Army of one

Military recruitment is a tough job in today's climate. But the Army's Mark Bainbridge has success in his sights, reports Alicia Buller.

He's the man with the most difficult job in the country. Probably. But Mark Bainbridge's composed demeanour belies the ever-increasingly complexity of his day-to-day work: convincing the British public that joining the Army is a good idea.

And while the marketing director boasts the well-controlled exterior of a brigadier or a major - along with the stereo-typically conservative dress sense - he says he's never personally been a member of the forces. "My wife wouldn't hear of it," he says, looking a little disappointed.

But perhaps she did him a favour, because today Bainbridge is one of the most impressive and innovative marketers in the country. Incredibly, the British Army entrusts the management of its entire marketing and communications strategy to him on a consultancy basis. He's not even on the payroll.

In his near-decade at the helm of marketing for one of the country's oldest institutions, Bainbridge has witnessed a lot of changes in public opinion; many of them for the worse. He is refreshingly honest about his predicament. "It's more difficult than it's ever been," he sighs. "Just open the national newspapers on any day of the week, and you'll see what we're up against." And, even more honestly, he admits: "Afghanistan and Iraq are unpopular conflicts, there are soldiers coming back dead and it's having a big impact. I don't think it was ever particularly well justified."

Battling negativity

To date, 70 soldiers have met with their deaths in Afghanistan, and upwards of 170 have been killed in Iraq since the operations began - with many more injured, psychologically and physically. Put simply, Bainbridge has an enormous task on his hands - having to dispel the negative mood of both the nation's public psyche and Britain's notoriously un-shy media, before he can even begin to think about attracting recruits.

Most recently, there was the furor at the start of the year surrounding the alleged 'glamorisation' of Army jobs, targeted at young people. At the time, the British press pack enjoyed a veritable feeding frenzy over the Rowntree report findings. "Army accused of targeting seven-year-olds", shrieked The Scotsman. And "The Armed Forces are given a misleading picture of military life," posited The Guardian.

The report claimed, among other things, that: "Recruitment literature for Army careers emphasises potential benefits. It omits to mention the ethical issues involved in killing ... Warfare is portrayed as game-like and enjoyable."

Children and adolescents were the main target groups for recruitment, with methods including visits to schools, literature and local cadet forces, the report added.

The fact the Army has ramped up its recruitment drives of late is without question. In 2007, the organisation unveiled its new integrated recruitment process and a new recruitment brand identity and website under the banner of One Army Recruiting. In addition, last year's advertising campaigns saw a series of documentary-style films featuring real-life soldiers in 'cliff-hanger' scenarios. Interested applicants could then log on to the new website www.armyjobs.mod.uk to see how the films end.

But Bainbridge remains surprisingly circumspect about the Rowntree accusations.

"The Quakers group (who commissioned the report) are a Christian group that promotes peace, so one could safely say that when they look at the military they are going to look at it from a particular perspective," he says, carefully.

"A Times newspaper columnist summed it up quite well. She said that it's like inviting a vegetarian to review a chain of meat restaurants. It's an intelligent piece of work, but it's one of those things that only proves the point it wants to make. It only looked at three publications and a tiny bit of our digital work - out of the many communications we put out."

He says that while he "respects" the report, it's one-sided, and it is yet more evidence of the negative environment that Bainbridge and the British Army in general are finding themselves mired in. "You'd have to be in a vacuum not to realise that the media already does a huge job of detailing the negatives of the Army, and to say that 16 year olds can't make conscious decisions based on a range of influences is patronising," he says, warming up. "We are honest about what the job entails; we merely open a discussion - that's why we want to drive people into one of the 500 recruiting centres in the UK, to meet soldiers who can explain more in person."

Bainbridge doesn't deny that public opinion of the Army is at an all-time low. So he's made it his job to at least be able to gauge it in a measurable and tangible way, through a 'tracking wave', which gauges media and public opinion through quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

"Both parental discouragement of their children enlisting the Army and young people's disinterest are well over the 50 per cent mark. The parents often say that they are absolutely proud of the Army, and that the soldiers do a brilliant job. They just don't want their kids to do it," he says.

By homing in on parents, the Army is clearly targeting under-18s to some extent. But Bainbridge sheds some light on the logic behind this decision: "We identified a group we wanted to talk to - 15, 16 and 17 year olds who are in a transition period. This is because between the ages of 12 and 14, everyone wanted to be a footballer, an astronaut or a soldier, but by 15 or 16, when we actually need them to start making decisions, the rate seems to drop off to not very much at all."

And this, he says, is the reason why he conceived Camouflage, the Army's successful magazine and website targeting 15 to 17 year olds. He insists it's simply a way to put information in front of potential recruits, so they can make their own minds up. "Fifteen per cent of our new recruits come out of this, but it's not a direct sell."

