Why Military Recruiting is Still All About Relationships

College basketball fans love talking about what could happen in March. Bracket busters, buzzer beaters, Cinderellas and the chance to witness something that has never been done before keep us glued to our screens round after round.

Advertisers crush it this time of year. Ad revenue for the NCAA tournament has skyrocketed as we move through the decade, from roughly $782 million in 2011 to $1.32 billion last year, according to Kantar. On the other hand, most employers lose. WalletHub estimates that a drop in productivity during March Madness last year cost companies roughly $6.8 billion.

Of the hundreds of Division I basketball programs in the US, only 35 have won a title since the tournament’s inception, and 6 of those have won almost as many as the rest combined.

One of those “blue bloods,” Duke, is favored to win again this year, despite playing with a starting five that consists of four freshmen. And most analysts tend to agree; a healthy Duke team has been the favorite to win it all since last April, long before those kids ever put on a uniform.

Why? Because postseason success in college basketball starts with recruiting. The most successful coaches know that before they can win on the hardwood, they have to win in a high schooler’s mind.  Duke has brand equity with high school students.

Winning When It Counts

Like college basketball coaches, modern military recruiters face stiff competition when it comes to getting a prospect’s attention.  Fortunately for them and for us, the largest military branches, like some of the top basketball programs, enjoy a healthy amount of brand equity among the American Gen Z populace. Others though, like the Guards and Reserves, must work harder to attract attention. But attracting the attention of an 18 year old surrounded by screens, with virtually instant access to entertainment, information and the opinions of peers? That’s the easy part. The hard part is turning that attention into a life-shaping commitment.

The DoD spends millions annually on advertising to promote awareness of the various branches, the opportunities available in the military, and its need for qualified recruits. Yet fewer Americans than ever before are considering the military path.

That’s because money spent doesn’t equal long-term success in recruiting, in basketball or in the military.

External factors like private sector growth, low unemployment rates, negative media attention, and job automation inevitably impact recruiter success. But as the media, creative, and account teams charged with supporting military recruiting efforts, we should view the current recruiting shortage as a severe problem and a signal to change. Agencies must harness their considerable technological capabilities, institutional knowledge, and creative power to find new ways of building personal connections between the military and a largely disinterested audience.

A study conducted by the Navy around the turn of the century found that, unsurprisingly, prospects whose family members had military experience were six times more likely to join. But in the absence of a personal connection, prospects and the public at large are more likely to allow negative narratives about military service, whether they come from the press, Hollywood, or somewhere else, influence the way they think about the military as a career, and the way they view military advertising.

Make It Personal

Just like waving your school’s flag and singing its fight song in front of a top prospect’s face isn’t going to get him on campus, hurling your brand and your brand message at a teenager isn’t going to turn her into a customer, or a soldier. And doing it over a long period of time isn’t going to build trust. It’s more likely to erode it.

Instead, to get the best recruits, college sports programs and the US military must rely on the power of personal connections.

Let’s go back to basketball — NCAA detractors love to claim that top college players choose whichever school will pay them the most, but that’s been proven time and time again to be untrue. A personal touch can go a long way — long enough to overshadow aggressive ad campaigns and the allure of financial benefits.

In 2018, iconic Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made history by locking in commitments from three of the top five high school basketball players in North America. Great recruiting doesn’t directly translate to cutting down the net after the Big Dance, but it sure sets the stage. And great recruiting, in any arena, is all about relationships.

John Calipari, head coach at the University of Kentucky and arguably the best recruiter in college sports history, abides by one rule over all others: you have to know the people that you recruit. He takes the time to learn what prospects want in a school and in life before ever going to meet with them. When he does finally pitch a prospect, that pitch is highly personalized. He shows teenagers that Kentucky isn’t a destination, but a starting point, and that playing for UK will put them on a path to achieving precisely what it is they want to accomplish in life, whether that’s basketball stardom or a veterinary career. He invests in other relationships — with their parents, with current and former UK basketball players, and even with celebrities — that he can leverage when the time comes, to make prospects want to choose Kentucky. He uses every resource at his disposal because he knows that the kids he wants are the same kids Coach K. and everyone else wants too. They have options.

As agency partners, it’s our job to make those connections happen — whether you’re looking for shooting guards or second lieutenants — although on our end we’re more focused on filling military uniforms than basketball. That means our efforts should be aimed at creating platforms not just for recruiters, but also for the countless exemplary service members who show us the possibilities that the military experience can offer: the successful doctors, coaches, politicians, CEOs, musicians and athletes – along with the four-star generals and SEALs — who represent the end product of the military brand. We must find ways to ensure these men and women are present in the physical and virtual environments that our audience inhabits. Strategically and tactically, we have to think differently.

To be sure, the military will always need the type of awareness advertising that agencies have excelled at producing for decades. But the most valuable agency partners are the ones that can anticipate client challenges and recommend solutions proactively, and the challenges recruiters face now can’t be solved by advertising alone.

The brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking famously said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Advertising isn’t physics, but military recruiting is more complex than advertising alone. An undermanned fighting force is an issue of national security, a problem serious and complex enough to require the top minds our industry has to offer. In 2019 and beyond, the best agencies will work with the best consultancies, PR shops and research firms, and use their creativity to find new ways to reach audiences.  If we succeed, it means more young adults will recognize and relate to the service members and veterans they see at the airport, on TV or in advertising. Failure, on the other hand, is not an option.

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