Insight & strategy

16 January 2020

Why Army recruitment ads chase snowflakes not thrill-seekers 

How the British Army transformed its communication strategy to reach a record-breaking number of applications in a single day

The British Army had a problem: with recruitment figures at an all time low, it had to appeal to a broader range of young adults who hadn’t considered the armed forces as a career option before.

Since 2017, with the help of London-based creative agency Karmarama, the British Army decided to focus on a different side of Army life that isn’t about guns, tanks, aggression and fortitude.

Instead, the British Army launched This is Belonging, an integrated campaign to show the friendship and comradery that comes from being part of the armed service.

In 2018, the Expressing my Emotions campaign focused on challenging the stereotypes of who belongs in the British Army by dramatising how emotion affects everyone.

In 2019, the controversial Snowflake campaign resulted in the highest number of recruits in ten years by targeting ‘selfie-addicts’ and ‘binge gamers’, showing how every individual has the potential to do something that matters.

The British Army’s latest recruitment campaign, Army Confidence Lasts a Lifetime, is designed to show how joining the Army allows young people to build up a sense of self-confidence that lasts longer than short-term pleasures.

According to the press release, 80% of Gen Z believe that they could achieve more in life with a stronger sense of self-confidence and that it’s harder to find long-lasting confidence in today’s society.

To address this, the British Army rolled out posters that identify moments where short-term confidence can be achieved and how a career in the armed forces will give you confidence forever. For example, a picture of a beer is accompanied by the caption ‘Confidence can last for the night or it can last a lifetime’.

This was then followed by a 60-second television commercial that followed a metaphorical journey of a soldier being distracted by the likes of fast fashion, intensive gym sessions and a night out before deciding to carry on.

The campaign is also supported by radio, digital and short social media clips that show how confidence can be acquired when you join the British Army.

Results / According to the agency, in 2017, there was a 31% year-on-year increase in regular soldier applications and a 48% increase in reserve applications; in 2018, applications reached a 5-year high. Following the 2019 campaign, there was a 71% year-on-year increase in applications resulting in the highest number of recruits in 10 years with 95,000 applications delivered within nine months. Additionally, 1.56 million people visited the Army jobs website in January 2019, a 93% increase in comparison to January 2018. One week after the launch of the 2020 campaign, the record was broken for the highest number of applications to join the Army in a single day.

Additionally, the brand claims that total interest amongst young people increased by 4%, belief that the Army has something to offer increased by 10% and belief that the Army is modern and relevant increased by 9% between December 2016 and September 2019.

Contagious caught up with Rhonwen Lally, a senior planner at Karmarama, and Adam Kean, the executive creative director behind the campaign, to find out why the British Army changed its communication strategy and how it has resulted in long-term effectiveness.

Can you please give me an overview of the army’s previous recruitment campaigns and how these have evolved over the past few years?

Rhonwen Lally: Historically and traditionally, the Army has shown adventure, adrenaline and action in their advertising. That has appealed to a specific group of people who have a drive for that adrenaline and that front-line action, that’s been the base of Army recruitment campaigns. In more recent years, there have also been campaigns that have shown things like skills and career benefits that the Army can offer people today.

When we started working on the Army a few years ago, we realised that it wouldn’t be enough to just speak about action if we wanted to reach the targets that they had. Quite simply put, there’s not enough of those front-line action seekers in the pool of young people that they are trying to recruit. What we needed to do at a core task level was make the Army appeal to a broader group of people who didn’t see the Army as something that was their calling and or as something that they necessarily wanted to do. Essentially, we needed to make the Army appeal to a much larger range of young people and make going into the Army stand out against all of the other armed forces and career options that these young people had.

The messages around skills and career wouldn’t be enough to achieve this because those are the things that other recruitment brands and other armed forces are offering; we wanted to shift away from that.

Did you receive a brief for the 2020 campaign? If so, please explain this brief – what was the challenge? What were the key business objectives?

Lally: They give us a brief in the sense that they have very specific targets for applications so there is a really clear objective at the heart of it all. They get set the number that needs to be achieved in terms of applications by the Government and then that comes to us. That target has increased each year that we’ve worked with them so far, so the challenge gets bigger. They also help us to define the core challenges that are happening for their audience and amongst society. Generally, it’s a combination of input from ourselves, media communications and the client to find out what the challenges are this year and what the strategic approach will be to that.

What challenges did you identify this year?

Lally: There’s a number of macro societal challenges that we have to continue to tackle. One is that in an ageing population, the pool of young people that we are recruiting from is in decline. The second one is that not many people today know someone in the Army, so they don’t have that natural advocate that’s close to them that will help them see the reality of the Army. The other key thing that we were trying to tackle this year is that employment rates in the country are the highest that they’ve been since the 1970s which is a really positive thing, but it also means that there’s more competition from all the other employers. What we’re trying to do is position the Army in a way that shows benefits and a side to that career that you just can’t find in any other career out there.

