Last summer, a civilian posed a question to then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen during one of his "conversations with the country."
"Admiral, you have a room full of folks here who are supporters of the Sea Services. You've made a strong case for the importance of a coherent maritime strategy. Now, what would you like us to do?" Bill Butler asked.
Admiral Mullen uncharacteristically hemmed and hawed and seemed surprised by the question. Finally, he said, "We want to hear from you. You each have two senators and a congressman. Be in touch with them."
Mr. Butler, a top marketing executive, persisted. "But what should we be asking of these officials? What, exactly, do you want from them?" The admiral never did offer a clear answer. But he did make a telling admission. "We're not good at marketing. It's not what we do."
While the admiral's candor was admirable, the comment was disturbing, especially in light of the Navy's dismal showing in a 2004 Gallup poll that asked two key questions of the public: Which is the most important branch of the military? And which is the most prestigious? The Navy came out next to last on both, just a few percentage points above the Coast Guard.
Such data strongly suggest that the Navy must get better at marketing. After all, the service is not merely competing in the arena of global geopolitical power. It is also competing in the arena of domestic public perception. Lose in the latter and we won't have the resources to win in the former. During one of Admiral Mullen's "conversations," a naval officer on the staff of a senior admiral admitted that Navy leadership found the Gallup results disturbing. The question he never asked outright was whether professional marketing could help solve the perception problem.
Too Much Focus on Public Affairs
The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes—but only if the Navy masters marketing as a discipline. Just as naval officers master disciplines outside the traditional purview of sea power—financial management, for example—they need to master marketing, too. The problem is that the Navy's focus on public affairs—rather than marketing—is depriving it of several key tools to get the job done. In short, public affairs officers must be marketers, too.
The Navy may not be a business in the classic sense, but it does share some defining attributes. It must satisfy customers—the American people and their elected leaders. It must compete for resources—funding from Congress. It must compete for the talent of young people considering other career choices. And it must do so in an efficient and forthright manner. (Indeed, compared to business, the Navy must meet much higher standards of transparency and accountability.) In short, much of what the Navy has to do to achieve its mission is marketing-dependent.
To be sure, the Navy's public affairs organization is aware of and responsible for much of this. In an hour-long conversation with the Chief of Information (CHINFO), Rear Admiral Frank Thorp IV, I found that I was in agreement with and often impressed by his insights into how to take on these challenges. But I was also frustrated for him: the Navy, because of its inattention to marketing, seems to be fighting this fight with one hand tied behind its back. And it doesn't have to be that way. Four serious issues need to be addressed immediately:
- Recruitment—Is the Navy meeting its needs? Are its dollars being efficiently spent?
- Retention—Are we keeping our best officers and Sailors?
- Appropriations—Is the Navy being well-served by Congress?
- The Big Stick—Does the Navy effectively project American power, whether calling on friendly ports or sailing into combat?
As long as the United States maintains an all-volunteer force, recruiting will remain a challenge for the Navy. In business terms, that process consists of two parts: marketing and sales. Making young people aware of the military option so effectively that they identify themselves as possibly interested is the marketing half of the equation. Getting them to sign up is the sales part.
The Navy acquires its recruits, and the costs are substantial. In Fiscal Year 2007, the service spent some $338 million on recruitment marketing—$187 million on advertising and another $151 million on recruiting support (efforts not related directly to advertising). The Navy met its goals of 39,000 active-duty enlisted recruits and 1,813 officers. That translates into an average cost-of-acquisition of $8,244 per person. Four years earlier, in FY 2004, bringing on essentially the same number of recruits, the cost-per-recruit was $4,926. But four years before that, in FY 2000, the Navy brought on board 55,000 enlisted personnel and about 2,000 officers at a cost-per-recruit of $3,614.
Obviously, world events, the civilian economy, and even popular culture affect the military's ability to attract volunteers. Thus it is essential that the Navy and its advertising agency closely track the most meaningful metrics and adjust marketing efforts accordingly.
When asked about cost-per-lead and cost-per-recruit numbers and trends, the Navy's ad agency spokesman said they didn't track those key metrics; perhaps the Navy did. Four different public affairs officers and media specials at the Navy Recruiting Command in Millington, Tennessee, said they didn't have such numbers; in fact, I had to explain what they were. One of the PAOs ventured, "Maybe the bean counters at the Pentagon have it."
Useful raw numbers came weeks later, but I had to do the cost-per-lead calculations. According to an NRC media person, cost-per-lead metrics are not tracked because the Navy's use of mass-media television commercials, I was told, makes them too tough to measure.
The PAOs did a good job of finally tracking down and sharing what information they did have. But that is the problem with using public affairs as the lens. Marketing-oriented people would have had those numbers readily at hand. They would be sharing that information with the ad agency on a monthly basis and holding the agency accountable for its performance.
