The Army is reviving a decades-old ad slogan, hoping it will reach a new generation of recruits
The new marketing campaign is based around the tagline, "Be All You Can Be," which was originally featured in Army ads during the 1980s and 1990s.
The Army, which fell 25 percent short of its target of 60,000 new recruits last year, has rolled out a fresh marketing campaign.
And while most of it is new, one part may sound familiar. The tagline is, “Be All You Can Be.”
That phrase graced Army recruiting ads in the 1980s and 1990s, and now it’s back as the Army tries to figure out how to appeal to Gen Z in one of the toughest recruiting markets ever.
At the formal unveiling, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said the rebranding originally was scheduled to launch in August.
“Seeing the situation we were in, in terms of the challenging recruiting environment, our marketing office worked very, very hard to pull this forward so that we could get it out on the airwaves - and the digital waves, I guess - earlier,” she said.
Back when the tag line first rolled out in 1981, the Army was struggling with its transition to an all-volunteer force after the end of the draft.
It was also desperately trying to attract better-qualified recruits. It had fallen 16,000 recruits short in 1979, then hit its goal the next year only by taking a large number of high school dropouts and those with low test scores.
Army leaders also badly wanted to reverse deep image problems lingering from the Vietnam War and a public perception that the military was only for those who couldn’t find work.
“There was a great deal of concern on the part of the Army itself and American society and pundits that the U.S. was not going to be able to sustain an all-volunteer force,” said University of Kansas history professor Beth Bailey, who wrote America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force.
“So the move to a new recruiting slogan and a new recruiting campaign was meant to really recast the Army at that point.”
The Army also was still learning how to approach modern market research and advertising, now that it had to sell itself.
After a run of uninspiring ads, working with the nation’s oldest ad agency, N.W. Ayer, it settled on what’s regarded as one of the greatest ad campaigns of the 20th century, built around that “Be All You Can Be” tagline.
Bailey said it gained such traction the Army created country and disco versions, and even marching band music it pushed out to high schools and colleges. The Soviet military stole "Be All You Can Be" it for its own ads.
In the U.S., the campaign lasted two full decades, an eternity in advertising.
Originally, it was accompanied by an soaring, irresistible ear worm of a jingle crafted by musician Jake Holmes, who is credited with writing a host of other famous jingles for the likes of Dr Pepper and General Motors, as well as music for The Four Seasons, Frank Sinatra, and Harry Belafonte.
Now, “Be All You Can Be” is back in ads crafted for different times and different potential recruits..
They will appear on TV and billboards, in print and social media streaming video, and on other platforms. The first paid ads with the reincarnated tagline are expected to run during the NCAA basketball tournament.
“We in the Army and frankly all of the military services are facing the most challenging recruiting landscape in decades,” Wormuth said. “So it is a perfect time to be launching our new brand, launching our reinvented tagline, 'Be All You Can Be.'”
Despite the tag line’s nostalgia-inducing past, she said recycling it was based on substantial market research.
“This was not just sort of a 'Let's reach back to a thing that we all remember and like,'" she said. "It was put through its paces against other alternatives. It resonated by far the best with audiences of all ages.”
She says research showed young people are looking for a sense of purpose and a way to join a community, as well as be challenged. So the phrase works for them, as well as their parents and others who might influence their career decisions.
“It's a tagline that stands the test of time. It evokes limitless possibilities for people from all walks of life,” Wormuth said.
Army leaders said the rebranding and marketing campaign also targets a persistent recruiting problem: a cultural gulf that has widened for decades. Fewer families have ties to the military, leaving fewer young people familiar enough with it to consider enlisting.
“This is more than a recruiting campaign,” said Major General Alex Fink, who leads the Army’s marketing office. “The brand refresh and the creative executions are about reintroducing America to its Army.”
The new campaign is just one way the Army is tackling its recruiting problem. It also has boosted bonuses and other enlistment perks, created a program that can get soldiers promoted for bringing in new recruits, and started a new incentive program for recruiters.
“We have a lot of positive momentum,” Wormuth said. “And we are doing better at this point in the year than we were doing last year.”
But, the Army also has set its goal 5,000 recruits higher this year, a target Wormuth said is “very ambitious” and “a stretch.”
So, recruiters will still have their work cut out, even if the retro rebranding is a hit.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.