The Military Meets Madison Avenue

Nov. 1, 2007

Winning the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan has not been easy for the US military. Anti-American sentiment is rife in much of the Muslim world, and local adversaries busily spread propaganda about fictional US perfidy. Occasional US missteps have not helped.

Still, there may be a resource for gaining support from local populations that the US has not yet tried, according to a new report from the RAND Corp. That resource is … Madison Avenue.

Yes, commercials, advertisements, and marketing.

The country that can get its own citizens to pay for water in a bottle and radio from a satellite—both products used to be free; only the transport mechanism has been added—ought to be able to do better in promoting its point of view. There are many commercial techniques the Defense Department might try, from “branding” to market segmentation to the careful courting of local “influencers.”

Business marketing practices “provide a useful framework for improving US military efforts to shape indigenous audience attitudes and behaviors,” concludes RAND’s report, grippingly titled, “Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation.”

To many in the military, the idea of selling counterinsurgency operations as if they were Coke Zero might seem a little counterintuitive.

What would that entail? The Geico gecko in battle rattle? (“My job is saving you from extremists. I love my job!”)

Rounding up recruits in Sadr City for a focus group to probe local attitudes toward American actions could prove difficult. Troops are trained to engage in combat, not ad campaigns. War is an inherently violent activity on which it can be difficult to put an attractive gloss.

Madison Avenue’s relevance for military operations is limited, of course. Ad campaigns do not require armored vehicles. Business executives are not rotated in and out of a theater of operations every 18 months. Corporate leaders are worried about next quarter’s stock price—not Iran.

Furthermore, winning over skittish civilian populations in a war-torn region where some people are trying to blow you up requires many skills not taught at Wharton.

As RAND insightfully observes, “Many facets of US operations fall outside those anticipated or experienced by the US business community.”

For instance, the report notes that attacks against symbolic targets offer “unique shaping opportunities.” In other words, exploding statues of Saddam can be a good thing.

Still, comparing military practices to business ones can provide a useful perspective, argues RAND. It is not as if the US is now doing a terrific job of wooing indigenous populations.

“To secure the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan and ultimately win the Global War on Terrorism, the United States must conduct more effective and better-coordinated campaigns to shape local attitudes and behavior,” state the study’s authors.

“The traditional kinetic focus of US military operations often jeopardizes communication-based shaping efforts.”

But in recent campaigns, the military already has tried some unusual techniques to better understand, and sway, civilians.

The Army has sent anthropologists into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in an attempt to learn more about what locals think and need. In Baghdad, some brigade commanders have discovered that handbills condemning insurgent violence can themselves be an effective weapon.

And there are key similarities between commercial marketing practices and military efforts to “shape” noncombatants, argues the RAND study. Businesses want customers to buy their products, while the military seeks popular support for anti-insurgent efforts. Businesses seek to instill brand loyalty. The military seeks to burnish the image of America.

“At the most basic level, both [business and military] efforts have as their objectives a change in behavior,” says the RAND study.

Business and marketing executives consulted by the RAND authors recommended a number of corporate tactics that military information personnel might try. Among them:

Update the US Military Brand. In business, a brand is the sum of the emotions and associations evoked by a corporate name. To most consumers, “Volvo” means safe, expensive automobiles. “Starbucks” means tasty overpriced beverages served in well-decorated stores. “Ralph Lauren” is the clothing that people in Volvos wear while drinking Starbucks coffee.

Careful Branding

But brands are not permanent. “Buick” used to have associations of upward mobility; now it is often seen as the car your retired grandfather used to drive. “Fels Naptha” used to be a big name in laundry soap.

As the RAND study notes, adaptation is the key to survival in maintaining market leadership. And right now the US military brand might benefit from some refurbishment.

“Like consumer products positioned and branded for a day gone by, so too is the US military brand identity now—at least in part—out of date,” says the report.

That brand identity, built up over decades since the beginning of World War II, is based on force of might. Like all good brands, it is simple and clear. But counterinsurgency campaigns rely on more than force. They also involve deftness of touch in dealing with civilians, the encouragement of political reconciliation, and other nation-building activities.

The US in general, and the military in particular, might need to adopt a branding strategy that reflects this hard-and-soft duality, according to the RAND study authors. They suggest a slogan coined to encourage foreign tourism in the US: “We will help you.”

“The ‘helping’ promise may be a positioning message applicable to the military,” says the report. “It provides an intent for US forces that covers the application of combat power while also meeting the test for a range of other operations.”

Branding must be done carefully, however. “A business’ brand is hurt when it overreaches,” RAND avers, “as was the case when BIC, the maker of disposable pens, attempted to launch a line of BIC-branded perfumes.” Not exactly a problem the military is likely to face, but perhaps the point is valid.

Ensure Military Actions Reflect Brand Image. The US military—particularly Army and Marine Corps ground forces—function very much like a service firm when it comes to stability operations. Military personnel are just providing stability and hope for the future, instead of a flight to Omaha or advice on updating a home wireless network.

And as every service firm knows, the quality of your brand crucially depends on the quality of the daily interactions between your employees and the public. Rudeness or incompetence can counteract millions of dollars’ worth of advertising in a moment.

Accordingly, military leaders might conduct what the RAND study calls an “internal branding campaign” to ensure that personnel engaged in the counterinsurgency mission understand “on- and off-brand behaviors.”

