Ad Men for U.S. Defense


Aug 20, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on August 20, 2007.

The products we buy — coffee, clothing, cars, computers and just about everything else — all have a brand identity, a reputation they're known by. Organizations have brand identities as well — some good, some bad.

An organization can have a very positive brand identity among a number of people but a very negative one in the view of others. Microsoft, for example, is both loved and hated. The same is true of the U.S. military. While the vast majority of Americans respect their nation's military, the brand identity of U.S. forces in some parts of the world is quite negative.

The brand identity of the American military is influenced for better or worse through every interaction the armed forces have with civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere else: at vehicle checkpoints, when fighting rages in neighborhoods, and in the treatment of detainees.

For the most part, the brand identity of the U.S. military has been “A Force of Might.” Many of the United States' adversaries have seen for themselves that the U.S. armed forces can bring tremendous firepower to bear and are a formidable power in open terrain force-on-force combat.

As a result, enemy forces are turning to irregular warfare, fighting in populated areas so they can blend into the civilian population. This makes it more likely that innocent civilians will be caught in the crossfire and that the local population will blame U.S. forces for these tragic deaths.

Improving the U.S. military's brand identity demands more than just a catchy new slogan. While communications can help explain U.S. policies, the behavior of every soldier, sailor, airman and marine is what ultimately determines how civilians view U.S. forces. Actions speak louder than words.

A U.S. military that is perceived as helpful and serving the best interests of the population will be far better received than a force perceived as hostile, insensitive, rude and harmful to innocent civilians. A new study we conducted for the RAND Corp. suggests the military can create more positive perceptions among civilians abroad by looking to successful consumer marketing practices.

For example, Apple Inc. wants to be known for products that are not only easy to use, but stylish. How does the company bolster this image? Apple's catchy “I'm a Mac” television commercials that pit a young, hip man representing Macintosh computers against his older, stodgier “PC” counterpart certainly capture the concept. More importantly, the company follows through by making sure its product design and in-store experience consistently support those messages.

The U.S. military, too, must be clear and consistent in everything the force says and does. Civilian casualties and other negative events are an inevitable part of war. However, America's soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen should strive to minimize the number and impact of any mistakes made, and have a consistent way of addressing problems and compensating for them.

To begin, the United States should identify its core message. Businesses refer to this as their “intended brand identity” — how they wish to be perceived. This identity is critical because it becomes a rallying point for everything the force says and does.

One possible core message for the U.S. military to civilians abroad is: “We will help you.” It accurately characterizes the best intentions of the United States for the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world.

Once the core message is determined, the U.S. military must exert great effort to ensure the force lives up to the brand. Here too, the country's armed forces can learn much from how businesses make sure products and services live up to their promises.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. wants to be known for great customer service. Training for those at every echelon in the luxury hotel company emphasizes the end goal of high-quality service. The organization not only trains employees on the do's and don'ts of quality service, it also instills a passion among front-line staff for delivering that service. It works to understand the service-delivery process from the customer's point of view.

If the military pursued a “we will help you” message, it would need — like Ritz-Carlton — to conduct training that is thorough and addresses every service member from private to general. Specific rules to guide interactions between military and civilians and that convey intended messages would have to be created, trained and enforced.

The military should never assume it knows what the local population wants without first consulting them. The U.S. armed forces need to monitor civilian perceptions regarding U.S. force actions in order to fine-tune its operations and tactics.

The services should build an internal culture that embodies the chosen brand image. From basic training forward, soldiers should be infused with an understanding that assisting local populations and using only the force necessary is no less desirable than employing overwhelming firepower.

The ways in which the U.S. military goes about re-establishing its new brand identity will determine whether it meets the successes of the Toyota Camry or the failures of the Ford Edsel.

Todd Helmus is an associate behavioral scientist, Russell Glenn is a senior analyst and Christopher Paul is a social scientist with the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization. This article is based on their new Rand study, “Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation.”

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