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.

Channel RAF also features 'reality-based scenarios' developed by digital agency i-level with freeloader.com and weebls-stuff.com. Site visitors can carry out 'exercises' such as filling up a plane, evacuating people from a war zone or landing planes in a typhoon. At the end of each exercise, they are rated, and can click through to another part of the careers site to find out more about the jobs the exercises relate to.

Since their launch in December, the games have been played more than 8m times, with 1.1m subsequent clickthroughs to the RAF site from almost 700,000 unique users. 'For the same investment in online display advertising, we estimate that we would get about 4000 clickthroughs to the RAF site, so in terms of driving traffic, the games have been 250 times more effective,' says i-level account director Alex Miller.

'The idea is to make it easy for people to find out about all the different jobs they could do,' says RAF head of digital media for marketing David Ogden, who developed the Channel RAF concept with digital agencies Binary Vision and Lida.

The RAF is in the third year of a retrenchment plan, which will see its trained strength of 49,000 reduced to 41,000 by 2008; so, rather than seeking to boost its recruit numbers, its ongoing challenge is to ensure that it gets the balance of recruits right, according to Richard Huthwaite, head of marketing for RAF recruitment. He explains that while people perceive the RAF to be all about flying, it does not need to actively recruit pilots, but rather the technicians and engineers essential to keeping them in the air.

In 2001, the RAF hired Tullo Marshall Warren to complement its advertising with a targeted direct approach to fill specialist roles such as medical and engineering officers. TMW targeted undergraduates but, says group account director Alex Burley, 'while we had a healthy response rate, we lacked the mechanisms to sustain their interest in the face of competition from the City and other blue-chip organisations'.

As a result, the RAF switched the focus of its recruit marketing toward 'pre-eligibles' - 13- to 15-year-olds - to raise their awareness of the RAF as a possible career option, and in April it launched a CRM programme called Altitude intended to capture and nurture their interest until the time comes for them to make a career choice.

TMW targeted a database of youngsters who respond to TV campaigns, members of the Air Training Corps and career liaison officers, outreach programmes and a network of air shows with 'acquisition leaflets' designed to encourage young people to sign up to the programme on the RAF website. They were then sent a welcome pack, with an overhead shot of their house on the cover and the words 'Now we've got you on our radar'.

'The RAF's diminished footprint means that people don't see us as much as they used to and young people have limited opportunities to come into contact with us,' says Huthwaite. 'These digital campaigns help address that problem and allow us to show a much richer experience.'

The Royal Navy is also set to switch to what head of marketing Iwan Williams calls 'a more sophisticated, fully integrated multimedia campaign'. When Williams, who is on secondment from the COI, joined the Navy in October, he introduced a recruitment strategy based on a major piece of quantitative and qualitative research into public attitudes toward the armed forces generally and to a career in the Navy specifically. 'We now have a very detailed and robust understanding of our audience, so we can be far more effective in our targeting,' he says.

Its previous 'Be part of something' campaign had not been sufficiently differentiated from other armed forces advertising and lacked integration with its website. 'WCRS and Carat's challenge is to develop a voice for the Royal Navy that is different from the default recruiting voice many of the armed forces use,' says Williams. 'We can't compete head-on with the Army, which has a very successful recruitment campaign based on the huge awareness among our target audience of its very powerful brand - "Be the best". What's more, there is no comparison between its budget and ours, so we have to be much smarter and more strategic in our communications.'

The new campaign, which will break at the end of the year, will use the central proposition that the Navy offers 'one career with many opportunities', with communications tailored initially to three of the five segments identified by the research, namely 'optimistic achievers' (potential officers), 'enthusiastic followers' and 'unfulfilled potential'. A key plank of the campaign will be the integration of digital communications with the all-important channel of outreach events, where potential recruits can talk to signed-up members of the force.

Next year will also see a new campaign for the Royal Marines to replace the previous '99.9% need not apply' executions, which last ran in February. In the meantime, the Marines will maintain an online presence through activities designed to address its high drop-out rate. Digital agency i-level, for example, has created an online area on FHM.com, called FHM vs Marines, where tongue-in-cheek videos show a journalist from the lads' mag going through the tough Marines training. 'The site conveys the "are you sure you want to join?" message in a more insightful way,' says i-level's Miller. 'Hopefully it will increase retention, but it is also a cost-effective way of getting people to apply.'