Media accolades

Amid the national debate over whether it's ethical to target kids with military imagery, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Bainbridge is one of the most forward-thinking and respected marketers of the past decade. When he re-launched the Army's new website with Publicis in 2007, it won Best Website award from the British Interactive Marketing Association, while Camouflage magazine won the Best Customer Magazine category for the third consecutive year at the APA awards. What's more, the Army's Everest West Ridge campaign in 2006 and last year's integrated web/TV 'cliff-hanger' campaign won numerous accolades from the country's media and marketing press.

The Everest campaign by Publicis, a six-week 'live' multi-media project documenting the attempt of 21 Army climbers on the west ridge of Mount Everest, drew record web visits: one million and counting. The initiative also elicited 60,000 enquiries and 10,000 job applications. It's an impressive achievement.

Still the pressure on him has never been greater. While there were more than 12,700 new Army recruits last year, almost 14,500 personnel left the service. In addition, the Army increased its upper recruitment age (from 26 to 33 years) in January - 'a response to a recruitment crisis' speculated the media.

And some of that pressure is of his own making - after all, his next campaign has to be up to standard. This time, he's turning to the great online success story of 2007 - social networking - and hoping that some of its glitter will rub off on his brand.

"We're launching it this month and what we want to do is create a social networking framework and then allow people to populate it with messages of support," he explains. "Instead of invading other networks, why not create your own one and then let people join it? What this means is you only populate with people who are interested."

Like other shrewd social marketers, he's currently dreaming up ways to provide the British public with useful content. He cites The Guardian's recent series of British Army fitness booklets and online content as an example of this strategy. Crucially, he says: "We want to re-engage with the British public, we feel that as result of Iraq, Afghanistan, court marshalling and Deepcut - the Army has had a battering and what it really wants to do is get back in touch with its public."

What Bainbridge really wants is to tell the Army's side of the story. And, in a bid for transparency, he wants it to be told by the soldiers who are already serving in the military. The new social network will host genuine content from soldiers, in an attempt to move away from the barrage of official 'push' information from the Ministry of Defence.

"The social network is designed to warm up the public to having a look at the Army in a different way, through the people who have benefited from military personnel - floods, fire service, aid work, charity work - and all the work they are doing around the world," he says. "We will be producing new advertising to go with the social networking; and we want the network to act as a catalyst for these stories," he explains.

Another project that's been close to his heart of late is the revamped data collection abilities on the main site. As part of the 2007 recruitment push, Bainbridge introduced the online segmentation tool Pathfinder, which enables users to log on and perform a test that delivers a result of one of four 'personality' types. This provides a personalised experience for the user and, at the same time, equips the Army with thousands of detailed psychometric profiles of potential recruits.

Bainbridge has morphed the Army's traditional marketing strategy of 'Your country needs you' into its exact opposite: he wants to flame the fires of those who already show an interest, but would like more detailed and tailored information. "What we're now about is trying to identify the individual and this is the Army's biggest step. It's about tailoring the organisation to you. You don't want to hear about 140 different jobs - you want to hear about the job that's right for you," he explains.

"The whole idea of communications before was to engage with people who were already really up for it - who liked travel and adventure and so on. But society is actually a little bit broader than that. It's not actually just your crazy extroverts who want to join up; there are also people with IT skills and leadership skills. There are lots of job types and our task is to produce the outputs, get the right people into the Army."

Overall, the year of 2008 is set to herald a new era in digital optimisation for the Army. Bainbridge is set to introduce behavioural targeting to the website in the next few months, fuelled by the 300,000 profiles gleaned from the Pathfinder module since April 2007. He will spend up to £2 million of his multi-million pound budget on purely digital initiatives. He wants to "go where the consumer is" - and most of them are on the web.

More than anything, he wants to utilise technology to unearth something far more traditional, "the stuff people don't understand anymore: courage, discipline and moral fibre. This how would I would like to hear people talk about the Army," he says. "It's about a way of life. I want to get the public to understand this - I think a lot of people are probably seeking that somewhere in their lives and aren't managing to find it but wouldn't actually go to the Army to look for it."

Nevertheless, there are a bunch of tough questions waiting to be asked, and in this web 2.0 world, they will be answered somewhere by someone. Bainbridge understandably hopes that they'll be answered on his online social network, and not on the ascerbic pages of media websites.

"In the past three years, the negative effect of the press has been around 30 per cent, so we have to work 30 per cent harder to produce the same results," he says.

Clearly Bainbridge has his own battles ahead of him. It remains to be seen whether web 2.0 can help scrub up the Army's reputation, but this marketing director is going to give it a damn good try.

CV: Mark Bainbridge
1999: Marketing and communications director, British Army
1998: Regional marketing director, British Army
1994: Marketing director, Raleigh International
1989: Marketing and communications manager, Operation Raleigh
1986: Public affairs manager, National Trust
1983: Degree in Humanities, Cardiff University.

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