Another example of how a marketing orientation would make a difference in the Navy's communication efforts surfaced when a friend whose college junior son was interested in becoming a Marine officer sent an e-mail. He had gone to both the Marine Corps and Navy Web sites for information about officer training. Despite help from his Naval Academy-grad father, he was stumped. I, too, came away equally confused. Finally, I asked my 16-year-old son—who is very interested in becoming a Marine—for his assessment. "It's a very cool site, Dad; but it's lousy when it comes to useful information."
One naval officer asked whether it was appropriate "to base a condemnation of the Navy/Marine Internet marketing efforts on the anecdotal reports of two teenagers. Wouldn't it be more significant [to track] hit counts, etc., that help determine the effectiveness of these things? These data also exist." That officer is half-right; hits and unique visitor counts do matter. But so do usability and what comes off the page into the user's mind. There is a saying among marketers that for every person who complains, ten others share the same sentiments but stay silent. It is essential to pay attention when people make the effort to complain.
Smart marketers use qualitative research to help gauge usability—things like focus groups and one-on-one interviews. So I asked both the Navy and its ad agency what sort of qualitative research they are employing to assess the Web site's effectiveness. None of the six people I asked knew, and finally, a senior officer in CHINFO tracked down the answer: they don't do any!
Just as the Navy buys recruits, it also buys the skills and services of those it has trained. It does so in a real-world employment market where competition for those skills is fierce. The service now offers bonuses of up to $90,000 per person to get certain ratings to re-enlist—a classic use of the pricing component of marketing. But other methods are less costly, and the Navy is ignoring them.
One is the "net promoter score" pioneered by Fred Reichheld. This is the percentage of people—say, Sailors completing their first enlistment—who on a 10-point scale would "promote" service, minus the percentage who wouldn't (the detractors). The question asked might be as simple as, "Would you recommend enlisting in the Navy to a good friend or sibling?" Note that the question is different from whether they are choosing to re-enlist themselves. The latter might be a function of family pressures or other career opportunities or that $90,000 bonus. But the former, when measured and tracked appropriately, is a proven tool to understanding loyalty and reenlistment.
Reichheld's work on retaining customers and employees is the gold-standard of retention marketing. But when I asked the ad agency and the Navy Personnel Command about their use of Reichheld's theories, they confessed they had never heard of him. The command does use tools such as the Argus Career Milestone Survey, which allows Sailors to express quality-of-life opinions when they reach milestone events like reenlistment, advancement, transfers, or redesignations. And while not using the net promoter score is certainly no sin, not knowing about it is like hiring a new Navy football coach who is unaware of the spread-option offense.
The armed services seek presidential and congressional support using the currency of perception: can the Navy (or the other services) do the job? Can that carrier—or submarine, or SEAL team, you name it—help achieve a national strategic objective? Public perception is a piece of that equation because congressmen are influenced by what their constituents think and talk about. And to compound the challenge, congressmen are also subjected to the same media messages that are influencing their constituents. Given the fact that so few have ever served in the military, that media impact can be exaggerated. So, if the Navy is not perceived as being terribly important, making the case for the next (or next-generation) ship, plane, submarine, or other weapon system becomes much more challenging. No wonder, then, that the Gallup poll so disturbed Navy brass.
Communicating with and educating key constituencies is, according to CHINFO Admiral Thorp, not just the responsibility of flag officers or public affairs officers but of Sailors and officers throughout the Fleet. Real changes seem to be under way in how the Navy does this. Activities and outreach will be better integrated, rather than myriad but isolated events like Blue Angels shows, flag officer speeches, and Fleet Week visits.
Projecting the Big Stick
In a world grown skeptical of American competence and will, Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians is often the image that conveys our potential and resolve. If only we could channel Theodore Roosevelt and send The Great White Fleet steaming off to foreign waters. Today, power projection is more nuanced and includes economic, cultural, and diplomatic initiatives. Images of today's Navy are as likely to include Sailors providing disaster relief as an F/A-18 being launched from a carrier.
Ample precedent has been set for using the tools of marketing on the battlefield of ideas. Victory at Sea wasn't produced by the Navy, but it was conceived for NBC by Henry Salomon, a young Harvard grad serving in the Navy on the staff of historian Samuel Eliot Morrison. It was among the most successful documentaries in history. The 1986 film, Top Gun, had a huge impact on naval aviation recruiting.
More recently, the Navy has taken justifiable pride in telling its story of providing humanitarian aid in the aftermath of natural disasters in Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines. But nothing has demonstrated American might more effectively than images of precision-guided weapons surgically taking out targets with little or no collateral damage. (The power of such marketing tools is not lost on our enemies. Our enemies miss no media opportunities to claim credit for and publicize all manner of atrocities.)
