The US Army has struggled to get recruits. Its new marketing heads explain how the military will target Gen Z with personalized, data-driven ads.

  • The US Army has struggled to reach its recruitment goals over the last two years due to a lack of relevance among Gen Z.
  • While past campaigns revolved around big-budget TV ads, Army officials said they're now focusing on "immersive, episodic storytelling" designed to reach young people where they live and emphasize career opportunities in the military.
  • It has a new agency, DDB, and its first campaign is set to go live before the end of the year.
  • The Army's top marketers also said they also plan to recruit more data scientists to exert more control over its strategy.
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The US Army failed to hit recruitment targets last year for the first time since 2005 and reached its 2019 goals only after reducing its target by 8,500. According to the Army's new heads of marketing, this is because the organization has failed to prove its relevance to young Americans.

Amid this challenge and fallout from a 2018 audit that identified more than $35 million in wasted spending for fiscal year 2016, the military's largest branch has revamped its multi-billion-dollar marketing operations with a new home base, a new holding company partner, and a new targeting strategy.

E. Casey Wardynski and Brigadier General Alex Fink, who became, respectively, the Army's assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs and enterprise marketing chief earlier this year, spoke to Business Insider about how they plan to attract Gen Z with data-driven, online campaigns.

Read more: The US Army wants to combine its powerful new night-vision goggles and its new pocket-sized spy drones so soldiers can see the battlefield like never before

The Army plans to target individuals, not broad audiences

First, the Army — which estimated it could be spending up to $4 billion on advertising over 10 years — will follow the ad industry at large by pivoting away from mass-reach, big-budget TV spots to more personalized ads.

Fink cited recent surveys which found that 50% of Gen Z know little to nothing about military service and that messages focused on the idea of defending the US "only appeal to about 10%" of the public. He said his goal is to emphasize the Army's relevance to young people by emphasizing career opportunities in areas like drones, aviation, medicine, and cybersecurity, as opposed to older ads that emphasized combat.

"The Gen Z population are digital experts," said Fink. "They're skeptical of solicitation and idiosyncratic in their tastes. Whereas in the past, the Army expected prospects to meet us on our terms, we recognize that we must inhabit their world."

Army officials have recently spoken of attracting young recruits with meme-style content designed for platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Fink said the debut campaign by its new agency DDB, set to launch before the end of this year, will consist of "immersive, episodic storytelling" that evolves over time based on the audience's response.

"What we've got to have are thumb-stopping experiences," he said, describing traditional military ad campaigns as "a sea of sameness."

Wardynski said the new approach is modeled in part on America's Army, a series of first-person shooter games whose launch he oversaw in 2002. The project remains one of the Army's most successful marketing efforts, attracting more than 14 million total users, Wardnyski said.

Officials moved Army marketing operations to Chicago and hired several former big-brand CMOs to help design the new team

The Army's use of digital advertising is part of a larger shift that took place over several years as the military, like many marketers, sought to prove the effectiveness of its marketing spending.

The shift led to the end of one of advertising's more established agency-client relationships.

In 2017, US Army dropped its agency of more than 10 years, McCann Worldgroup, part of holding company IPG, and hired Omnicom's DDB in November 2018.

Adweek later reported that the Army would dissolve its Washington, D.C.-based Marketing Research Group and relocate to DDB's hometown of Chicago.

During this transitional period, the Army contracted several consultants who were formerly CMOs of major brands to help design its new team. Wardynski wouldn't name them, calling them only "great Americans who served quietly."

The new entity, Office of the Chief Army Enterprise Marketing, will employ more data scientists drawn from different branches of the armed forces — a significant change from past marketing teams that primarily consisted of public affairs officers "more attuned to the art of the word than the art of the data," Wardynski said.

New data agreements give the Army greater power to shape its ad buying strategy

The Army will have greater access to consumer data than in the past, giving its new team more power to shape its strategy rather than relying solely on its agencies.

"Whatever data DDB sees, we can see too," said Wardynski. Fink added that he would make the ultimate decision on all future media buys.

This digital approach will also apply more directly to future recruitment efforts; the Army is developing a way to track the anonymized online behaviors of prospects so it can better target them with ads.

Fink wouldn't give specifics about where he plans to spend digital dollars, but the Army is active on social media, with 4.8 million Facebook followers, 1.8 million Instagram followers, and 1.4 million Twitter followers. 

Army officials said DDB and OMD will present a detailed media plan to their team later this month ahead of the campaign launch.

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