Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak had just played for a room full of other top officers his service's next recruitment commercial -- a now iconic mini-drama depicting a young man who slays a fearsome dragon and becomes a Marine.
It was the 1990s, and Krulak, the 31st commandant, was interested in hearing what the others thought of the campaign to get more grunts to walk through the door. The initial reviews were mixed at best, and some even said they didn't like it very much.
"Well, that's just tough because it's not for you. It's for the generation we're trying to recruit, and it speaks to them, not to you," he reportedly replied.
It was a moment recalled by Jeffery Peterson, a retired Marine colonel who now works as a research lead at CNA, a data analytics and research organization outside Washington, D.C.
Peterson said he cites Krulak's thinking because recruiting strategies need to follow that model. In other words, it isn't about the service. Or the recruiter. Or a bunch of old guys in a room. It's about the young man or woman coming through the door or, these days, Skyping in or reacting to a message posted on Facebook or YouTube.
Military recruiters today face a daunting number of challenges: Fewer young people meet basic qualifications for military service, and the ones who do face competitive offers in the private sector, thanks to a booming economy. Many Americans don't fully understand military service, and recruiters often must win over not only the prospective recruit, but also skeptical or overprotective parents. On top of that, recruiters must tailor their message to a rising new generation -- young people with different priorities and means of communication than their predecessors. In response, the military services are getting more creative than ever before in devising ways to connect with prospective recruits and tell their story.
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And when it comes to telling that story, the more tailor-made the message, the better.
"The most important language in the world is the language of the person you're trying to speak with," Peterson said in a recent interview with Military.com.
Peterson, who commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1982, was a recruiting station commander in Montgomery, Alabama, between 1995 and 1998. He served in staff, commanding officer and chief of staff positions throughout the Corps' manpower, recruiting and training services for 30 years.
Military recruitment has had its challenges in recent years, with each service rebranding its strategy, from the Army's recently released soldier-created rap video to the Navy's new tagline, "Forged by the Sea."
An improved economy, with more jobs available in the private sector, has been a major challenge to recruiting. Stepping up to serve may not be as appealing an option to some teens, experts told Military.com in recent weeks.
Other obstacles include a shrinking pool of qualified prospective candidates due to rising obesity rates and other health issues, and a lack of awareness of what an all-volunteer force does.
A lingering stigma about the military being too tough on kids during boot camp, or sending them off to war zones at a moment's notice, has some parents telling recruiters, "Thank you for your service, but this is not for my child," one recruiter said.
So what needs to be done to be effective in ushering in the next generation?
For one thing, eliminate the one-size-fits-all approach, Peterson said.
"People love to ask, 'Well, what works?' And to quote a friend of mine … the key to recruiting is 'Why does somebody enlist?' And the reason they enlist is because they have a large number of impressions over a long period of time through different mediums," he said.
"There's always been this notion that we ought to save money by having joint advertising, but the reality is, each of the services have very different cultures and missions and characteristics," he added. "Converting interest into an enlistment is a big step."
More Awareness in the Information Age
Peterson said it's tough to tell whether certain campaigns -- a commercial, a branded logo at a sporting event -- are effective, because there's not much statistical evidence that shows they are. But "you have to try it" all, he said.
The retired colonel said the military operates like an all-recruited force. A relatively small number of aspiring young service members actually walk through the door knowing the military is for them from the end of their high school education, he said.
"The other 90 percent start from a position of indifference at best, and at worst they're a 'no,' and that's where the recruiters come in," Peterson said.
Generation Z -- including those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s -- is also a tough nut to crack. They are too young to have memories of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, only knowing what they read in history books or heard from family members.
"Perhaps more than their predecessors, 'Gen-Z' will expect and demand that civilian and military leaders explain America's role around the world -- both the persistent fights in the Middle East and our commitment to the liberal world order we've maintained over the last 70 years," Brendan R. Stickles, former U.S. Navy commanding officer and executive officer of Electronic Attack Squadron 130, recently wrote in a Brookings Institution article.
"No two members of Gen Z are alike, and their recruiting experiences won't be either," Air Force Recruiting Service officials said in a statement. "We look to generational cues to inform our tone, media channels and certain messaging priorities, but we take a more data-driven approach to each individual."
AFRS said the statement provided to Military.com could not be attributed to a single individual because multiple officials had contributed to it.
