The British Army's recruitment strategy has taken a new turn, with its embrace of interactive and experiential marketing methods. This fresh approach is embodied in its ‘Start Thinking Soldier' (STS) campaign, and high-tech Army Show Rooms that allow potential recruits to immerse themselves in the reality of what it is like to be a soldier.
Similar methods have been employed by the US armed forces for some time. The Army Experience Center, for example, which opened last year in Philadelphia, allows children over the age of 13 to try out Humvee and Apache simulators. According to insiders, members of the British Army witnessed such approaches at first hand on a recent visit Stateside, and were impressed. Experiences in this mould are now available in the Show Rooms.
The British Army acknowledges that it keeps an eye on the recruitment tactics adopted by other forces, but says it must ensure that its approach is suitable for a UK audience. Colin Cook, marketing director for the Army, says: ‘STS and the Army Show Rooms do not attempt to re-enact warfare. They simply offer the opportunity to find out more about the kind of skills that would be useful for a career in the Army.' He adds that he wants everyone from the age of ‘nine to 90' to visit the Show Rooms, located in London's Dalston and Hounslow.
Meanwhile, the STS TV ad prompts viewers to access further content online. ‘The online experience and level of personal interaction is above and beyond anything the Army has ever done before,' says Cook. ‘In past campaigns, you may have gone online to see the end of an ad, for example. But with STS, arriving online marks the beginning of your personal journey.'
Kate Coleman is an account director at Publicis Modem, the agency that created the online platform for STS. She says that although the campaign does not feature explicitly violent images, it creates a truthful picture for users because it is based on real situations. ‘It's an element of "try before you buy" in a way, and we want people to get an idea of what it's like being a soldier,' she says. ‘Throughout the site there are links to appropriate roles, jobs and an online chat forum where you can talk to real soldiers.'
The campaign has not gone without its share of controversy and the Show Rooms in particular have attracted the attention of anti-war protest groups. ‘There's a point of view that says for young people, [the Army] is a career choice,' says Jim Prior, chief executive of branding agency The Partners. ‘You could argue that by being set up in deprived areas, it offers greater opportunity for the people living there. But the reality is that people get killed, and war will always cloud people's opinion of the marketing.'
While the Army has started to adopt some of the techniques used in the US, it is unlikely that the more gung-ho tactics employed across the Atlantic will make a similar transition. These include the American Army National Guard's sponsorship of World Wrestling Entertainment's premier annual event, WrestleMania.
However, the Army continues to face significant challenges in reaching the 15,000 new soldiers it needs to enlist each year. It has consistently failed to meet this target, a situation complicated by the UK's involvement in major operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army clearly hopes that the introduction of these new experiential methods and the current review of its recruitment advertising account will help it to address these difficulties.