With Veterans Day right around the corner, many brands are planning to show some love for the more than 1.3 million active duty troops and 20.4 million American vets. Although their hearts might be in the right place when marketing to veterans, too often brands risk annoying, offending, or alienating them. I know because I've done it.
I didn't exactly grow up in a military family. My grandfather, grandmother, and stepfather all served, but I wasn't around to witness it. So, like many Americans, I learned most of what I knew about the military from war movies, M.A.S.H., and Major Dad. But as an adult, my perspective changed. On 9/11, I was 18 years old-enlisting age-and so were my friends and classmates, many of whom soon joined the military. Both of my sisters married active duty soldiers, and I live just outside one of the largest military bases in the nation, Fort Benning, GA.
After more than a decade's worth of conversations with vets, I've come to realize just how many knowledge gaps about the military exist for most civilians, and that includes brand marketers.
So what should brands keep in mind when marketing to veterans?
Veterans Day versus Memorial Day
If you want to really annoy vets, especially those who've been in combat, tell them, "Happy Memorial Day." Then watch their faces as they fight the urge to tell you, "There's nothing happy about it."
I once made the mistake of saying that to my brother-in-law, an Army veteran who spent years in war zones and lost friends there. My sister cringed and glanced at her husband, who suddenly looked sad and a little angry. Then, as nicely as he could, he explained to me something I already knew, but had never taken the time to think about-the meaning of Memorial Day, which is to remember and honor soldiers who died in service. And that's not a "happy" occasion.
Retired Army Reservist Carlos Madden agrees. Now the product and community lead at RallyPoint, a social network for veterans, Madden says the Memorial Day conversation is always very different on their platform than on other social media sites.
"The posts are more like, 'Hey everyone, just checking up on you. Hope things are going well. I was with this unit. Here are the people we lost and who we're remembering today.' So it's happy in a sense that we want to remember these people and their legacies and sacrifices, but not happy in the sense that we're having a barbecue or hitting up Memorial Day sales. I think that's the thing that hurts, that disconnect between the civilian world and the military population. We've had brands approach us about running Memorial Day ads on our site, and we've had to turn people away. We tell them, 'You don't want to do that, and we can't host it. You're not doing anything bad. Your message is just way off.'"
Image attribution: DVIDSHUB
Of course, Veterans Day is different. Held on the anniversary of the end of World War I (November 11), Veterans Day honors and celebrates all US veterans. It's perfectly acceptable to say "Happy Veterans Day" or to declare your support for the troops. It's just not an effective marketing strategy, considering most brands are doing exactly the same thing.
"Every Veterans Day, we see ads and social media posts from brands saying, 'We support the troops and appreciate your service.' That's nice and all, but it doesn't really make an impact. If they're offering a special discount for military or explain how they've actually taken action to support the troops, that's different. But part of the problem is that many brands are trying to appeal to the general public and show that they're patriotic, rather than trying to appeal to military. That's something that we'll easily see through. Authenticity is very important to people in the military, and we have a very good knack for looking through BS. So I think it makes it a little bit difficult for brands to do that stuff. If something isn't genuine, we see through it."
Take the Time to Get It Right
When I asked Madden what the military community thinks about how they're portrayed in ads and marketing images, he laughed. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's just that we talk about this stuff all the time, and depending on what it is, the military community finds how brands try to appeal to us as being almost humorous. Sometimes it's just so ridiculous that it's funny, and I know they're trying hard, but at the same time, it falls flat very often."
It's not so much the storytelling itself that's problematic, but rather the lack of attention to detail and realism.
"The military is a culture where there is a right and wrong way to do stuff, and that's down to how your hair is cut and how your boots are laced," Madden explains. "Often ads and marketing content feature someone in a military uniform, but the uniform doesn't look realistic. The person looks disheveled, and rank is all wrong. People in the military are generally very proud of their military service, so when you're trying to launch a military-friendly ad, take the time to get it right. Veterans are at work everywhere, so when I see marketing like that, I think, 'If they had just taken two seconds to ask the one veteran who was probably working on the set whether this looked right, it would be a lot better.' Because so many people don't do that very simple thing well, when brands do it well, it stands out. So, just paying attention to simple stuff like that goes a long way."
Steer Clear of Stereotypes
Stereotyping is never a great marketing strategy, and most marketers get that, but it's also the inevitable outcome of knowledge gaps. When we don't know much about a certain group of people, we tend to fill in the blanks with what we do know-for better or for worse.
There are many common stereotypes about the military, and none of them are true of every servicemember, or even most servicemembers.
The most hurtful of these stereotypes, Madden says, is the idea that vets are somehow "broken."
"I don't want to call anybody out, but I've seen companies run ads that basically say, 'Hey, you're a veteran. You have PTSD. You need help.' Often brands and media outlets mean to do well, but they portray veterans as broken, and we're not broken. We may have different needs or different lifestyles, but we're not messed up from whatever our experience was. That's something that just really gets under my skin, and I've seen posts from other RallyPoint community members saying the same thing. Not all vets have PTSD, and we don't need to be handled with kid gloves. I would just be very careful about that type of messaging. There are certainly vets who need help, and there are ways to help them, but marketing anything around the idea that we're somehow disabled just based on our military experience is offensive."
