How embracing ‘Be all you can be’ resurrected Army marketing

CHICAGO — After the Great Fire ravaged this city in 1871, the phoenix became an unofficial symbol of its rebirth and swift rebuilding.

The immortal mythological bird, which regenerates by bursting into flames and rising anew from its own ashes, featured prominently on tickets to the 1893 World’s Fair held here.

In a nondescript federal building downtown — on a block that burned 152 years ago — the Army Enterprise Marketing Office rose anew from the ashes of its predecessors in an office suite with the Constitution laser-etched into its windows by an unknown previous tenant.

After announcing the enterprise office in 2019, the Army invested millions to establish and equip it in a major marketing city, started a new high-dollar contract with a new leading advertising agency and developed new career paths for officers to “translate” the Army to the advertising community and American public.

And the recent rollout of a “reinvented” classic recruiting slogan — “Be all you can be” — marks a milestone that officials argued proves the concepts underpinning the Chicago office. The slogan proved so successful that the Army used it from 1981 through 2001.

And despite the resurgence of mullets and mustaches among Gen Z youth, officials insist the vintage tagline won’t be a nostalgia tour. They say its victory in a long-planned research and testing process reflects the possibilities it embodies rather than warm feelings from a bygone era.

The rebrand is the latest move in a series of service-wide efforts that may reduce recent years’ recruiting struggles, which reached a new nadir in fiscal 2022 when the Army missed its active-duty recruiting goal by 15,000 troops.

To retrace the rebirth of the service’s marketing, Army Times visited the enterprise office in Chicago in mid-February ahead of the rebrand rollout. Army Times also interviewed current and former marketing officials, reviewed audit reports and records associated with the office’s doomed predecessors and obtained other documents on Army marketing strategy and practice.

But will it burn again?

The Fire: Audits, Kisses and Contracts

The enterprise marketing office emerged in 2019 from the wreckage of the Army Marketing Research Group, a Pentagon-based predecessor that collapsed amid scandal that year.

The research group formed to assume the Army’s marketing responsibilities months before the inactivation of Accessions Command, home to the service’s existing marketing efforts, in 2012.

But the effort was seemingly — or at least symbolically — ill-fated from the start.

A transition planning meeting between Accessions Command personnel, the service’s various advertising and marketing contractors, and top officials for the new marketing research office took place on a high floor of the aging Hoffman Towers in Alexandria, Virginia, on August 23, 2011.

“Ten minutes into the meeting, the room started shaking — knocking pictures off the wall,” recounted Bruce Jasurda, then chief marketing officer for Accessions Command. “So we all ended up evacuating and stood in the parking lot for an hour and a half.”

Although the cracks that day’s magnitude 5.8 earthquake left in the Washington Monument were quickly noticed, the marketing research office’s struggles burst onto the scene starting in late 2017 as three advertising conglomerates competed for the service’s lucrative advertising contract, valued between $1 and $4 billion.

A series of stories in the advertising industry magazine Adweek revealed that a director in the marketing research group danced with and kissed an executive from McCann Worldgroup, then the contract-holder, at a concert following an October 2017 strategy meeting where Army officials purportedly gave inside information to McCann staffers to boost their bidding process. The Army relieved the official, marketing director James Ortiz, who later retired. The McCann executive resigned.

Then the Army’s internal accountants sounded the alarm: the marketing research group was, “ineffective,” they said, and a draft audit obtained by Adweek in January 2018 questioned more than $930 million in marketing spending that “potentially didn’t provide the best value to support Army recruiting.”

Congress intervened via the fiscal 2019 defense policy bill, blocking half of the service’s marketing funds until the Army finished a plan to fix the problems.

And after advertising heavyweight Omnicom’s DDB agency won the new marketing contract, the Army shuttered the marketing research group in 2019.

From the Ashes: Place, People and Preparation

That’s also when the service announced the new enterprise marketing agency, which installed a uniformed chief marketer — Maj. Gen. Alex Fink.

Fink, an Army Reserve officer with civilian marketing experience, spoke with Army Times in a series of phone interviews. He described the first phase of his task as “catching up” Army marketing “with where the industry is and what you can do in marketing.”

The Army first needed him to set up the new Chicago office, which the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted and turned into a daunting task. The pandemic may have forced the rest of the Army to embrace collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams that keep the Chicago-based team in touch with stakeholders in the Pentagon, Army Recruiting Command and beyond.

