‘What’s Your Warrior?’: Army Looks Past Combat to Sign Up Teens

  • New ad campaign coming on Veterans Day targeting Gen Z
  • Effort designed to help recruit 69,000 active-duty soldiers

The U.S. Army is banking on surprising late teens, who may know nothing about the military, with a new multimillion-dollar advertising campaign designed to help recruit more than 130,000 people over the next year with promises of jobs everywhere from bio labs to cyber and culinary arts.

The new campaign, dubbed “What’s Your Warrior,” is meant to get the combat-weary Army out of a recruiting slump and assuage growing concerns among U.S. lawmakers who have been alarmed that the Army has squandered millions of dollars on misdirected marketing without connecting to today’s youth.

“This is really on us, on the Army,” Brigadier General Alex Fink, the Army’s chief of enterprise marketing, said in an interview. “We haven’t shown the breadth and depth of what the Army can offer. We have not shown all the things you can do in the Army, we just let people believe that the main thing is that direct action, combat role. We haven’t done a good job of telling our story.”

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army
The Army used this image to tease the new recruiting campaign at the Association of the
United States Army trade show in Washington in October.

Fink is the Army’s point man in Chicago where Omnicom Group Inc.‘s unit DDB is based. The DDB team last year won the Army’s marketing account, a contract worth $4 billion over the next 10 years.

The Army is trying to step away from the perception—built over 18 years at war—that it needs a high number of soldiers shooting guns and driving vehicles on the battlefield. While the possibility of combat and war-fighting proficiency will remain a constant feature of soldier life, the Army needs recruits who can be trained in highly technical work such as communications, cyber, logistics and medical research. In total there are about 150 specialties, said Fink. The campaign would use data analytics and social media such as TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to home in on teenagers who show interest in those skills and need help to develop them.

Veterans Day

DDB will be behind the new campaign that is expected to kick off Nov. 11—Veterans Day. The campaign will roll out in chapters to introduce the Army team and gradually delve into broad specialty areas including signal, air and space, cyber, science and medicine, engineering, support and logistics, intelligence and also ground combat.

The ads will rely on epic story-telling, featuring real soldiers. In one vignette, a cyber expert is turning on a city’s grid, in another a lab tech is working on the Zika virus. Bold colors and music ranging from 1970s guitar riffs to hip-hop and remixes will bring the ads to life, according to Fink, declining to share the specific music selection. Also, the ads won’t mention the Army upfront, he said.

“Part of our strategy is we are going to surprise them,” Fink said. “The whole element of the campaign is surprise.”

The plan is to meet their prospects where they are—online and social media—and make it a “thumb-stopping experience,” Fink explained.

The Army plans to spend $157 million on media, according to Fink. The service requested a budget about $330 million for advertising in fiscal 2020. About 60% of that budget would be going into the new campaign, said Fink. Overall, the Army requested $716 million in operations and maintenance funds for recruiting and advertising in the fiscal year, according to the budget request submitted to Congress. Funding still hangs in the balance as Congress has yet to approve the defense authorization or defense spending bills. The Pentagon is operating under a stopgap measure until Nov. 21 with prospects increasing for a much longer continuing resolution after that.

Recruiting Goals

The new advertising campaign will be on the hook to support the accession of 69,000 active-duty enlisted soldiers, 45,430 National Guard troops and 15,850 reservists, according to data provided by the Army.

“We have to have not only quantity but quality and it is very important because with all these weapons systems and all this sophistication it comes down to the individual soldiers doing their jobs,” Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a West Point graduate, said in an interview. “We have to have the very best and we have to a sufficient number and I think this is a real concern.”

It’s a tall order for the U.S. military’s largest service. In 2018, the Army fell 6,500 recruits short of its goals and in 2019 it reached its goals after lowering the numbers.

“It is a concern that they haven’t met their recruiting goals,” Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “One of the biggest reasons and, it’s well documented, is that there is a small number of people who actually qualify.”

Complex Problems

The Army faces a complex set of problems: the eligible recruiting pool into all military services is small; the new generation of prospects, Generation Z, has had almost no contact or knowledge of the military which has largely fought wars abroad since 2001; and unemployment is low. Gen Z, the newest generation to be named, includes those born after 1997, according to Pew Research. It’s a cohort that grew up with technology, the internet and social media.

“The major problem we have right now, is we have a president who has given us the best economy we’ve had in my memory and consequently it makes it much more difficult to recruit people when there are so many jobs out there that are open,” Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.),the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an Army veteran, said in an interview. “I am concerned mostly because of the competition that is out there.”

Among people aged 17 to 24, 70%, or 24 million out of 34 million, are ineligible to join the military, because of obesity, a lack of high school diplomas, or having a criminal record, according to 2017 Pentagon data. That means that 29 percent of that age cohort become the prime attraction for all recruiting such as military, college, and jobs.

The Army has a harder time recruiting when the economy is doing well, particularly because it has to bring in significantly more people than the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, which are smaller, more specialized services. As the largest service, the Army has had the “hardest time coming up with a clear, marquee brand,” said Emma Moore, a research associate for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “It’s hard to convey what it does.”

When it comes to recruiting, “it’s the last several thousand that are the hardest,” Fink said.

The Army is also facing another significant hurdle, according to Moore. There is a shrinking veteran population and the youth have no connection to veterans.

‘Best of the Rest’

There is a bias in U.S. society that the “military gets the best of the rest,” she said. “If people know people serving, they get more nuance. That is part of the issue. People don’t have those people in their lives,” Moore said.

Also, the “possibility of injury and death” or the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological issues, can turn people away from the service that has emphasized its combat role, she said.

As Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s former chief of staff and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it last year: “When you join the Army, you are not joining the Boy Scouts. You are joining an organization that goes out and engages with the enemies of our country. There are reasons why 70-or-80% of the casualties end up being Army casualties and Army infantry casualties, because that’s what we do.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com; Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com