At the start of this year, the British Army and its agency Karmarama revealed its new recruitment campaign. It focuses on a sense of belonging, with outdoor posters that state ‘This is Belonging’, showing the camaraderie and comradeship of life in the army.

This campaign has been featured across the marketing press, with reports concentrating on its use of digital, personalisation of messages and that it taps into the millennial desire to be part of something bigger.

And it’s rubbish.

I don’t normally get too annoyed by ad campaigns, but this one has personal resonance for me. When I’m not being an international brand consultant, I’m also a part-time Army wife. Part-time because being an international brand consultant takes up about 70-80 hours of my time each week, so I squeeze in the bake sales and charity fundraising and curries with the senior officers when I have some spare time on the side.

Now I haven’t spoken to Karmarama, but having done various research projects on millennials, I don’t doubt their insights are solid. Indeed, there has been a slew of reports on the desire of millennials to find work with purpose and a shared identity. It appeals to a fundamental human need and desire to belong, and is something that the army has traditionally excelled in, to the point where returning soldiers struggle with the lack of a sense of community.

Without knowing the data behind this particular strategy, I can’t make a judgment call on the tactics used. But, my frustration is due to the fact that a truly effective campaign MUST reflect the reality of the day-to-day experience you offer. Credibility is gained when your brand represents the interactions people can expect of you. This is the central error the British Army and its agency are making.

I’ve worked with many companies who claim to be customer-centric, but whose marketing teams have never spoken directly to a customer. Or CEOs who claim to support digital transformation, but who refuse to use videoconferencing or support flexible working from home.

Inevitably, their brands ring hollow, because their actions and their claims do not match up.

Marketing Doesn’t Fix Root Problem

The Army has a major problem with morale, and the recruitment statistics speak very baldly. In November 2016, the Army had a -4.3% deficit in the planned number of people needed, an increase from a -4.1% deficit in 2015. The overall size of the Army is shrinking dramatically, and much more than planned redundancies and cuts. The gap between the number of soldiers we have and the number of soldiers we need is growing wider.

There were plans to use reserves to plug the gap. There is bad news there as well. There has been a 19% decrease in the number of people joining the reserves, and a 32% increase in the number of people leaving. Nearly 5,000 people left the reserves from November 2015 – 2016.

A new recruitment campaign will not work if the Army doesn’t fix the issue of retention, and they won’t fix that issue if they don’t address the decline in morale across the Army. At those bake sales and curries I attend, the discussion inevitably turns to leaving plans. “I’m signing up for this masters, because civilians will recognise it”, “I’m doing an MBA in the evenings”, or “I pushed for this posting because I’ll get to work with civvies, and it will make it easier to leave”.

Certainly, there are pockets of the camaraderie and comradeship that Karmarama promise. But it is not a uniform experience, and a new recruit these days will also be exposed to a loss in morale and even depression about the overall direction of the Army.

Brand Promise Must Match Brand Experience

Key parts of the employee value proposition, like the housing benefit, are being changed with the introduction of the New Employment Model. There’s a popular meme at the moment in Army circles – the Ladybird Guide to the New Employment Model, a spoof of the Ladybird Guides for grown-ups. It relates accurately the dim view that many soldiers and officers have of the changes.

It opens with:

“People are the most important asset to Defence.

Except for money.

Obviously.

Money is more important than people. But there’s no need to tell the people that. The New Employment Model helps to keep that secret.”

It continues in a similar down-beat, cynical (and funny) tone for several pages. One says “The offer is very tempting. It looks juicy and tasty, but is actually laced with poison. New recruits think they heard ‘pension’ but it’s actually ‘poison’.”

And this is what lies at the heart of my frustration with the Karmarama campaign. Once those new recruits head into the army, they most definitely see that comradeship. They meet and work with phenomenal people, who are upstanding, forthright, courageous, professional and diligent. But they also see the reality of how they are treated by the Ministry of Defence.

They see the poison, and then they quit.

So fix that, please, British Army. Stop thinking simply about the image of your brand. Stop telling everyone how wonderful it is and actually make the lives of your deserving soldiers and officers better. Reward their dedication by fulfilling your part of the Armed Forces Covenant.

Then by all means have your campaign. It will be much more effective when it is true.

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  1. I have to say an extremely well-written article, not meant to sound condescending in anyway. Fully supportive. I have served in the Army for 32 years as a soldier and now officer for the past 10 years. It has been with fondness, but I am quickly seeing the change and negativity set in. Far too many chiefs and not enough Indians if you catch my drift.