But Fink believes their proximity to their advertising agency, which is also based in Chicago, outweighs any difficulties that arose from their relative isolation.

Col. John Horning, the office’s marketing strategy director, embodies another major effort that Fink and officials from West Point’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis spearheaded — creating a marketing career functional area for officers and finding untapped talent hiding in the service’s ranks.

Between December 2019 and October 2022, nearly 80 mid-career officers were hired for the field out of 750 applicants, according to a document obtained by Army Times. Of the selected officers, more than eight in ten have in-residence graduate degrees. The functional area’s entry guidelines call for a top master’s of business administration or graduate education in behavioral economics or similar social science. Those who don’t yet have such degrees submit scores on graduate entry tests and selectees go to school on the Army’s dime.

Officers with substantial civilian marketing experience are also eligible. Enter Horning.

The former armor officer followed an unconventional path to Chicago. Commissioned via West Point in the 1990s, Horning left after his five-year service commitment and worked in brand advertising first for multinational corporation Procter & Gamble and then a German beer company. But after the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, Horning wanted to serve again, so he joined the National Guard.

Following a Guard combat deployment, Horning transferred back to the active-duty force and commanded a cavalry squadron. In mid-2019, he learned about the enterprise marketing office but wanted to finish his tour as an observer/controller trainer at Fort Polk, Louisiana. When he learned about the new career field a few months later, he applied and soon found himself in Chicago at the enterprise office.

Fink, Horning and the career field’s architects argue that soldier-led marketing efforts were — and will be — key to the new office getting results for the Army. Its officers are expected to draw upon their military experience and leverage their civilian education or background to act as interpreters.

They said having officers steeped in civilian marketing best practices sets the enterprise office apart from its predecessors and laid the foundation for the brand refresh.

Jasurda, the former top marketer in Accessions Command, agrees.

“I think it’s such a fantastic concept to hire trained marketing professionals [to work] hand-in-hand and close by their agency partners to reemphasize all of the attributed that made ‘Be all you can be’ successful,” the former Army officer, who worked in a marketing role in the 1980s before returning in 2008 as a civilian, said.

Fink added that through their roles as contracting officer representatives, marketing officers directly participate in translating the Army’s needs into contract requirements for the agency, and they also help Army leaders understand how advertising and marketing work.

The general said involving such officers in the contract planning process has reduced the need for time-consuming and inefficient volumes of task orders, which are individualized work requests to contractors. Auditors faulted the legacy marketing research group for an overreliance on task orders.

Auditors, lawmakers and Army leaders also directed the enterprise office to improve its ability to trace recruiting leads back to specific marketing efforts.

“We had 0% attribution when [the enterprise office] started,” explained Horning. “We didn’t have the ability to tell you anything, and there was nothing handed over.” Now the office can trace around 30% of leads registered on thanks to quick surveys and industry-standard advances in advertising tracking technology.

He acknowledged that perfect attribution is impossible, nor is it an exact science. That’s where the enterprise marketing office’s marketing officers, its Army civilian data scientists and the agency’s experts come into play.

One tool is their marketing mix model, which helps the office make quarterly adjustments to where it advertises and markets. The statistical model analyzes attributed leads against advertising and marketing costs to help the office find those that are punching above their weight and reduce those that aren’t.

“We’ve gotten our overall [marketing] cost-per-contract from [$36,000] when we took over…[down] to now roughly around $12,000 just by being able to look at the actual performance of those media channels,” Horning said, hailing efficiency improvements.

Asked for examples, he said the reviews led the service to reduce its investment in online banner advertisements and instead double down on sponsored search results.

Horning said building quantitative expertise and embracing a data-centric culture also helped the enterprise office develop a more nuanced understanding of the audience segments that make up the office’s targets.

Audience segment research, an industry-wide tactic, groups portions of the population into demographic subgroups — defined through combinations of age, class, race, gender and geography, among other data points — and identifies what marketing or advertising approach and message is best for reaching them.

The enterprise office’s research identified and profiled 11 unique segments of age-eligible Americans, the colonel added. Factors such as segment size, preferred messaging mode and the marketing mix model come into play when figuring out how to reach them, but the goal is the same for each — “getting the right message to the right person, but also making sure that of those right persons, there’s enough of them.”

