Says Latest Initiatives Like a Learning Center Are Ways to Evaluate
Branding Strategies and Not Recruitment Tools
By Natalie Zmuda
Published: September 08, 2008
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The U.S. Army is turning up in a lot of
youthful places lately.
It has opened the Army Experience Center, including Humvee and
helicopter simulators, near Dave & Buster's and an indoor skate park
in Philadelphia's Franklin Mills Mall. The popular "America's Army"
online game counts more than 9 million registered users, and an
updated game is scheduled for release in the coming year, according
to the Army website. And at Sears Roebuck & Co., the First Infantry
Division apparel collection, featuring Army-licensed insignias in
sizes including boys,' is slated to launch in October.
A sensitive conundrum
For most civilian companies facing a conundrum similar to the Army's
-- a dwindling group of product loyalists and a public-perception
problem -- this might be considered smart, or even brilliant,
marketing to attract new recruits to the brand. But in the case of
the military, when you factor in easily influenced children, their
parents and, oh yes, war, it becomes a lot more sensitive.
"It's reasonable for anyone that's a parent ... to be worried about
the infusion of militaristic trappings into children's culture," said
Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert. "It really
has the potential to put the Army or any other branches of the
military in the wrong position of marketing themselves directly to kids."
Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said the Army's overall marketing
message has been consistent for some 30 years, and the current
initiatives represent a desire to evolve with the times. "We are very
careful to make certain we are reaching people who are of recruiting
age," he said. "These are wonderful introductions to young people
ages 18 to 25, but at the same time, they're not necessarily the
stimulus behind recruiting. Ultimately, that is a decision that is
best made by the aspiring recruit, the recruiter [and] the recruit's family."
The Army Experience Center, which opened Aug. 29, is a
14,500-square-foot educational facility that is the centerpiece of a
program to test and evaluate new marketing strategies and is not a
recruiting tool, he said. "It's very much geared to show young people
today what the U.S. Army is like in a very rich, immersive,
educational and factual environment," Mr. Boyce said. "And it's also
Even so, Army equipment simulators and games in the Army Experience
Center carry a minimum age for use of 13 years old. The "America's
Army" game is also rated T for Teen, meaning it has content that may
be suitable for ages 13 and older. The sportswear collection includes
a range of casual T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, denim and outerwear
bearing Army marks.
Selling clothes, not a culture
Bob McGuinness, president of All American Army Brand, which is
manufacturing and selling the collection to Sears, said the company
is selling a stylistically relevant collection, not Army culture. He
said the collection does not include fatigues or mimic uniforms.
Critics of the Army's new initiatives claim they are aimed at
boosting recruiting figures that have been sliding as a result of the
Iraq War. The military has struggled with recruiting in the past
couple of years, said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United
for Peace & Justice. "So they've revved up their recruitment
operations, and part of that is, of course, advertising. This strikes
me as just another form of advertising."
Something seems to be working. The Army has rebounded since it missed
its recruitment goal in 2005 for the first time in five years by
7,000 soldiers. In January 2006, the National Defense Authorization
Act was signed, providing a variety of payments, benefits and
incentives designed to boost recruiting and retention. Since then,
the Army has steadily come back, beating its goal by 645 recruits in
fiscal 2006 and 407 recruits in fiscal 2007. (According to the
National Priorities Project, that success has come with a price, as
the Army has been accepting more recruits who don't have high-school
diplomas. And the Army is issuing more moral, physical and medical
waivers for new recruits.)
Attracting 80,000 recruits
Since 2004, the recruiting goal has been 80,000. Mr. Boyce said the
Army has met its recruiting goals every month of this fiscal year, as
well as in months prior to this year. "We have done that by
continuing to evolve and change and refine our communications," he
said. "We've been looking at marketing carefully for a decade. ...
We're an all-volunteer organization, where we have to recruit more
than 80,000 people every year, and we have a force of 1.1 million.
That is not something that one does by the seat of the pants."
Mr. Weissman said regardless of the educational nature of the Army's
new programs, they are still, at the core, branding exercises. "Even
more with the Army Experience Center than with the clothing line, you
see the glamorization and romanticism of the military in a context
that is targeted at kids who don't probably have broader vantage
points to understand that complexity of military operations," he said.
Mr. Boyce "strongly refutes" the notion that any of the Army's
initiatives glamorize war, adding that care is taken to avoid
Sears Army apparel not necessarily made in U.S.
Sears' new Army-approved clothing collection isn't all made in the U.S.A.
The U.S. Army is licensing the use of its marks and insignias to a
company called All American Army Brand, which in turn is selling a
collection dubbed First Infantry Division exclusively to Sears,
Roebuck & Co. Licensing fees paid to the Army by All American Army
Brand will be used to support military programs that benefit troops
and their families. Product prices range from $11.99 to $119.99.
The collection is designed in the U.S. and produced both domestically
and overseas, said Bob McGuinness, president of All American Army
Brand, citing costs as a reason it is not all produced in this
country. "People want value and quality," he said. "We have to be
able to price it competitively and do what's best for the consumer."
Sears executives said they did not believe the manufacturing origins
of the collection would be an issue with consumers.
The Berry Amendment requires that the Pentagon give preference in
defense procurement to domestically manufactured apparel. Sears' line
is exempt from that, but several people raised the issue, noting that
it is counterintuitive for the Army to license its marks for apparel
that will be produced overseas.
Gregg Emmer, VP-chief marketing officer at Kaeser & Blair, a company
specializing in promotional products, said it seems "wrong" for
Army-branded products to be made outside the U.S. "If the implication
is there, but the tag in the garment says Vietnam or Honduras, will
there be a negative reaction?" he said. "In an election year, with
lots of discussion about jobs leaving the country, timing might also
have an impact."
Paul Boyce, a spokesman for the Army, pointed out that it is working
with American companies. "They should be able to enter into the field
of commerce," he said. "Items being purchased are being purchased by
private individuals, and the private sector is based on the laws of commerce."