Older members of Gen Z -- those born after 1997 -- now represent "the true bullseye" of military recruitment, AFRS explained in the statement. But the Air Force is also thinking ahead.
"We are already looking to Generation Alpha (born after 2010) and what might be on the horizon as we position the Air Force for long-term success," AFRS said in an email. "Complementing broad-reaching media like television -- which still plays an important role -- with unique brand experiences like Augmented Reality, 360 video, gaming and personalized communications ensures we are meeting the needs of the audience to help them see the positive impact the Air Force can have on their life."
The more information in the information age, the better, Peterson added.
"We also think about all those influencers out there who have an effect on these youngsters," he said. "To make sure they have knowledge and information, that's a real challenge. To try to get that awareness up."
In 2016, the Navy took note of these hurdles when appealing to the next generation. The service began focus groups with input from 17-to-21-year-olds -- what it calls the "Centennial Generation."
"The research revealed that there was nearly 100 percent awareness of the Navy, but zero understanding of the Navy's full mission, reach and influence," said Capt. Matt Boren, chief marketing officer of Navy Recruiting Command.
It's something the Army in particular says it struggles with.
The service missed its 2018 recruiting goal by 6,500, adding 70,000 new soldiers. "But it's still the highest [number of accessions] we've had since 2010," said Lisa Ferguson, spokeswoman for U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC).
The other services reached their targets last year, but by a narrow margin.
The Air Force brought in 29,831 new enlisted airmen in fiscal 2018, as reported by Air Force Times. The service slightly exceeded its goal of 29,700 new airmen.
The Navy and Marine Corps also exceeded expectations, although marginally. The Navy added 39,018 active-duty recruits, exceeding its goal of 39,000; the Marine Corps signed up 31,567 new members to surpass their 31,556 goal, according to the Defense Department.
"There's a lot of factors that make someone ineligible to join," Ferguson said, referencing obesity and health concerns.
But roughly "50 percent of youth admits it knows little to nothing about military service in general," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Dodge, a recruiter and media relations noncommissioned officer for USAREC.
Fewer civilian communities are exposed to military members, said Jeb Blount, an author and CEO of Sales Gravy, a sales recruitment and training firm.
Blount has researched the cause-and-effect challenges in the war for talent for his next book, "Fanatical Military Recruiting."
He said that the mere 0.4 percent of the American population in the armed forces shows a declining trend in service.
"Military bases have consolidated or [closed]" in the last few decades, "and that means young people are less exposed to the military lifestyle, careers or opportunity than ever before," Blount said.
As a result, recruiters "have a massive weight on their shoulder, and they have to work harder than ever to go find these young people," he said.
Localizing Recruiting Efforts
Each of the services has relied heavily on enlisting recruits from more rural areas and southern states.
"The Army typically gets its recruits from the southeast," Dodge said.
But it's important to reach a diverse pool of talent, so the Army is expanding its reach, he said.
The service has begun a "22 cities" initiative to give areas where the service has had difficulty attracting recruits more attention, he said. That includes adding 700 new recruiters in urban areas across the country.
Ferguson said there's even a marketing pilot effort starting in Chicago that is so customized, it is reaching out to potential recruits by city blocks and neighborhoods because where someone grows up makes a difference in his or her worldview.
The pilot, Marketing-Recruiting Integration Pilot (M-RIP), began last fall. The targeted approach is relying on metrics to see if it resonates.
"We are using web analytics through the Army's advertising agency to determine [whether] web traffic increases based on targeted messaging in different areas," Ferguson said.
The Navy has similar efforts.
The service launched its new brand identity, tagline and marketing strategy in March 2018, Boren said, with an intentional shift from traditional marketing toward digital and online efforts.
"We've developed new online products like our video series, 'Faces of the Fleet' and our podcast, Sea Story, intended to make the Navy more tangible in the heartland, a place where often people may have never encountered a Navy sailor," he said in an email.
Faces of the Fleet, a documentary series, has tallied more than 135 million total impressions and led to 31 million engagements on social media, contributing to an increased Centennial engagement with the Navy's official Facebook page, up to 68 percent from 23 percent during fiscal 2018, the service said.