Who is the brand’s target audience? Has this changed or remained consistent over the past few years?

Lally: The target audience for this brand is really broad and has been consistent for years and years. They want to reach 18- to 24-year-olds for regular soldiers and then up to 35-year-olds for reserves. The change that has been made is an attitudinal shift in terms of who we are speaking to. It’s no longer just about those front-line action seekers and the people who might have always seen the Army as something that they’d like to do. We’re focusing on people who haven’t considered the Army as an option before.

Adam Kean: A good way of thinking about it is that there are a group of people who have family in the Army and they always tend to think of it as an option. They are predisposed towards it and then there are people who are into the idea of running around shooting weapons, but the Army has very aggressive recruitment targets and every year we start from zero. They need a massive new influx of people because soldiers are always leaving at the other end. We would never hit the targets that they set if we just got the people who are predisposed towards it, so we have to find people who haven’t considered it yet.

We looked at who those people might be and what’s stopping them from joining the Army. Then we looked at what the Army can offer that hasn’t been used as much as it should have been before. For example, things like the idea of belonging and camaraderie which is something that we hit on early on as being an absolute core thing that the Army can offer that no other job can. It’s about trying to find a way to triangulate those two things: what the army can offer that’s unique and what people in society, especially young people, want and need in the cultural context of 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

What was the insight behind the idea?

Lally: The insight came from speaking to serving soldiers when we asked them about how they had developed and changed through their time in the Army. Last year, we asked them about how their potential was unlocked but this year we wanted to find out about how they had changed and developed. Oddly enough what they said wasn’t about fitness or discipline and the things that you would expect; they told us about how their confidence had changed as a result of their experiences in the Army. This shift in mindset might seem small, but actually they talked about how it was a huge transformation in the way that they saw themselves, in the way that they saw what they could do and that it was something which then unlocked the amazing achievements that they reached in the Army.

Kean: When you meet Army people, there’s something about them. There’s a way that they carry themselves, there’s a way that they talk. It’s never arrogance, but there’s a definite self-belief, there’s a confidence about them that’s in their body language. We talked about that and then about the idea that society in general has a certain anxiety about young people who are wondering if they have that self-belief. People always talk about the physical confidence and fitness rather than the mental side and we felt we could tap into that.

Did you do any more research other than speaking to soldiers to help inform the direction of the campaign?

Lally: This year there were interviews with serving soldiers, but we also did a set of ethnography with serving soldiers to really get to the heart of Army experiences and what Army confidence means. As well as that, we did ethnography with the target audience to understand their lives and their world. There’s quite a lot of psychological and academic literature that we explored, as well as observing broader cultural trends and news trends through desk research to try and understand what is going on in society and in the world right now that links to this.

Kean: The one thing that stands out to me was when we were talking to a young woman in the Army who said that when she first started her training she could barely hold her head up, but by the end she was walking to the front, talking to everyone and standing up in the meetings. It’s anecdotal, but it builds up. It’s like any kind of cathartic process, they change as they are going through this experience.

It gets even bigger when you talk to people who have been in the Army for 10 years and explore what they were like at 17- to 18-years-old; they’re a completely different person in so many ways. It’s then about trying to find out how we can dramatise that in an interesting way without just saying that the Army are great.

Things like drugs, drink and fashion are fun, but they don’t last for very long. A night out can be fantastic and drugs can be great in one way, fashion in another, but nothing lasts. Will it be there for 10 years? We didn’t want to attack that, but we wanted to show that there’s something which is more long lasting and that’s proven under pressure. Then we put the two together which led to quite an interesting executional idea where soldiers are actually dealing with the devils on their shoulders and the temptations to do something easier, but not as long lasting or as worthwhile.

What do you think has been the most effective recruitment campaign to-date and why?

Lally: From what we’ve seen in the last few years, there was a big increase in applications when we introduced the Belonging campaign in 2017; the applications increased for regular soldiers by 38% between 2016 and 2017. Every year since then, we’ve built on that core idea and the results have been stronger and stronger each year.

In 2018, the application results increased to a five-year high and the campaign in 2019 broke recruitment records with the highest number of soldiers joining basic training than in the previous ten years. That’s to do with what is happening at the top end of the advertising funnel, but it’s also to do with work that Capita [the Army’s recruitment company] and the Army are doing with the bottom end of the funnel in terms of how long it takes people to get from application to training. Previously, that’s been a really long time, but in the last year or so they’ve reduced that time drastically which has made a difference to how many people are turning up at training.

