What do Generation Y (GenY) oriented Employee Resource Groups (ERG) share with the military? – More than you expect! A constant supply of active members is the life-blood for any ERG to put plans into action and prevent established activists from burning out. The U.S. Army faces a similar challenge every year: how to attract and recruit the youngest adult generation? Next-generation ERGs listen up: Let the U.S. Army work for you and learn some practical lessons!
The U.S. Army brand
Everyone knows the U.S. Army. This American icon has been around for well over 230 years!
The ‘U.S. Army’ is more than a well-known military force. We recognize it as a brand. Just like ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘IBM’ portray and advertise a certain company image to sell its product, the U.S. Army needs to constantly appeal with a unique value proposition for new recruits to enlist. The ‘product’ offered if what the recruit expect to get out of it along the lines of ‘what is in it for me’ (WIIFM).
From this commercial perspective, it seems only natural that the U.S. Army hires world-class advertisement agencies to help meeting recruitment targets. Marketing and advertisement gained importance especially since the U.S. Army turned into an all-volunteer force in 1973. This is similar to a voluntary ERG membership.
Aiming at a moving target
We distinguish four generations at the workplace today. Each comes with different motivations and characteristics. The collective personality or zeitgeist influences each generation’s behavior and values. These need to be considered to adapt and effectively connect with each generation in its own way to maximize their potential and productivity for the better of the organization overall.
You can easily find this spectrum of generations reflected in the historic recruitment campaigns of the U.S. Army. The U.S. Army ‘brand’ changes over time and adapts to appeal and attract fresh recruits.
Let’s take a look at these recruiting campaigns for the four generations before we move on to extract the practical benefits for ERGs today:
1. Veterans, Silent or Traditional Generation (born 1922 to 1945)
I admit, in practice this campaign hardly affects today’s ERG anymore since most of this age group has already left the workforce by now.
Nonetheless, using the ‘propaganda’ flavor in this message proved very successful in both WWI and WWII.
‘Uncle Sam’ captures the essence of a generation of disciplined conformers with much respect for authority and an ingrained understanding that duty to the country is an obligation.
2. Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)
The U.S. Army became an all-volunteer force in 1973, which changed the recruiting game entirely. Not being able to rely on a general draft anymore, the U.S. Army needed a new approach to attract a steady stream of voluntary recruits.
This coincided with an upcoming new generation of the younger Baby Boomers generally characterized as full of optimism and thirst for social engagement. To tackle the new challenge of effective marketing, the U.S. Army brought in a professional advertisement agency.
The first ads to the “Today’s Army wants to join you” campaign (1971 to 1980) suggest membership in a nice group of people sharing many similarities.
Also, women were now encouraged to enlist. It’s all about optimism, getting together and being involved!
This was a gutsy and somewhat liberal first step to attract a volunteer force. Though thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ it did not work out all that smoothly as indicated by changes following quickly.
This ad (1973 to 1976) is like a pendulum swinging back to the opposite extreme!
Tone and focus changed dramatically in this newer version of “Join the People” emphasizing the seriousness and commitment of being a soldier while also highlighting personal benefits.
The message is clear: No more playing around here, responsibility and duty is back, no more football on the beach!
Finally, the U.S. Army settled on a more balanced campaign.
Here is an example for “This Is the Army” campaign ads. The headlines read “In Europe You’re on Duty 24 Hours a Day, but the Rest of the Time Is Your Own” or “Back home, I wouldn’t mind doing the work I’m doing here” influenced also by a loss of military reputation after the Vietnam war.
One campaign or another, the U.S. Army missed its recruitment goal by more than 17.000 in 1979. This announced a new generation, GenX, coming with a different background and values that required the U.S. Army to re-think and find a new approach.
3. Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)
Birthrates cut into the recruitment pool. In addition, the smaller Generation X turns out to be tough to target.
This generation came with an inherent distrust of authority originating from geopolitical change as well as changes in western society and family structures. Despite GenX’s dominant drive for independence and self-reliance, this generation is also looking for structure and direction in life.
“Be All You Can Be” (1980 to 2001) emphasizes a personal challenge and an opportunity for self-development, i.e. taking charge of your fate to become a better individual. Note that the “we” is gone, it’s all about “me” for GenX.
The benefits offered by the U.S. Army included significant education support. (The U.S. military remains the largest ‘education organization’ in the U.S. in terms of funding tuition, in particular.)
The succeeding “Army of One” campaign (2001 to 2006) hits the true core of the independent GenX by underlining the single person in their message.
However, the campaign was also short-lived because a focus on the independent individual appeared contrary to the idea of teamwork that any military organization relies on and cannot work without.
Facing demographic decline, recruiting advertisement reached out into Spanish-speaking ‘markets’ (in a campaign known as “Yo Soy el Army”) to tap into the increasing Hispanic population.