Effectively communicating the role of today's Navy calls for more than publicity cruises or gun-camera images. Consider the challenges of pitching the new maritime strategy amid the media din of the presidential campaign, an unpopular ground war, and even the carryings-on of the Spears sisters. CHINFO staffers have done a good job of identifying the appropriate target audiences, making the case why this story is important and worthy of their time and space, providing them with materials they find useful, and then doing the sometimes thankless follow-up work What is more encouraging is that CHINFO has a thoughtful plan—and a very real sense of urgency—to extend key constituencies' understanding of the maritime strategy.
Set an Agenda, and Stick to It
If you don't set your course, somebody else will. You can't control the agenda, but you can certainly influence it. Don't be defensive or shy about telling your story. Military activities may be complicated or controversial, but Americans overwhelmingly support those who wear the uniform.
In 1980, when I was on the Reagan campaign staff, we ran a TV commercial that talked about Ronald Reagan's record as California governor; how he had turned a budget deficit into a surplus. We ran that commercial over and over. One day, New York Times reporter R. W. "Johnny" Apple called to ask what we were running; every man-on-the-street he interviewed kept telling him what an effective governor Reagan had been and how had turned a deficit into a surplus—a single message, repeated. So, tell your story, and tell it often. Marketers are always measuring reach (who we talk to) and frequency (how often we repeat the message). You should, too.
Be proactive, even though many in the press will continuously try to make you reactive. Some media outlets and individuals will be out to play "gotcha." Others will be much more receptive to your message. You have to work with both. Respect the members of the press but don't abandon your agenda for theirs.
Use All the Tools at Your Disposal
Word-of-mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool. After Admiral Mullen's conversations, the Navy never again communicated with the attendees. Nor did the service ever stay in touch with anyone who participated in distinguished visitor embarks, the occasional ship visits the Navy hosts for influential people. Not to capitalize on the good will engendered by these experiences is a major lost opportunity. Keeping the lines open with friendlies is the most basic form of customer relationship marketing; one of the new tools the Navy needs to master.
Recognize that public affairs is a distinct marketing tool. It is not nuclear science, but it is a discipline. Admiral Thorp realizes this and is taking aggressive steps to make it more disciplined and more proactive. With the support of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, he is increasing the number of PAOs from 209 to 269 and making public outreach a requirement.
Don't be reluctant to use paid media (you already use it advertising for recruits). The Navy needs to use these proven vehicles—commercials on Sunday morning talk shows, small ads on newspaper op-ed pages, or special-section advertorials in magazines. The Army has already set the precedent by dedicating a portion of its recruiting advertising budget to directly targeting parents—not just potential recruits.
The Navy needs to treat marketing as a professional discipline and not simply as an intuitive tool that can be picked up on the job. Just as you send officers for advanced degrees in financial management, you should send them to the top graduate business schools to learn marketing before they take on marketing-intensive billets like recruiting or public affairs.
Hire senior civilian talent—inside the Sea Services—even on a temporary basis. Yes, you hire ad agencies for recruiting ad campaigns, and civilians hold certain positions on the NRC staff. You need top in-house expertise to manage the ad agency better and bring best-of-breed marketing thinking in the Navy. Dip into the Senior Executive Service or use reserve commissions to bring in top-level talent.
Develop New Tools
Be aggressively open to testing new marketing tools—even those "not invented here." For example, the Navy's ad agency is encouraging active-duty and recently discharged personnel to post "life in the Navy" videos on YouTube. Such peer-to-peer efforts are a 21st-century adaptation of word-of-mouth advertising that offer great promise.
From a civilian (and news junkie) perspective, I think embeds in Iraq—and aboard ships on station in the Arabian Gulf—have been a terrific source of generally accurate, positive news stories. The obvious question is how can they be used in different arenas to help tell the broader Sea Services story? After the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens participated in an embark on board the USS Harry Truman (CVN-75), he wrote several thoughtful columns about the need for a strong Navy. The best way to engage people is to engage people.
Perhaps the most powerful idea the Navy could employ should be adapted from someone who had an especially good year in 2007: Al Gore. What is the Sea Services' (intellectual) equivalent of An Inconvenient Truth? For the environmental community, Gore's film and its promotion was a game changer. The Navy certainly needs one.
If Admiral Mullen had marketing professionals on his staff at the time of Bill Butler's question, he might have answered with the following:
Write your senators and your representative and ask them what they think about the new maritime strategy. Tell them to make sure that our men and women in uniform have the equipment and training they need to get the job done right. Remind them that 90 percent of our trade moves by sea and that we only have a month's supply of oil on hand at any one time. Bring the Sea Services to the forefront of their thinking.
As the new maritime strategy makes clear, we need a strong Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, working together. For that to happen, the Sea Services must be adequately funded. And that won't happen unless the story is effectively communicated to our citizens and to our political decision-makers. Communications is not a dirty word. Neither is marketing.