Kean: It’s very much a recruitment and numbers based thing, but it does take a long time to join the Army. You can apply to join the Army, but then actually getting in takes a number of months. In fact, over half a year. There’s a lot of opportunity to drop out and there’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong in that process. Our main task is to get applications up – the other bit is less in our control and therefore you get these disconnects between headlines in the newspapers saying that the Army is reducing, while for us the applications are massively up.

What we’ve found is that there are two bits to our job: one is to create a massive amount of noise, then there’s a whole load of stuff that you don’t see that’s very targeted and very specific and very much on social – all the stuff that we need to do over the year to keep that process going so that the provocation doesn’t tail off. It’s quite a complicated customer journey, which isn’t the TV and mass media stuff, we do a hell of a lot of things in all sorts of different media.

If we’re offending Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail or Piers Morgan etc. then I’m not too worried

Adam Kean, Karmarama

The January 2019 ‘Snowflake’ recruitment campaign was met with heavy controversy for trying to recruit ‘selfie addicts’ and ‘me, me, me millennials’. Was that a concern for the latest campaign?

Kean: We’re not afraid of backlash. In fact, the 2019 campaign case study started by saying that ‘we offended all the right kind of people’. If we’re offending Nigel Farage (anti-European Union British politician), the Daily Mail or Piers Morgan (a frequently disgruntled media personality) etc. then I’m not too worried, we slightly wear that as a badge of honour. We’re not doing it for the sake of it, but it’s not unintentional either. We’re there to stand for something and say that the Army believes in itself. When we presented this to the Army and told them that we would like to do this campaign to say that young people may appear like snowflakes but that we think that’s compassion, they said that it was exactly how they see them. They do believe in young people – there’s something very touching about that.

Things like drugs, drink and fashion are fun, but they don’t last for very long

Adam Kean, Karmarama

How did the creative idea for the 2020 recruitment campaign come about and why did you decide to execute it in that way?

Kean: We had three ideas on the table that we were looking at. However, this idea came from the notion that the confidence that you get from a quick hit is like snake oil: it’s selling you something that will disappear and make you fall. We wanted to try and dramatise that and we thought the best way of doing so was to show someone who was in a metaphorical Army situation but had the devil appearing on his shoulder. It was intended to represent the question that people in the Army might ask themselves about how much easier it would be to go back to their old ways, but actually the Army is something that is worthwhile and will last a lifetime.

We then decided that we needed different executions of that same idea through posters, radio etc. which are all working in similar ways – they’re all trying to find out what the core moment of tipping into confidence in the Army is. Then we thought we needed to do some that were talking about the Army itself and what those moments might be – a moment in the Army when you repeat things and it suddenly becomes the norm to lead to your growing confidence. All of those 10-second vignette videos came from specific conversations with Army people when we asked them what that moment was where they felt more confident and they realised that it was going to be a long lasting kind of confidence.

It’s really easy with campaigns to get caught in ideas that feel comfortable, but that have been done before and don’t really stand out

Rhonwen Lally, Karmarama

What challenges did you face along the way with the campaign and how did you overcome them?

Lally: We do seek to do work that’s going to take a stand, make a statement and make a bold point about the Army. With any client that we work on, with that kind of work there’s always the challenge of making sure that your client feels comfortable and that everyone wants to make that statement. However, the specific challenge with the Army is that it’s a huge organisation with massive levels of seniority that we need to present to and we need to get all approval on our ideas.

Essentially, these campaigns go up to cabinet level. So, the level and seniority and the number of stakeholders is one of the challenges that we have. The way that we try to navigate that is by working closely with Capita and the Army to explain the rational and the creative work in a fair amount of detail to each level that we need to and make sure that people understand what we’ve done and why we’re doing it.

The other challenge is in launching campaigns that make a bold statement, we know that a debate will start in the media and in the public when it launches. The way that we prepare for that is to make sure that the wider Army, as well as a set of Army influencers who are big personalities on the scene, commenting about Army issues, were briefed on the campaign before it launched. That means that when it launches, they have the understanding to go into media conversations and discuss what we’re doing and how to give a positive side to the debate that’s happening.

Kean: That’s been a massive change over the past five years, we’ve learnt how to do that. It’s really important because one of the main things that we need to get across to people in the Army is that this work isn’t intended for them. It’s intended for people who don’t know about the Army yet. A lot of people will ask what is has to do with them and the answer is nothing, they’ve been through the process. Before, people just put the stuff out and hoped that they liked it. Now, we spend lots of time not only talking to the top generals, but also talking to the sergeant majors and the people in the Army to explain to them why we do it.

Can you tell me a bit about the media plan that you had in place?

Kean: It’s all about making a big splash early on in January and then throughout the year by targeting people on social and all sorts of digital display. It’s all data driven and done in different bits of the year which are relevant to the times that people start to assess their careers. January is a classic time when people start to think about a new job, but there are other similar times of the year, like during exam season for students.