The U.S. Army made more use of TV advertisement to reach GenX, a generation brought up in front of a TV.
Perhaps the boldest recruitment stunt was the 1986 smash movie “Top Gun” – sponsored by the Pentagon in need of a major image boost. And it worked! Think about it: Tom Cruise is a self-reliant ace who has a problem with accepting authority – a poster-boy Gen-Xer. In the end, he became a valuable team player for the greater good meeting the military’s needs and got the girl.
4. Generation Y or Millennials (born 1981 to 2001)
The ongoing “Army Strong” campaign builds on a proposition of lifelong strength through training, teamwork, shared values and personal experience. – What a change from the previous focus on independence for GenX!
“Army Strong” also suggests contemporary leadership, personal empowerment and strength building that found on shared values.
(Read more on managing Generation Y at Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?)
Here, ‘strength’ is meant literally: The U.S. Army overhauled the fitness training to ‘toughen up’ this generation. Weakened by a more tranquil lifestyle (such as video-gaming), GenY-ers often lack experience with physical confrontation that is unavoidable and crucial for effective warriors.
Perhaps confusing for older generations, “Army Strong” caters to GenY’s interest in making a difference not only in their lives but also for their extended communities. Work is less central in this generation while individuality and leisure value high.
The campaign milks the social ties deliberately addressing not only recruits but also the people who love and support them, i.e. the people who influence the recruits’ decisions such as family and friends as well as the broader public.
Consequently, the U.S. Army presents itself more as a responsible and somewhat selfless social service in advertisements by highlighting how soldiers serve their communities and for their nation beyond executing force during a conflict.
The U.S. Army adapts its spectrum of communication channels to keep up with GenY, a generation for which technology serves as an extension of their personality and their physical selves. Constantly online and connectedness with an appealing adventurous fun-factor, the U.S. Army is present across the entire landscape of noteworthy social media these days – it even entertains its own video game to warm up GenY.
Targets on the demographic curve
Next-generation ERGs and the U.S. Army both aim to attract a specific demographic: The U.S. Army targets 17 to 24-year-old recruits, looking at the lower end, while ERGs typically look for the older end, i.e. young adults with professional training, perhaps a college degree and some work experience.
Thus, the U.S. Army’s target demographic starts just a few years younger than the typical employees entering the (civilian) workforce, so the U.S. Army operates a bit ahead of the age curve that becomes relevant for ERG membership recruitment.
Let the U.S. Army do your research!
Using this time difference to their advantage, next-generation ERGs, in particular, benefit from the U.S. Army doing the heavy lifting with regard to generational research. With the U.S. Army’s advertisement contract worth more than $200 million each year (or $2,500+ per recruit) don’t fool yourself: an ERG will never have funds anywhere close to hire a top-notch advertisement agency for attracting new members … unless you are perhaps the guys who invented Google or so… J
From a next-generation-ERG’s perspective, here is what you can reap:
- Target Characteristics
Using its marketing dollars, the U.S. Army identifies the characteristics of your future demographics for you – for free! Look at how the U.S. Army is targeting today. It gives you a clear picture of what the characteristics are of your next ERG generation tomorrow.
The U.S. Army shares its findings publicly. This includes a sharp outline of the specific characteristics of the youngest employees that enter your workplace now or it in the near future. So, keep an eye on the U.S. Army’s next recruiting campaign and time is on your side!
- Trial-and-Error without getting hurt
It gets even better. The U.S. Army provides you with field test results on whether their findings hold true in practice: The U.S. Army’s annual recruitment figures serve as a success criterion for the recruiting campaign. These figures are available in the public domain and found easily online within seconds.
- The early warning signal
If the actual Army recruitment figure exceeds or falls short of the target figure (somewhere around 80.000 recruits each year), you get an idea what worked and what did not. The latter reflects not only that the campaign lost effectiveness but may also indicate that the next generation has arrived with a changed set of values and characteristics. – Use this as a free early‑warning system for your ERG!
Note that over the past five years the U.S. Army’s number of “accessions” (=recruits) exceeded the “mission” (=target value); note though that the “mission” bar was lowered in 2009 and 2010.
When the U.S. Army misses its recruitment target in the future, the next campaign is just around the corner. A significant change in the core message targets the next generation. So, here comes your next lesson and opportunity for the ERGs!
Back to the Future?
If the U.S. Army is not for you, don’t worry. Choose any military branch of your liking – they all face the same challenge. You don’t need to love the military to learn from it, and the lessons are valuable.
As a general yet effective approach to strategic innovation, keep an eye on industries and organizations that face similar challenges earlier than you do. Learn from them and prepare your business and ERG for the change.