Armed Forces: The World's Toughest Brief?

Marketing, July 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

Armed Forces: The World's Toughest Brief?


You could learn a lot from life in the military, my son. Such as how to overcome the most difficult marketing challenge around.

'OK, we need to recruit military personnel. After we've overcome their inherent prejudices, they will have to pass a rigorous physical fitness test, undergo a demanding training regime and there's the real possibility of them seeing active duty - with the risk of injury or worse. Now, go get 'em.'

The task of enlisting 20,000 staff to the British armed forces each year is one of the toughest marketing challenges in the world - making the so-called 'baked beans war' look like handbags in the aisles.

Yet a small band of men and women rise to the challenge annually, marshalling the latest in digital communications and pulling together sophisticated integrated multimedia campaigns. Every year, it seems, the task becomes tougher - and armed forces marketers are establishing a reputation for embracing creative advertising and media ideas at which more conventional marketers would balk.

Joining up is no longer a prerequisite for seeing the world, and if you are interested in humanitarian missions, you could always sign up with a non-governmental organisation rather than put yourself on a front line whose perils have been made all too evident by rolling news coverage from Iraq.

What's more, the government's objective to increase the proportion of 18- to 30-year-olds entering higher education to 50% by 2010 has put colleges and universities on the offensive, resulting in decreasing youth unemployment and an even smaller pool of potential recruits.

The Army has been hit harder than either the Navy or RAF, both of which have been the subject of downsizing by the government. Ministry of Defence (MoD) figures show that its total intake fell by nearly a third between 2002 and 2005, and that its trained strength in 2005 was 1730 soldiers fewer than the requirement of 104,170.

Perceptions of the Army have taken a turn for the worse in the three years since Britain went to war in Iraq with the backing of only a minority of the population. There are concerns over Army training and care in the wake of the scandal at Deepcut, the barracks in Surrey that was subject to an investigation into the deaths of four soldiers between 1995 and 2002; and a restructure in 2005 was misinterpreted as 'downsizing'.

These impressions are compromising the Army's ability to recruit the 18,000 people it needs to enlist every year (including to the Territorial Army) to maintain its trained strength. And while downsizing in both the Navy and RAF under the MoD's modernisation programme means they are under less acute pressure, they are still faced with the challenge of sustaining the quality of recruits and building their appeal as a good career option for young people.

Though the forces refute the idea that they are suffering from a recruitment 'crisis', the scale of their challenge is evident in the number of agency roster reviews they have undertaken in the past two years. The Royal Navy recently parted company with its agency of 20 years, RKCR/Y&R, in favour of WCRS, and replaced Mediaedge:cia with Carat on the media buying side; two years ago, the RAF ditched JWT, which had handled its ad account for more than 30 years, replacing it with DLKW.

While the Army's key challenge is arguably to combat negative perceptions, the other forces, including the TA and Royal Marines, need to make themselves more relevant to their core target audience and more clearly differentiated. To this end, they have all stepped up their recruitment marketing with some creative integrated campaigns that exploit the digital media favoured by the young people they seek.

Last week the RAF launched the first of what will be weekly audio and text blogs from two cadets going through a 30-week officer training course at RAF Cranwell. The blogs appear on Channel RAF, an interactive area on the RAF careers website, and the audio blog can be downloaded onto a computer or MP3 player as a podcast. …

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