Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Although British and American societies differ in some ways, in terms of the contemporary recruiting environment, our armies face almost identical challenges: most 17- to 24-year-olds have little or no connection with the military; the strength of the national economies makes the civilian workplace attractive and consequently, unemployment is low; and large proportions of the target audience are ineligible for military service for a number of policy reasons, mainly medical and disciplinary prerequisites.

In 2012, the British Army reviewed its approach to recruiting and entered into a partnership with Capita PLC, a public- and private-sector service provider well-known in the U.K. Since then, uniformed recruiters have continued to provide the front-of-house “attract” function, while civilian Capita staff have led delivery of behind-the-scenes processes.


(Credit: Posters Courtesy of British Army)

This has enabled uniformed recruiters to focus on what they do best—attract potential recruits—while allowing others to return to their Field Army units, thus improving readiness.

Controversial Approach

After a number of lean recruiting years, during which the British Army has fallen short of its annual targets, a new recruiting campaign is underway in the U.K. This involves a different and, at times, controversial marketing approach. The campaign is a three-year effort featuring a series of annual marketing approaches all nested within, and supporting, the overall theme of “This is Belonging.” The campaign has moved away from the traditional “warrior” approach in which advertisements prioritized showing soldiers in uniform and emphasized the Army’s combat role.

Market research indicated these ads did little to influence the kind of people who were highly likely to join anyway (known as “core intenders”) and led to a perception among many young adults that the goal of joining and passing initial training was unattainable.

Addressing this perception directly, the “This is Belonging” campaign developed the following themes:

  • Year 1 (2017)—“Find Belonging”: The first-year aim was to highlight the emotional rewards of service and emphasize that being a soldier is an attainable goal. A series of video ads launched on social media and TV.
  • Year 2 (2018)—“Someone Like Me Can Fit In”: Last year, a series of ads, made available on major social media platforms, developed the theme. These ads highlighted the diversity of soldiers—their different ethnic, religious, gender and sexual-orientation backgrounds—and emphasized how inclusive the British Army is.
  • Year 3 (2019)—“Your Army Needs You”: This year, the campaign is being delivered through a series of videos and posters, the latter based on the famous Field Marshal Lord Kitchener “Your Country Needs You” posters of World War I. These highlight the potential the Army sees in groups of Generation Z adults. Each ad identifies Generation Z groups and addresses negative stereotypes that exist in wider society to show how perceived weaknesses are beneficial to the Army. The message is that these young adults have skills that the Army recognizes and values, and the Army can give them a sense of purpose.

Early Success

Released in early January, the most recent ads aimed to be deliberately provocative in order to attract interest and generate debate. Learning from the previous year’s experience, senior recruiting staff invited key influencers to attend a briefing to explain the rationale behind the ads; all either veterans or still serving, including Olympic gold-medal winning athletes, TV personalities and authors. With the opportunity to hear about the ads before they launched, influencers have been able to provide supporting messages within their communities about the campaign. The aim of provoking debate has undoubtedly been met.


(Credit: Posters Courtesy of British Army)

Within two days of launch, the ads were picked up by national press across the U.K. and in the U.S. and Australia. British veterans reacted on social media, with a majority opposed to the idea of such a “soft” approach to marketing. However, the ads have clearly resonated with the target audience: The number of applications in an average January has historically been about 6,000; this year, the British Army received 10,000. It is too early to claim success, but early indicators are positive. The increase in applicants must be tracked closely to monitor how it translates into both numbers and quality.

The marketing campaign has been a major focus of activity but by no means the only one. The British Army regularly reviews its processes and methods in order to identify where more novel approaches could bring about improvements. Some of the most recent initiatives include the following:

  • Know your target audience. Market research analysis continues to be an area of focus. Just like our U.S. Army counterparts, British Army recruiters recognize the importance of engaging with other groups in addition to the 17- to 24-year-old target audience, such as parents and other older influencers. In the information era of web connectivity and social media, it has been surprising, but extremely important, to find that certain parts of the U.K. are “digitally poor,” i.e., they have no or limited access to the internet or cellphones. Such poverty exists in certain neighborhoods in some cities across the country. Many of the target audience in these areas would historically have tended toward military service but are less able to connect with the Army’s messaging. Albeit somewhat unexpected, this finding has highlighted the enduring requirement for, and importance of, analog marketing methods in addition to digital ones.
  • “Upstream” nurturing. Corporal instructors, the British equivalent of drill sergeants, have also contributed to our recruiting effort by reaching out to successful applicants and creating WhatsApp groups for them before their arrival date. This innovative method has reduced the fear factor for future recruit soldiers, and “drift”—the failure of successful applicants to arrive for initial training— has fallen from 3%–5% to 1%.
  • Reducing “time of flight.” The British Army is also working hard to reduce the time between the moment someone applies online and the point at which they are provided their start date for basic training, similar to signing the contract in the U.S. Army. A pilot program that began in August 2018 has pared back the “time of flight” by conducting elements of the recruiting process concurrently rather than sequentially; this has achieved about a 50% reduction in time of flight.

Recruiting is an essential activity for any army. The British Army is modernizing its approach in several ways and early signs are positive.

Although British and U.S. societies differ in some ways, our armies have a huge amount in common, including the challenges of contemporary recruiting. Informed by market research, the British Army is focusing its efforts away from traditional “core intenders” to place an emphasis on young adults who might not have been attracted by the warrior recruiting approach of the past.

We will keep our U.S. Army recruiting counterparts closely informed as our initiatives progress, and we will continue to share our ideas into the future as the recruiting environment adapts to our ever-changing societies.