Brand Health Check: British Army

The war in Iraq and allegations of bullying have left the Army struggling to attract sufficient recruits, writes David Tiltman.

It may be good enough for Princes William and Harry, but joining the Army is proving a turn-off for the rest of Britain's youth. Last week it emerged that the Parachute Regiment is being forced to draft in regular soldiers to cope with a manpower shortage, highlighting the Army's struggle to attract and retain recruits.

Figures from the Army Training and Recruitment Agency (ATRA) make grim reading for the Ministry of Defence. Even though ATRA's targets have been steadily lowered in recent years, it missed its goal by more than 1000 soldiers in 2004/05.

The problem is not confined to the rank-and-file. Despite the high-profile recruitment of the two princes, the officer class is also suffering. Last year the Army launched its first campaign to bring in young officers in a decade.

The Army's appeal has certainly suffered in recent years, its biggest problem being the ongoing conflict in Iraq. The decision to go to war at all was opposed by many in the Army's teenage target group. Since then, claims of prisoner abuse have undermined its reputation for fair play.

There have also been a series of allegations of bullying and suspicious deaths among recruits at Army barracks. And some believe that the merger of historic infantry regiments, particularly in Scotland, has raised questions about the Army as a long-term career choice.

The Army has an annual marketing budget of £11m, and has been following a sophisticated communications strategy for several years. As well as regular TV activity, it has conducted a campaign called 'Camouflage' aimed at 13- to 17-year-olds who have expressed an interest in the armed forces.

This uses a website (www.mycamouflage.co.uk), direct mail and the magazine Army to maintain their interest until they reach recruitment age with a mix of insights into Army life, competitions and, on the website, a special members area offering games and more information.

But the poor recruitment figures suggest that something more is needed.

We asked Will Nicholls, account director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty and formerly a second lieutenant in the Royal Anglian Regiment, and Brian Cooper, creative partner at McCann-Erickson, who served six years as a lieutenant in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, how the Army can overhaul its image and boost recruitment.

The British Army faces a big problem. Young people live in a world of instant gratification, rampant consumerism and rejection of authority. The Army is a world of sacrifice, physical suffering and blind obedience. For potential recruits - young people of school-leaving age - it is an alien and unappealing organisation.

Worse still, popular perceptions of the Army have been tainted by PR fiasco after fiasco. The abuse of prisoners in Iraq as well as claims of bullying and worse at Deepcut and Catterick barracks devalue the Army's valid claim to be the best.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. The Army has much to offer young people adrift in a fast-changing and unstructured world. Army life can offer recruits camaraderie and teamwork, structure, skills training, purpose and, above all, a sense of worth. Every member of the team is critical and, despite civilian beliefs to the contrary, individuals do matter to the Army. When it gets to do its job, the Army makes a difference - something that is important to most people, no matter their walk of life.

- Reposition the Army in line with values of self-worth and belonging.

- Don't rule out history as a potential territory: the Army has a rich heritage for which any brand would kill.

- Understand the role of channels. Leave complicated messages about different roles/corps to narrowcast media.

- In the age of engagement, brands must work hard to get attention. Try developing content - remember Soldier, Soldier?

There used to be a saying when I was an Army officer that those who joined up did so because they lacked the imagination to think of anything else to do with their lives. The Army was, and always will be - career officers excluded - a default job.

However, as our living standards get higher, young people feel the rough and tumble of Army life is too harsh an option. Many members of today's trainer-wearing generation don't even know what it is like to wear a pair of boots.

Added to this there is the relevancy of a job in the Army once a soldier returns to 'civvy street'. What use is a 155mm Artillery Gunner going to be to the modern world of commerce?

Absolutely none, if the truth be known.

Short of press-ganging recruits, the Army needs to present itself in a challenging manner that plays to its strengths: adventure, teamwork, being a member of the most highly professional armed forces in the world, and offering the opportunity to have a very fulfilling career where promotion can be rapid.

- Use bold, challenging advertising that emphasises the core strengths.

- Switch to something more akin to the previous 'Be The Best' or Royal Marines' '99.99% need not apply' campaign, which contrary to initial client doubts, doubled response rates when it first appeared.

- Ensure grass-roots recruitment reflects the ads. It's vital that a person who visits a recruitment office meets someone who speaks the same language as the ads.