compete against three other national agencies for the account, Burnett’s Army team hit the streets — and cyberspace — in search of 18- to 24-year-old men. In person and via e-mail, the agency peppered them with questions like, “Do you think you might consider joining the Army?” and “What do you think of when you hear the word Army?”

What they found was that only 15 percent of the target group would even consider a career in the Army, and those potential recruits had an old-fashioned view of the life in the barracks. They pictured in-your-face drill sergeants, muddy obstacle courses, and dreary “dog soldier” work.

Daunting for sure, but the Burnett group rolled up their sleeves. “The Army clearly had a leadership heritage that needed to be updated and aligned with more individual thinking,” says Tim

Bergin, senior vice president and account director of the Army business at Burnett. “Instead of youths thinking they were just a number in the Army, we wanted them to think about what the Army could do for their goals and career.”
Bergin, who served five years as an Army helicopter pilot, was confident Burnett could do it. And so was the Army; it handed the agency the business. Burnett’s first step was to take its research and insights and craft a strategy: in this case, contemporary leadership and personal empowerment. A handful of creative teams started brainstorming for themes, and finally a copywriter’s poem called “An Army of One” took the lead [see Pure Poetry, to the left].

Next they started crafting a brand persona. For most of its history, the Army relied on a camouflage green, block-lettered “U.S. Army” as its logo. Burnett created a black-and-gold color scheme and a new logo centered on a white star.

Then, in preparation for a media push, the team built a step-by-step framework: Make potential recruits aware of the Army, intrigue them and inform them, and then get them to admit their interest via direct mail, the Internet, or at an Army-sponsored event. Meanwhile, they worked with Army public relations staff to make sure that speeches, press releases, and the Web site harmonized with the marketing they were about to launch.

The actual ads and other media materials were almost the last things the Burnett team created. The spending budget was split roughly half-and-half between mass media such as television and print ads, and one-to-one marketing such as the Web site and direct mail. Even the TV budget was carefully allocated to stations where the agency and Army felt they could best reach their target audience, such as MTV and the WB Network.

Local recruiting battalions also got into the act, with print ads specially tailored for the 41 different recruiting regions across the country. Some of the ads targeted specific fields — medical technicians in Alabama, for instance. And recruiters spread the Army of One word through local events.

“It was a major departure from the past, when most of the effort was dumped into the popular TV mass media,” Bergin says.

Timing also became an issue. A handful of important recruiting “drive times” got personalized attention. For instance, the message during high-school graduation season would be different from the January pitch to kids who didn’t get into college or who might be finishing a seasonal job and thinking about their next step.

While TV and print got the most notice (and frank criticism from industry experts at first), the strongest media turned out to be the Web site at The Army saw an almost immediate jump from 8,000 hits per day before the campaign to about 30,000 hits per day. They added interactive games to engage potential recruits and started posting individual soldier stories, especially about basic training, which many potential recruits feared (according to that market research). A new Internet series called 2407, set to debut this fall, will feature audio, video, and written interviews with soldiers performing various Army jobs.

Admittedly, few companies have $100 million earmarked for a rebranding campaign, especially these days. Not everyone can hire Leo Burnett or one of its ilk. But the Army’s retooled image offers principles that do-it-yourselfers can use on a smaller scale.

First, whittle down. The Army concentrated on the small group of people who would consider a future in the armed services. The message? Always focus on your core target audience. Don’t alienate others with offensive messages, but forget trying to convince people who will never buy your product or service.

Listen in. Make sure your market research is not only top-notch, but that you’re using it the right way. Have the courage to truly listen to your core group and hear things that will take you in a new direction — even if they’re unflattering or disappointing at first.

Step together. Coordinate and harmonize your message, so that your direct mail delivers the same punch as your image ads, for instance. “Big branding versus lead generation isn’t relevant or appropriate anymore,” Bergin says. “Your direct messages should have an overall brand component and vice versa.”

Freshen up. Remember that even a brilliant marketing strategy may need to be changed or refreshed. In the Army’s case, the effective and catchy “Be All You Can Be” had simply become wallpaper. “Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as invisibility,” Markowitz says.

To keep the curse of familiarity away, the Army continues to update its marketing efforts. For instance, at the Daytona 500 this year, it sponsored a NASCAR race car numbered “01” and painted in the signature black and gold. In keeping with the cross-platform marketing strategy, the Army Web site offers NASCAR fans all the details on upcoming races, the driver, and the car. If the racer’s engine is anything like the Army’s new marketing prowess, its horsepower should be considerable.

steven dana is a new york state-based artist whose work has appeared in such publications as rolling stone, the new yorker, the new york times, forbes, and fortune.
pure poetry
the u.s. army’s marketing push found its theme when a leo burnett usa copywriter brought this poem to a brainstorming meeting.

an army of one
even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me,
i am my own force.
with technology, with training, with support,
who i am has become better than who i was.
and i’ll be the first to tell you,
the might of the u.s. army
doesn’t lie in numbers.
it lies in me.
i am an army of one.
and you can see my strength.