Boren continued, "We've also put a greater emphasis on community outreach. We've adopted a new process we are calling 'swarming,' which involves Navy partnerships with high-profile events to allow an enhanced Navy presence in targeted markets across the country. Our first swarm events, for example, were Miami Heat home games, where we brought in not only additional Navy recruiters, but also an Oculus Rift-based virtual-reality simulator experience, allowing participants to feel the adrenaline of piloting a high-speed assault craft to extract SEALs who are under fire."
Oculus Go virtual-reality headsets gave attendees the chance to experience 360-degree video on aircraft carrier flight decks, and to find themselves in the middle of other real-life Navy operations, he said.
The current engagement strategy has prospective new recruits asking more informed questions about the Navy lifestyle, Boren said.
The Air Force Recruiting Service stood up its own "innovation cell" last July in conjunction with the AFWERX program -- a catalyst for "agile Air Force engagement across industry, academia and non-traditional contributors," according to the service -- to look for better, more tech-savvy ways to attract potential airmen.
For the Army, the key is to tell teens there are options -- that's "it's not just infantry jobs," Ferguson said. "A part of it is making them understand there are 150 jobs they can choose from."
And they must relay that message not only to the recruit, but the recruit's parents.
Dodge said he's encountered helicopter parents "numerous times." They're defined as overprotective or taking excessive interest in their kids, often keeping them on a short leash.
Another type, Peterson said, is the "lawnmower parent," who removes obstacles for their children to prevent them from facing hardships or failures.
"This, again, is because people don't understand what the Army is all about," Dodge said. "All they associate with the Army is … war. So if a recruiter gets a chance to sit down with that parent, a lot of times we can combat that obstacle."
Peterson agreed. "There's nothing new in that. Regardless of where parents are in that spectrum of involvement, it's really important to bring parents into the conversation."
A lot of it is just being honest, the experts said.
"Be transparent, genuine and honest and be who you really are, because Gen Z and Millenials can see if you're not being truthful about something," Ferguson said. "Not everything is great, and not everything is awful either. It's rarely any extreme on the spectrum."
She added, "Trying new things is what's going to position us for the next five years," referencing how the Army is tackling various mediums, including virtual and digital recruiting teams.
Ferguson said some Army recruiters have worked as substitute teachers, volunteering to teach at high schools and be involved. "Old methods don't always work in every location. What works in Montgomery, Alabama, doesn't necessarily work in Orange County, California," she said.
Authenticity goes a long way, Boren said. "Centennials seek authenticity, and they quickly turn away from anything that is less than genuine or doesn't speak to them in compelling ways," he said. "When it comes to messaging, the Navy is competing with every brand that targets this generation. There is a lot of noise out there, and we remain focused on engaging with prospective sailors on their terms and providing compelling content on the platforms they most regularly use to gather information."
Blount said a looming threat most aren't thinking about is the growing civilian-military divide.
"It is an existential threat to our military," he said.
It's a broader problem that may not have an immediate solution, said Beth Asch, a senior economist at Rand Corp. who studies labor economics, defense manpower and recruitment of military personnel.
"There's evidence that shows that the general population doesn't know what military service entails … and quickly they fall to the stereotypes: that people in the military aren't paid very much, or people who join the military are not very smart or, if you join, you have a high chance of experiencing PTSD," Asch said. "Data shows that none of these statements are true, or they're not as extreme."
Another notion is that those who join the military can't express ideas that may be considered innovative or "outside the box" because they will be seen as breaking rank.
Peterson said that's simply not true.
Last year, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright said airmen who come up with solutions that can help the service achieve results shouldn't feel like they're boxed in. And failure is OK.
"Do you have a culture in your organization that allows airmen to fail?" Wright asked during the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. "That's how we get there. Creative thinking. We have so many right airmen in our ranks that are just waiting to provide us ideas, innovative concepts, that are also waiting to be disruptive."
Peterson agreed. "This notion that the military is this very structured place -- you want people to say, 'Yes sir,' 'No sir' -- and we don't want you to get outside your box, we don't want you to be disruptive. The reality of it is, that's never really ever been true."
He continued, "There is always been a place for a youngster who comes in who has new and different ideas, who thinks in a way that perhaps the institution maybe hasn't thought about yet, and the idea that those types of people are beaten down or told to be quiet is more of a stereotype more than anything else.
"Those people, in my opinion, have been celebrated and encouraged," Peterson said.