Just as the update of the brand itself should avoid undue emphasis on the use of force, so the internal branding exercise should emphasize the softer side of the stability mission.

“The military should imbue its soldiers from the very first day of basic training with the understanding that befriending local populations and using force discriminately can be just as great a military achievement as overwhelming employment of firepower,” says the study.

Perhaps the military should award battlefield medals for actions that serve counterinsurgency interests but do not necessarily involve killing terrorists or blowing things up, suggests RAND. (This could lead to some interesting explanations: “I got this one for drinking tea with a tribal sheikh!”) Infantry units on patrol might include personnel authorized to pay compensation on the spot for collateral damage to structures or vehicles.

Military leaders might also want to reconsider tactics that emphasize protection of US troops over openness and contact with local populations.

“The United States should develop doctrine, conduct training, and promote leaders who support a balanced approach to stability operations,” says the study. “The default condition of ‘full battle rattle’ and multiple-vehicle convoys should be re-evaluated frequently during each mission.”

Segment and Target US Military Customers. “Target” in this sense does not involve the aiming of weapons. Rather, the military could better figure out exactly who the civilians it is trying to woo are, what they are like, and what sort of marketing approaches might appeal to them.

The study cites ExxonMobil research as an example of this approach. In one recent large-scale project, the oil firm divided its customers into five groups: Car Buffs, who drive more than 25,000 miles per year and buy premium gas with a credit card; Loyalists, moderately high income customers who frequent certain brands and stations; Speedsters, upwardly mobile Gen Xers who live in their autos and purchase lots of snacks; Soccer Moms, who shuttle around town and buy gas where it is convenient; and Price Shoppers, who have tight budgets and little brand loyalty.

Crunching their sales data, Exxon executives discovered that Car Buffs and Loyalists made up only 38 percent of the population—but represented 77 percent of the firm’s potential profits. The decision to orient ads toward these two groups was an easy one.

Diehards, Skeptics, Bandwagons

Similarly, the US military cannot expect everyone in a local population equally to accept its presence and activities. Notional divisions, according to RAND, might include Diehards, who will be adversaries no matter what; Skeptics, who tend to oppose the US; Uncommitted; Reformers, who see the US presence as an opportunity to press local change; and Bandwagons, who are enthusiastically pro-American.

Winning more support for US actions may not quite be like raising sales of premium gas and Chex Mix at an Exxon QuikMart. But market research might, say, convince the US to focus communication efforts on the Uncommitted, Reformers, and Bandwagons, says RAND.

“Ultimately, segments will serve only as a general guide for operations and communication,” says the study. “Unlike a business that sells only a single product to a particular segment, coalition forces will likely make numerous policy and operational decisions, each of which will have a particular impact on popular acceptance of coalition forces.”

Focus Communication Campaigns. Few marketing executives have ever made vice president by approving haphazard ad buys that feature many different themes and run at midnight on the shopping channel because that was when time was cheapest.

Similarly, the US military will gain few friends from an undisciplined and unfocused communication campaign.

First, goals should be clear. RAND uses the hypothetical example of a campaign to increase tips about insurgent activity from Iraqi civilians. Such an effort might reasonably set a benchmark of increasing such intelligence tips by 50 percent.

Second, the campaign should emphasize benefits that potential customers might value. Ordinary Iraqis might be more likely to turn in extremists if they are reminded that this action could reduce crime and violence in their own neighborhood.

Third, costs—as measured by time, effort, and energy to provide the tip—should be as low as possible. Perhaps the US could proffer free text-messaging software so residents can text tips anonymously. Or ground troops on patrol might simply request tips from citizens they pass.

“In the tip program paradigm, all US ground personnel … must understand their roles in accepting intelligence from the indigenous population,” say the authors. “These forces must similarly make themselves more approachable to civilians, learn and apply discreet collection methods so as not to jeopardize the lives of informants, and uniformly express appreciation for assistance.”

Achieve Customer Satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is a concept that applies to military stability operations as much as it does to flat-screen TV purchases, in RAND’s eyes.

“The degree to which they are satisfied with the various aspects of force presence will be a critical determinant in their decision-making,” says the RAND study.

Satisfaction is the result of two things: customer expectations going into a business encounter, and the actual experience. When expectations are high, the bar for performance is high, as well: At a Four Seasons hotel, one piece of burnt toast can turn a visit sour.

Ground forces are not in a business that requires turning down beds and leaving a chocolate on the pillow, but that does not mean they should not fulfill their promises.

“Managing indigenous expectations should be a hallmark of coalition force actions and messages,” notes RAND.

Individual units cannot provide instant neighborhood security or provide electricity 24 hours a day. But they can try to complete house repairs, or other limited infrastructure work, on time. If unsure of a completion date, they should decline to promise one.

They should also listen to customer response, to make sure they are fulfilling real desires. That might not be easy. As RAND dryly notes, “The danger of walking door to door in a potentially hostile environment is one major impediment.”

The US has built many schools the Iraqis do not need, according to one civil affairs officer quoted by RAND. Teachers and students do not show up, and extremists either occupy the buildings or blow them up.

“It happens time and time again; we give them something they do not ask for, they do not need, because it’s something we can do,” says the officer.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Names for Our Unknowns,” appeared in the July issue.