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U.S. Army brings back “Be All You Can Be” amid lagging recruitment

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Apr 12, 2023
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Army trainees at a South Carolina base. The service is dealing with a "knowledge and relatability" challenge, Maj. Gen. Alex Fink says. The relatively small veteran population is part of that. Scott Olson/Getty Images

U.S. Army brings back “Be All You Can Be” amid lagging recruitment

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Apr 12, 2023
Army trainees at a South Carolina base. The service is dealing with a "knowledge and relatability" challenge, Maj. Gen. Alex Fink says. The relatively small veteran population is part of that. Scott Olson/Getty Images
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The U.S. Army has a recruitment problem. In 2022, the service missed recruitment goals by 25% — the only armed service to do so. Now, the Army is bringing back a marketing campaign from the ’80s and ’90s in the hope that the rebranding can help bridge the gap.

The Army launched its “Be All You Can Be” campaign in March with a price tag of $117 million. Shortly afterward came the arrest of actor Jonathan Majors, who was featured in two marquee ads. The ads were pulled, and two new ones took their place.

Besides the television spots, the Army is hoping to take advantage of new tech infrastructure known as MarTech, which allows the service to track which marketing efforts actually lead to enlistments. Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, the Army’s chief of enterprise marketing, spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the technology.

Alex Fink: The nirvana within marketing is to be able to actually see a sale and then trace that sale back to a marketing activity. In fact, in 2019, we probably contracted around 120,000 soldiers across all three components, the Army, Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. We can only make an attribution of about 500 of those, so insignificant.

Kai Ryssdal: Wow.

Fink: We’ve made some significant investments over the years. And you know, we’re up around 40% of all enlisted contracts today. We can see what marketing activities that youth who actually signed a contract, what brought them in, what drew them in. And so that has obviously given us great insights into the type of content and the type of media that we use.

Ryssdal: All right. So look, you’ve got all this data. You can do the MarTech and all of that stuff. And yet still, the secretary of the Army said not too long ago, fiscal year ’22, you only met 75% of your recruiting goals. So you’ve got some challenges.

Fink: Right. And it’s a multifaceted challenge for sure. There’s things in the environment that the Army has little control of, there’s things that we have some control of and there’s some things we have a lot of control of. And the things that we have a lot of control of, like our brand and how we go to market, are in that category. And so, this is clearly one of many different things that the Army is trying to do to address the recruiting challenges.

Ryssdal: So here’s the thing you don’t really have control of: the American labor market. When you and I spoke in 2019, the labor market was tight. Here we are three years later, after a huge upheaval in the American economy, the labor market is still tight. How big a problem is that for you?

Fink: It’s always a challenge. A tight labor market, low unemployment always makes it harder to recruit. We could model in the past the effects of unemployment: Unemployment goes up, recruiting goes up. I wouldn’t count on that this time. That is because youth are in a very different place than they have been historically when it comes to any military service, in particular service in the Army.

Ryssdal: So here’s a geopolitical question, sir. And you can take it or you can duck it, but I have to ask you: How much of a factor is it for you, doing what you do at enterprise marketing in the United States Army, that the, the era of forever wars seems to be over? That at the moment, American forces are not being deployed overseas to war zones?

Fink: Right. You know, it’s hard to say that there’s causality there. The fact that we are no longer deploying soldiers on a very regular rotating basis, does that impact propensity to serve? I don’t think we have any evidence to suggest that that is the case. But we see the challenges with military service and youth today have been evolving over decades. And I mean, we could spend all day talking about the various metrics. But there’s, this is a deeper, longer-term issue than just, you know, concluding the wars we had in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ryssdal: Let me actually dig into this a little bit, and obviously it’s only a half-an-hour program so we can’t go all day, but there is a civilian-military divide in this society. And I wonder, to your specific job, how much of a challenge that is for you, that most people don’t know a veteran. That most people don’t know somebody on active duty. That they don’t really understand what that service involves.

Fink: That’s a huge challenge: knowledge and relatability. When you think about where we got our information when I was growing up, we had a relative or someone in the house who had served. And when you look at who serves in the military, we have a ton of children of service members who serve. And this goes across all services, not just the Army. That veteran population, having the smallest veteran population in the history of our country, is huge. The other thing, though, Kai, is the fact that we have the largest multicultural generation of youth in this country. So we have lots and lots of youth who are first- or second-generation Americans. And so they also don’t have that sort of historical tug that perhaps you and I had when we were making a decision to serve.

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