Army recruiting a casualty of war

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The mounting body count in Iraq is scaring off military recruits-posing an enormous marketing challenge for the U.S. Army as it closes in on an agency to handle its estimated $200 million advertising and marketing account.

Nearly a quarter of recruits-23.9%-who signed up to join the Army during the year ended Sept. 30 didn't make it to basic training, according to figures from the Army. That rate is 25% higher than during the 2003 period and 90% higher than during the 2002 period.

Losing recruits-reasons can range from cold feet, to somehow disqualifying for service, to a family emergency, or instead choosing college-has been a fact of life during the 31-year-history of the volunteer Army. Recruits can delay entry for up to a year.

Even so, "delayed enlistment program" loss rates ("DEP" in Army lingo) have historically been relatively low, at about 10% to 15%, said David Segal, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies military and recruiting issues. Then came the war.

"The Iraq situation is taking its toll," said Thomas W. Evans, who was U.S. Army recruiting command deputy director-advertising and public affairs from 1973 to 1993.

The Army wouldn't comment on the impact the war has on DEP, noting that many factors play into a recruit's decision to join up and show up. But as the stretched Army struggles to meet its 2005 target of 80,000 new soldiers, hanging on to recruits is increasingly important. In marketing terms, it's more profitable to keep an existing customer than go out and acquire a new one.

The Army is attacking the problem on a number of fronts. As it tries to reach its 2005 recruiting target, nearly 4% higher than last year's, it's taking action to attract and retain recruits. It's boosting the number of recruiters by 11% to 6,029. It's adding a range of incentives, including bonuses for recruits who agree to be shipped off within 30 days to 60 days. And it is reaching out to influencers-parents, grandparents and coaches-who play a big role in recruits signing up and showing up.

The average waiting period in DEP is shorter than it was in the past two years, and that should lead to a lower DEP loss this year, an Army spokesman said. The longer the wait in DEP, the more likely a recruit will not report for duty.

The average wait in DEP was 60 days in 2002. That jumped to 90 days in 2003 and 120 days in 2004, according to the Army. It was so high in 2004 because the Army had more than 40% of its recruits lined up before the recruiting year started. So far this recruiting year, the DEP wait is similar to 2001 and loss rates are down. During October 2004, the rate was 14.8% versus 23.2% the year earlier. The Army started this year with only 18% of its recruiting target in DEP, lower than the 25% or more it usually does.

reaching out

Whatever agency the Army taps will work to find a solution. The finalists include incumbent Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, part of Publicis Groupe; WPP Group's Y&R, New York; Omnicom Group's BBDO, Atlanta; Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York; and Grey Global Group's Grey, New York.

In March, the Army broke cinema-verite style ads from Burnett that showed young adults talking to parents about wanting to join the Army. "In today's times, we know that parents are concerned, and we work to help them understand the value of serving in the Army both as a value to the nation and their son or daughter," an agency spokeswoman said. The Army is also trying to reach influencers through sponsorships and event-marketing.

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