Recently, we’ve seen the likes of the US Navy moving away from traditional forms of advertising like TV, radio and print towards the likes of esports in an effort to reach a young adult audience. Why did you decide to deliver this campaign with more traditional media formats and do you have any plans to evolve this going forwards?

Lally: The stuff that launches at the beginning of the year is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what goes out throughout the course of the year. There’s a strong assumption and narrative that young people don’t watch TV anymore and that everything is online, and while we do see that the places people consume video content is shifting, there’s still a big need for pieces of video content to get that mass reach that we need. However, this does work as a fully integrated campaign through the year. We’ve got social, radio, digital audio, podcasts, digital display search, we’ve got partnerships with news brands like UNILAD and the Army do have presence at esports events as well as careers fairs, then there’s the PR, CRM, YouTube etc. Whilst there is a lot of traditional media, there’s a huge amount of non-traditional media too.

What are the rules and regulations around army recruitment campaigns?

Lally: None that are different to our other clients, it’s just the universal industry standard. There are specific rules about age groups that you can target, but other than that it’s the same.

Kean: The Army and Capita are very receptive to anything that will create a provocation. They’re very happy for us to talk about stuff that other clients might find controversial. They’re secure in their belief of themselves; they believe that the Army is a great thing and does have a lot to offer. As a result, they’re very open to creating a strong position for themselves. This year is a really good example of us setting out to create a competitive positioning by saying it’s not just about getting confidence in the Army, it’s that you get confidence beyond any other type of job. We’re not just against the other armed services, we’re trying to be the best employer in the United Kingdom out of everyone for young people.

Since the launch of the 2017 ‘This is Belonging’ campaign, there has been a shift in the army’s communication strategy towards a more emotional, human tone. Why do you think that this strategy has been more effective than previous tactics?

Lally: In the past, the advertising was playing back to people what they knew and thought about the Army already. Focusing on the action and adventure is something that people already know and that has created a kind of khaki-blindness for this type of advertising; they just ignored it and glazed over at that point. The big shift that we’ve made and what each campaign has done for the last four years is show a different side to Army life that people haven’t seen before. That has made this broader group take notice of Army advertising again and reframe how they’d previously seen it.

Kean: We don’t avoid the khaki stuff, but we put it in a much broader context. If you talk to the Army, they will say that they love a specific tank or they love a certain gun, but what they really talk about when they’ve had a couple of drinks is that what’s amazing is the comradery; that feeling of being part of an unbreakable chain of people that you can all rely on is such a profound part of what humans want.

We have it in our families and we have it in our friendships, but it’s something that starts to break when you’re 18 years old and you start to move from one bit of your life to another – it’s a very dangerous time. It’s why people end up loving sport because that gives them a sense of belonging, or they end up in gangs at the other extreme. People need something to belong to and believe in. If you’re leaving your parents and your family, it’s a time when you desire it and a lot of people find it in the Army. That’s why a lot of people talk about the Army and say that it saved their life, it’s something they needed because they were going in the wrong direction.

Can you tell me a bit about the results that you’ve seen from the campaign and how you’re measuring them?

Lally: There’s one figure that can be shared at the moment and that’s that four days after the campaign launched in January, there were the highest number of applications in Capita’s records

Kean: One thing that I’m proud of is the fact that we’ve managed to convince LinkedIn to put Army confidence down as a skill that people can add to their profile. After all of these years, it’s finally an attribute that people recognise as unique to the Army.

How does this build on the Army’s long-term recruitment strategy?

Lally: It’s building on the core brief and the core strategy to show a broader audience of people how the Army can change their life for the better by revealing surprising emotional benefits in the Army that they can’t find elsewhere. It’s doing that by building on and reinforcing this core belonging platform to show people what being part of the Army can mean for them.

What has been your single greatest learning from the campaign?

Kean: Talking to the Army internally about the new campaign was a massive learning and something that we’ll definitely carry on. We don’t treat it like an armed service recruitment campaign, we’re trying to say that the Army is one of the most progressive employers in Britain and that’s a big thing. It’s a huge ambition to have and it changes the way that you do the work. As advertisers, we have to understand and respect how young people’s lives are changing and the kind of pressures that are on them as much as possible.

Lally: I’d add to that by saying that the power of standing for something, making a statement and going beyond what the category conventions are, which is a challenging thing to do, can be worth it and powerful. It’s really easy with campaigns to get caught in ideas that feel comfortable, but that have been done before and don’t really stand out. What we seek to do is break through that and make a statement about a brand that also has relevance in culture so that you can take your communications beyond paid advertising and bring it into earned media and the wider cultural conversation.

This story originally appeared on Contagious I/O, our online intelligence tool. To find out more click here.

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