Remember the catchy phrase “Be All You Can Be,” which reinvigorated the Army’s brand in the 1980s and 1990s? If you are a member of Gen Z, it might not sound familiar at all, but it soon will. The historic branding showcased the Army’s sense of purpose, camaraderie, and community. The campaign increased the number and quality of Army recruits during the two decades the commercials ran on television. Recently, Major General Alex Fink, chief of the Army Enterprise Marketing Office, acknowledged the Army will return to the iconic slogan. The timing of returning to the successful pitch is ideal as the Army seeks to recover from falling short of its recruiting goals by 25 percent—fifteen thousand soldiers—last year.
Recruiting challenges are not new to the Army. Over the last five decades, the Army’s ability to meet its recruiting goals has ebbed and flowed as economic, societal, and political factors shape America’s perception of the military and the attractiveness of military service. It is wise for the Army to revisit solutions like previous branding campaigns, but it will also need to adapt to the current situation with innovative alternatives. The recruiting landscape has changed significantly in the last two decades: advertising has shifted to social media, the pandemic disrupted the American education system, the competitive employer landscape offers increased compensation and remote work to many, companies are more invested in their employer brands, and trust and confidence in the US military is declining.
Although military recruiting is a persistent challenge, the current state is particularly dire. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth acknowledged that fiscal year 2022 was the most challenging recruiting year since 1973. The size of the active duty Army is the smallest it has been since 1940, just before the United States entered World War II. The service’s authorized end strength has already been dramatically reduced. Adding such heavy recruitment shortfalls as the Army is experiencing, on top of these planned reductions, raises the specter of, in the event of war, being forced to consider past alternatives like a draft or lowering recruiting standards.
Recognizing the recruiting crisis, Secretary Wormuth established a recruiting and retention task force led by Major General Deb Kotulich. The task force works closely with stakeholders including the US Army G1, US Army Recruiting Command, US Army Training and Doctrine Command, and the Army Enterprise Marketing Office. The task force will be the interface between these Army stakeholders and will leverage Army Reserve and Army National Guard resources, such as by mobilizing reservists from the 75th Innovation Command with industry experience in recruiting advertising and employer branding. The task force is the vehicle to assess and triage strategy considerations for Army senior leadership.
As a soldier who worked recently with the task force but whose civilian professional expertise is in sales and branding, I agree that this is an urgent problem that needs innovative solutions. The Army will need to take to risks, but calculated ones, in modernizing its approach, like empowering its service members differently and adopting industry best practices to showcase the competitive advantages of the Army.
Reaching a Broader Audience
I joined the military a few years after my brother. My story is not unique. According to the chief of staff of the Army, 83 percent of service members have at least one family member that served in the armed forces. Education opportunities, health care, retirement benefits, and a sense of purpose are many reasons those who are informed about the military choose to serve. This positive affinity for the Army is aligned with the encouraging statistic that the Army continues to meet and exceed its retention goals.
However, the military cannot solely rely on those with this propensity to serve. The Army must reach new audiences. In the past two decades, the Army created more recruiting opportunities with policy changes such as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allowing women into the combat arms. An area of opportunity now is targeting nontraditional candidates outside the usual Army demographics—mainly seventeen- to twenty-four-year-olds. Many corporate programs such as those of Goldman Sachs, Amazon, Deloitte, and Accenture actively recruit from populations with nontraditional backgrounds. These include individuals who took a break from working for caregiving reasons or want to have a career pivot later in life. These opportunities are dubbed “returnships,” matching those with maturity and aptitude with an opportunity to excel. The maximum age to enlist in the Army is thirty-five. Creating and recruiting for opportunities for an older and more experienced demographic may increase recruits.
Telling the Army Story
Marketing is part of the equation, but unfortunately, advertising that worked in the 1980s and 1990s did so because captive audiences watched television. Today the average American spends almost five hundred minutes a day on digital media. As a result, the Army needs to meet potential recruits where they are—like through their social media feeds. Interestingly from an employer branding perspective, the Army has a competitive advantage it is not leveraging fully. Many currently serving soldiers—such as Jessica Burch and Teamswartz—are already independent influencers documenting and chronicling their professional and personal lives.
Influencers have incredible reach, but critically, whether macro, micro, or nano influencers, they also have incredible engagement with their audiences. Many influencers have follower composition that reflects their own demographic, which can be a precise way to target certain audiences. For instance, the Navy recently sponsored Lieutenant Kellie Sbrocchi to document a day in the life of a sailor at the Army-Navy football game. Users who might follow her for nonmilitary reasons are now being exposed passively to content about what life in the Navy is like. In this example, her content is familiarizing possible recruits to the idea and lifestyle of the Navy before ever interacting with a recruiter.
Both this reach and this engagement would be costly if the Army were to purchase it with advertising. Leveraging existing Army influencers could be cost-effective and potentially faster than traditional media advertising. Organic reach is more authentic and can lend a credible, human voice dispelling preconceived notions about what life in the Army is like, highlighting the opportunities that comes with Army service, and generally offering an honest, compelling, and rare glimpse behind the curtain of military service. Efforts to scale brand ambassadors need to be accelerated, and responsible public affairs guidelines must be taught early in their careers. Clear, defined standards and frequently updated guidelines around the type of content and what platforms are authorized will empower those who want to act responsibly.
Unfortunately, the rise of sexual assaults in the military, suicides, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the perception of political involvement by the military in the last two decades, are factors that, I suspect, inject hesitation in possible recruits. Vicariously experiencing military life through the lens of social media could help dispel some of the negative stereotyping that might be preventing recruits and their immediate support network from accepting military service. Encouraging soldiers to use social media responsibly to explain their transformations could have immediate, compounding effects on recruiting.