This capability exists at an unprecedented scale within the enterprise office compared to its predecessor, Fink said, meaning the Army is better positioned to understand and control the contractor’s capabilities. “They didn’t necessarily have people in their organization that really could drive this…I don’t think data performance was a thing, quite frankly, for the last organization.”

Rebirth: ‘Reinventing’ and Reflecting

Now armed with its data infrastructure, the enterprise office is undertaking its most ambitious project yet: reimagining the Army’s entire brand.

Officials said a brand refresh was always in the office’s plans, but it took time and repetitions with the interim “What’s Your Warrior” campaign and other efforts like “The Calling,” widely attacked by conservative pundits, to help calibrate their tactics and understanding of how stakeholders would react to different projects.

“What’s Your Warrior,” which aimed to showcase the Army’s myriad career fields, turned some prospects off with its martial tone, Horning said. But “The Calling,” an animated series that featured individual troops’ enlistment stories, came under right-wing attack for a spot featuring a corporal who grew up with two mothers.

“Even with the Calling, we found that there was a prospect audience that absolutely identified [with it], but we’re all very aware that it struck a nerve,” Horning said. “Some other people didn’t identify with what we were trying to do, and it became a distraction.”

So when it came time to start researching the Army’s next tagline and foundation for a brand refresh, “we were adamant about making sure that the work we’re doing…resonated with each of the stakeholder communities and was going to be something that everyone can get behind,” Horning said.

Both Maj. David Huffman, the officer who oversaw much of the “Be all you can be” reinvention, and Fink told Army Times that the enterprise office started with “over 200″ taglines before narrowing the list down to around 20 semifinalists that proceeded to audience testing.

The process surveyed 14,000 people across five stakeholder groups, Huffman explained. “The Army brand is bigger than just prospects and influencers… [it] belongs to prospects, influencers, the soldiers who wear the uniform, veterans [and] the American people.”

The testing went beyond cursory surveys and A/B tests and included fully-developed logos and other mock products for each tagline that “went back to the original brand research that identified some of the brand opportunities,” the major said.

After testing, Fink’s team presented three top-scoring finalists to the service’s senior leaders in spring 2021. “Be all you can be” was the clear winner, he said, thanks to its open-ended applicability to prospects’ individual lives and historical resonance with veterans and current soldiers.

But it’s not about nostalgia, he cautioned. The general described the launch as a “reinvention” of the classic tagline.

Fink argued that in the 1980s, the tagline reflected “a time of a lot of optimism” within the Army and the general public. Now, “Be all you can be” (emphasis his), seeks to cut through the anxiety and uncertainty of the post-pandemic era and show young Americans the possibilities the service offers.

The first round of advertising hits the airwaves this week, and experiential marketing events will also feature at the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Houston at the end of March.

Huffman described the tagline as a foundation or vehicle chassis that, once established, offers a base for the Army to customize future campaigns targeting different audience segments.

“Upcoming campaigns that we have currently in the works will build on that foundation and start to get into some of those key messages in the world,” Huffman said. “Some of the creative [advertising content] will start to dive into individual segmentation-focused messaging.”

All hands involved realize that the brand relaunch is not the culmination of the Army’s enterprise marketing rebirth, but rather the beginning of a new phase.

“I think that the organization has the opportunity to really reenter what has been basically a 10-year hiatus of talking to prospects in the way they want to be talked to, with the people they want to talk to, in the mediums they want to be talked to in,” Jasurda, the former top marketer for now-defunct Accessions Command said. “And that’s a hard job, even for somebody like Fink.”

Fink agreed though he won’t be there to see it through. After nearly three years at the helm, he retires this summer.

“This is a career-culminating experience,” he said in reflection. “I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to lead this team of Army marketers at this point in time in the Army’s history. I could have never planned this in my career.”

It’s not clear yet who his successor will be, but his staff is ready to keep the momentum going.

Horning said the office is hard at work on the campaign that will follow the relaunch of “Be all you can be,” estimating that it will arrive in August.

But he’ll take a moment to enjoy the first rounds of the rebrand first.

“I’m particularly happy with the initial pieces of creative that I have seen,” said the colonel. He said audiences should look closely for an “Easter egg…that honors the original ‘Be all you can be.’”

Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master’s thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood’s WWII movies.

By Anisa