RAND Recommends U.S. Military Adopt Consumer Marketing Strategies to Reach Iraqi and Afghan Civilians

For Release

July 17, 2007

Adopting successful business marketing practices, such as branding and monitoring customer satisfaction, could help the U.S. military get more support from the local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

“Every action U.S. forces take sends a message to civilian populations and shapes their attitudes and behavior,” said Todd Helmus, a RAND associate behavioral scientist and lead author of the report. “It's not just a matter of putting the right ‘spin' on U.S. military actions, because words alone won't win public support. Instead, U.S. forces need to take the right actions if they want to get the local support that's crucial to America's counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“The central feature of consumer marketing is: know your target audience so you can satisfy their needs,” Helmus added. “The U.S. armed forces need to know who the civilian populations of Iraq and Afghanistan are, apply that knowledge through day-to-day operations, and monitor how those civilian populations perceive U.S. operations in their countries. Then the military can adjust operations to get more civilian support.”

The report by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, is titled “Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation.” It is available at www.rand.org.

The study analyzes such consumer marketing techniques as branding, customer satisfaction, market segmentation and harnessing the power of “influencers.” Researchers found that many of the same techniques can be applied by the U.S. military to help shape Afghan and Iraqi perceptions of American forces.

Researchers interviewed more than 30 active duty U.S. military, retired military and civilian employees from military public affairs, civil affairs, information operations and psychological operations. The report also draws on more than 100 interviews from previous RAND military research, as well as interviews with 25 active marketing professionals in business and academia.

Helmus said the U.S. military is doing a better job of communicating with the civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan than it did at the beginning of the Iraq war, but there are many improvements that could be made.

Refining communications and operations are crucial, because it is clear the United States will be involved in more counterinsurgency and stabilization operations than large wars against opposing armies in the near future, according to the RAND study.

“Many of America's adversaries … have seen the truth behind the brand: the U.S. cannot be defeated in open terrain force-on-force combat,” the report says. “Instead, the new modus operandi is to retreat into complex terrain, don a civilian cloak and steadily inflict losses that weaken American public resolve.”

“Shaping” traditionally refers to any activity that influences the behavior of adversary forces. U.S. military doctrine has recently expanded this shaping concept to include influencing civilian populations. The military can use shaping to create positive civilian attitudes to increase popular support for U.S. forces, diffuse local tensions, make coalition forces more approachable, reduce violent attacks and increase the persuasiveness of friendly force communications campaigns.

“Our adversaries don't wear uniforms, and they live in urban areas where you can't tell who's the enemy and who's not,” Helmus said. “You need the local population to identify the enemy and withdraw their support from them.”

The study recommends the use of the following marketing concepts in war zones:

  • Branding. Just as people think “safety” when they think of Volvo automobiles, the U.S. military needs to establish a strong brand identity that is consistently communicated through all U.S. force actions and messages. U.S. forces entered Iraq with a “force of might” brand identity ill-suited to earning local support. The armed forces should craft a new brand identity that incorporates their civilian shaping mission into their war-fighting role.
  • Instilling customer satisfaction. The armed forces should manage civilian expectations by not making promises they can't keep. They also should monitor civilian satisfaction through town hall meetings and other venues to continually improve operations and services.
  • Customer-informed decision-making. Occupying a foreign territory automatically makes U.S. forces a target of resentment, but the U.S. military can help reduce this by making sure civilians are consulted on governance, civil affairs and reconstruction projects. Problems can ensue when U.S. and allied forces assume they know what the local civilians want, much like American businesses that mistakenly adopt an “if we build it, they will come” strategy.
  • Harnessing the power of influencers. Many U.S. businesses have blogs or journals written on the Internet. Often, these are written by employees who follow a set of guidelines but are allowed to both praise and criticize the company. Criticism gives the bloggers a dose of credibility. Blogging provides a unique opportunity for indigenous civilians and government employees to express their opinions relatively safely and anonymously on the Internet without the risk of being killed by insurgents.
  • Social marketing. In order to get civilians to cooperate with coalition forces, the U.S. military needs to identify and emphasize the benefits of doing so in a way that motivates the population. For example, providing tips on insurgents can improve civilians' safety, if safety is a motivating benefit.

There are a number of challenges to adopting Madison Avenue tactics. Businesses rarely operate in environments as complex and dangerous as war zones and they enjoy relatively straightforward market research access to target audiences. In addition, businesses do not need to address complications arising from the use of force.

In addition to Helmus, other authors of the study are Christopher Paul and Russell W. Glenn.

The study was conducted for the Joint Urban Operations Office, Joint Forces Command by the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI).

NDRI is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

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