The Army can give influencers even more access to content or create a culture where soldiers are inclined to share. The hero’s journey is the story template of classics across the full spectrum of narrative art, from mythical tales to Hollywood movies. The premise of a hero who leaves everyday life to navigate an unfamiliar world and endures a personal metamorphosis—this is what someone joining the Army can expect. In my military career I have met countless soldiers whose lives reflect this plotline.
Soldiers have proven they can act responsibly, advocating for the Army’s brand and respecting operational security. If we trust service members with costly weapons, ammunition, and operational security information, we should be able to trust them to use their voices to tell the Army story. The Army’s most important resource is its people, and they can help reshape the narrative and humanize the experience of being a soldier.
Part of being an ambassador for the Army is not just storytelling but also sponsorship. While transitioning to the corporate sector, I received competing offers from two major technology companies. A recruiter from one of those companies introduced me to former military service members at the company who acted as informal mentors during my decision-making process. I could ask questions that I did not feel comfortable asking my recruiter and saw myself in the woman mentor who volunteered to assist me. The opportunity to connect with someone at the organization was one of the compelling factors in my decision to accept employment. Recruiters in corporations leverage employee ambassadors to help candidates navigate their decisions.
Similarly, the military can consider setting up a buddy program that recruiters can leverage. Talented young soldiers who want to earn promotion points can volunteer as points of contact for recruits who have questions about a particular military occupational specialty or life in the Army. Platforms like Veterati in the civilian sector allow mentees and mentors to connect without exchanging their private information and accommodating their schedules. Early career soldiers could gain a secondary skill for excelling at leadership on social media or virtual mentoring. These preliminary skills could help in identifying future recruiters.
Recruiters are in many ways salespeople and the skills gained are highly transferrable to the civilian sector. Shifting the perception of recruiting so it is seen as a role that will allow soldiers to not only help the Army but invest in their post-military careers by developing business acumen and experience is an important step in rebranding the position.
Invest in the Careers of Those Who Recruit
Creating a pipeline of soldiers who interact with US Army Recruiting Command throughout their careers by being social media ambassadors or who act as virtual mentors can also help identify talent that would excel at recruiting. Soldiers with a natural entrepreneurial spirit or who envision a career in human resources or sales after departing the military could self-identify by working with Recruiting Command before committing to being a recruiter. Recruiting is a public-facing role that requires a unique skill set—the abilities to communicate effectively, build rapport, and manage multiple complex relationships simultaneously. Part of building an effective recruiting force will be identifying talented individuals who are willing to be trained but also have a desire to serve in that capacity, similar to the way certain specialized units, like the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment or the 528th Sustainment Brigade, recruit within the Army for unique skill sets.
To elevate the brand of recruiting internally and thereby attract and retain top recruiters, the Army can also consider creating more defined career paths, such as allowing warrant officers. Warrant officers in other military occupational specialties create opportunities for technical expertise and stability in a career field. For top-performing noncommissioned officers in recruiting, a warrant officer path could be the career progression opportunity that is currently missing.
Currently, the chief of staff of the Army is investing in the officer corps with United States Army Recruiting Scholars Program that will allow junior military officers to attend top-tier graduate programs and then lead recruiting commands. Elevating command of recruiting units with prestigious educational opportunities will attract high performers in the way that similar opportunities presented to those selected for the US Army Congressional Fellowship, White House Fellowship, or Joint Chiefs of Staff Internship programs do.
Similar opportunities could be considered for enlisted members. Also, the training with industry program is available to competitive commissioned and noncommissioned officers to learn best practices from industry. This could be expanded to allow recruiters developmental opportunities at companies that excel in talent attraction and employer branding. During my tenure at LinkedIn, I advised hundreds of clients in recruiting, and the best recruiters were those with a consultative mindset instead of a transactional one focused on selling. The Army can emulate corporate best practices and allow soldiers to develop their professional networks in and out of the military. Doing so ensures recruiters are mindful of current best practices and develop empathy for recruits’ choices in the employment landscape.
Many government and corporate entities with desirable employer brands, like NASA, Cisco, and Zappos, invest strongly in their brands because it shifts their recruiting strategy from being proactive to reactive to candidates. It can take a long time to transform an employer brand—months or even years. Unfortunately, time is not a luxury the Army can afford. The recruiting strategies that got the Army to where it is today are not the strategies that will get the Army to where it needs to be in the future. A host of factors have changed the recruiting landscape over the last decade—the pandemic, changes in the economy, and the rise of remote work, to isolate a few. However, those are external factors that the Army cannot influence. The Army can only influence how it internally plans and conducts its recruiting activities and presents itself to prospective employees. Fortunately, the Army has competitive advantages that other employers cannot compete with—from benefits to the sense of purpose, camaraderie, and community Army service affords. It also has thousands of soldiers who can potentially amplify that message to their communities and beyond. Bringing back “Be All You Can Be” is an important step and a signal of the Army’s commitment to addressing the recruitment crisis. Leveraging its unique advantages and taking advantage of its greatest resource—its people—are the keys to fully doing so, and to optimizing a strategy for today’s recruiting landscape.
Laura Keenan is a lieutenant colonel in the District of Columbia Army National Guard. In her civilian career, she has worked at LinkedIn for almost six years in sales and branding. She is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and a distinguished graduate of the National War College. She has been published by the Modern War Institute, RealClearDefense, and the Strategy Bridge.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the Army National Guard.
Image credit: Kelly Morris, US Army