The Army's 'Everest West Ridge' campaign, on air in April and May, has been arguably the most ground-breaking of all the armed forces' recent marketing activities in terms of integration. The ads were based on an attempt by British soldiers to reach the summit of Everest by the most dangerous route. Camera and sound crews on the mountain filmed the expedition and footage was beamed back via satellite to media and publishing agencies, with TV and radio ads being almost live broadcasts.

The campaign, which was three years in the planning, stemmed from a fortuitous phone call from the soldiers to the marketing team asking if they could help them raise sponsorship from the commercial sector. Army Recruiting Group marketing director Mark Bainbridge saw the potential of the expedition to raise awareness of the Army pushing itself to the limit in a non-combat environment.

The activity was a major logistical exercise involving not just creative agency Publicis and media agency ZenithOptimedia, but also a raft of agencies, including Haymarket Network, which publishes Army Magazine, PCI Fitch, which ran a microsite and managed the media hub, and PR agencies Biss Lancaster and Golley Slater. Sky TV, which also had a crew on the mountain, trailed the campaign every day. People could also track the climbers' progress through email updates, mobile text alerts and video clips.

Bainbridge says the work, which drove respondents to a web link for more information, was 'the most successful campaign we have run', resulting in a 100% rise in enquiries quarter on quarter. This success is likely to be sustained by a behind-the-scenes documentary, comprising five 30-minute episodes, which will be screened on Bravo from October. Each episode will include 10-second branded idents for the Army.

Rather than being a recent phenomenon, Bainbridge claims 'it has always been hard to recruit to the Army', adding that while an Army career is on the radar of less than 25% of young people, this is a figure that has varied little in 10 years.

Recent marketing has been aimed at overcoming deep-rooted prejudices about Army life, and, like the RAF, the Army launched a CRM programme - Camouflage - six years ago to engage the interest and build an understanding among 'pre-eligibles'. The circulation of Army Magazine has recently been extended from 13- to 17-year-old Camouflage members to over-17s who have expressed an interest in the Army.

Recruitment advertising is near-continuous, as TV work, supported by interactive activities, such as the award-winning 'Army officer' online recruitment work by Publicis Dialog, continues to address areas of shortage as they arise.

Bainbridge also runs recruitment activity for the Territorial Army, which has been, he says, 'in the shadow of the regular Army for a long time'. Currently the Army campaigns cover both regular and TA recruiting, but in the autumn a new campaign designed specifically to raise the TA's profile will be run.

Agencies pay testimony to the armed forces' creativity and willingness to try new things. 'We have done some of our most creative work for the RAF,' says TMW's Burley. 'It goes along with nine-tenths of the creative solutions proposed.' I-level's Miller agrees: 'The armed forces are very forward-thinking in the way they use advertising and media.'

Bainbridge says: 'We work with some good agencies and allow them to push the envelope to get better results. The armed forces are used to taking calculated risks, and we are innovative. But we are also very strong on analysis, and get precise results for every campaign we run so we can measure their effectiveness.'

While the three main armed forces work collaboratively to discuss ideas and share best practice, Williams believes they need to work harder 'at a tri-service level' to raise the desirability among young people of a military career. 'Only 15% of 16- to 32-year-olds have not discounted a career in the armed forces and we need to work harder at improving that, rather than focusing purely on our individual recruitment needs,' he says.

Nevertheless, the forces are fishing for the same people in an ever-smaller pond, and what deputy chief executive of the COI Peter Buchanan calls 'a forward-looking campaign grid' at the COI, which will let each force time its campaign so as not to overlap with the others, might not be enough as competition from elsewhere mounts.

FACT FILE - ARMED FORCES' RECRUITMENT COMPARED WITH ANNUAL ADSPEND

ROYAL NAVY/ROYAL MARINES

2005 2004 2003
Officer intake 370 340 420
Other rank intake 3320 3780 4800
Total intake 3690 4120 5220
Adspend 4,597,054 4,227,174 4,881,202


ARMY

2005 2004 2003
Officer intake 760 880 900
Other rank intake 10,940 14,310 15,710
Total intake 11,690 15,190 16,610
Adspend 15,643,862 7,087,401 5,849,931


ROYAL AIR FORCE

2005 2004 2003
Officer intake 290 520 460
Other rank intake 1880 3640 3990
Total intake 2180 4160 4450
Adspend 1,813,487 954,816 2,346,161

Source: Ministry of Defence intake figures for year to 1 April; Nielsen
Media Research adspend figures for year to 31 December

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