Army Imitates Apple To Draw New Recruits
Timothy Fields | June 13, 2008
The U.S. Army, experiencing a stagnant recruiting situation, is going experiential.
The Army plans to unveil a pilot concept recruitment center in late August that was inspired by the interactivity of Apple Stores. The center, opening in a city that’s yet to be determined, will be built around virtual simulations and other experiential marketing techniques to engage visitors.
Seeing the success of Apple retail centers—as well as attractions like the ESPN Zone—prompted Edward Walters, CMO of the U.S. Army, to make a tactical change. “In the past we’ve focused on traditional media vehicles. [But] the millennial generation is used to engaging in interactive assets and we need to adapt to them.”
If the test proves successful, many centers will be opened around the country.
The effort comes as the number of new recruits for the active Army decreased minimally last year, per the Dept. of Defense.
“It is getting tougher and tougher to do personal recruiting,” said Robert Passikoff, ex-military man and president of Brand Keys, a brand customer loyalty planning consultancy based in New York.
“This is a way of engaging possible recruits in a way that may get someone interested and eventually convinced. It makes a lot of sense given how the media environment has changed. It isn’t just a matter of providing information, it is a matter of experiential outreach that is really able to provide a broader range of connectivity.”
The first new recruitment center is designed to be less intimidating and more “like walking into a NASA center,” said Walters. It will consist of three large simulators with full-scale mock-ups of Army equipment and wrap-around 270-degree video screens.
“The modeling command and control systems are like those used in Iraq,” said Maj. Larry Dillard, U.S. Army marketing exec.
The Apache simulator allows a pilot and co-pilot to experience the aircraft and its weapons systems. The Black Hawk helicopter simulator provides four door gunner positions. And, the armored HMMWV vehicle simulator has positions for a driver and several gunners. The centers also will include an area where visitors can compete in America’s Army, a videogame released in 2002.
“If you think of a classic recruitment center, [all of] its forms and brochures are about as exciting as the post office,” said Marc Babej, partner at Reason Inc., a marketing consultancy in New York. “Why talk about it when you can demonstrate it.”
Walters agreed. He said, while the U.S. armed forces have high awareness, the centers “show people what Army is about. We want to convey to young men and woman the most meaningful benefits of joining the Army.”
The effort isn’t the first time the Army has gone experiential. Since February 2007, the Army has worked with Los Angeles-based ad shop Ignited on a 20,000 square-foot tour that lets potential recruits get a 20-minute simulation experience that mimics being a soldier. Amy Lindstrom, a rep for Ignited, said that more than 100,000 people have taken the tour. Since recruiters aren’t typically on site, though, she said it’s difficult to track how many of those people signed up.
“We are trying to overcome preconceived notions. People are generally surprised at the activities that you can do in the Army,” said Dillard, referring to the new recruiting centers. “We are trying to generate some kind of engaging experience that will give you an ‘aha moment.'”
Despite the continuing unpopular war in Iraq, the Army has been making a comeback in retentions so far this year. Further, last week, the Defense Dept. announced it exceeded its recruiting goals (5,568 accessions) for the month.
Richard Laermer, author of 2011: Trendspotting for the Decade, said the new centers could stir up controversy. “With everything going on with the war effort, you think they would be a little more buttoned up. Right now there is nothing cool about the Army.”
Laermer doubts the test will succeed: “I’ll bet you that in a very short amount of time they will get rid of [the recruitment centers] because of a public outcry. People are going to get mad about it.”
Last year, the U.S. Army spent $172 million in advertising, and $37 million in the first quarter this year, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.