Other stereotypes are less offensive, but just as inaccurate. For example, not all vets are combat soldiers. Brooks Hickox, an Air Force vet who's currently in nursing school in Florida, says he doesn't identify with images of servicemembers that most brands portray, including the Air Force itself.
"Recruitment ads tend to show planes flying and doing all this cool stuff, and that represents a very small percentage of the Air Force," says Hickox, whose work mostly involved IT and intel, and included one tour in Iraq. "For years, whenever I told anyone I was in the Air Force, they would say, 'Oh, what do you fly?' I would say, 'A desk.'
"Basically the military is kind of a micro-society. Within the Air Force, you've got doctors and lawyers and clergy, people who do finance work, people who are cooks, people who hand out towels at the gym. I don't think our experiences are well represented in marketing, especially in recruitment ads."
Image attribution: Sgt. Angela Lorden
That micro-society also includes people with very different perspectives. Both Hickox and Madden advise against political content aimed at the military because they're just as divided on those issues as the rest of the nation-even on issues where one might expect them to agree.
For example, while several veterans groups have spoken out against the NFL players' #TakeaKnee movement (and Nike's Kaepernick ad), many vets support the protestors.
"I don't feel disrespected or insulted in the least," says Hickox. "I know vets who feel that way, but I've heard from other vets who are very outspoken about how it's [the players'] right to protest, and that is what our country and democracy is about-making our voices heard. Sometimes it takes an act like that to get your voice heard. There have been retired high-ranking officers speak out in support of taking a knee."
In fact, one poll of 8,000 servicemembers and vets found that 62 percent think NFL players have the right to protest during a game, but almost 40 percent will turn off the game because of protestors.
Madden says a general rule for marketers is, "messaging that causes divisiveness within the veteran community is not good."
Focus on Diversity
Politics aside, the military is more diverse and socially progressive than you might think.
Women now comprise 16 percent of enlisted servicemembers and 18 percent of officers, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Among enlisted recruits, 43 percent of men and 56 percent of women are Hispanic or a racial minority. UCLA estimates there are roughly 163,000 transgender American vets and approximately 70,000 gay or lesbian servicemembers.
Hickox remembers when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was first repealed. He didn't "come out" as a gay man until several years later, but not because he was afraid of being shunned by his fellow Air Force members. "As soon as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was repealed, the Air Force rolled out extensive training on how to be sensitive and respectful towards gay people. We had to do computer-based training on it every year, along with freedom of religion training and cultural sensitivity training. Once I did come out, I had no issues. Everyone has always been respectful, not just out of their own compassion and decency as humans, but by authority. We were told and trained to be respectful and not to discriminate, and prompted to think outside the box we'd always known."
Even without the training, Hickox says simply serving in the military tends to make people more open-minded and inclusive. Having grown up in a small conservative town, his world view changed dramatically once he saw more of the world.
"The Air Force exposed me to people from all over the world and different socioeconomic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, different cultures and ethnicities. You do have those people who were raised the way they were raised, and they stick to their guns on everything and never change. But by and large, it's the other end of the spectrum. You have people from all over thrown into a mix of people from all over, and that just naturally expands your mind and your thinking."
Actions Speak Louder When Marketing to Veterans
Saying "Happy Veterans Day" and announcing that your brand supports the troops might be a good way to convince the general public of your patriotism. But when you're actually marketing to veterans, be prepared to do more than talk.
Image attribution: Sgt. Jesse Houk
"Companies that are doing veteran marketing well are actually engaged with veteran issues," says Madden. "They're hosting job fairs and hiring veterans. They're partnering with respected veteran services organizations like Wounded Warriors or Team Rubicon, which is a volunteer group of vets who go out in disaster areas. Brands that partner with those folks are doing really well because they are literally putting money into helping veterans come to the aid of other veterans and Americans. It's less lip service and more action. These are the things that are helpful for us, and if you say you're going to do those things, then do that and tell us about it. That genuine action is the thing we most respect."
Madden also points out that veteran employees can be your best advocates and grass-roots marketers. "Set up a good veterans program within your company and market that," he suggests. "If those veterans have a really good experience, they'll tell people how the company did a good job onboarding them, mentoring them, helping them fill skills gaps they might have had, or hooking them up with other veterans within that company.
"Once you have a good core group of veterans that enjoy working for your company, then you're in a good position to say, 'Hey, we don't support veterans just by running an ad with a guy in a messed up uniform. We have veterans working for our company or engaged with our company who say we are doing a better job at these things, or that we've hired more of their friends, or whatever that is.' Then you come across as much more genuine. We are only going to trust another veteran when they say a company cares about veterans. Any CEO could say that, but if the guy in the mail room is a vet and says your company is awesome, then we're going to be like, 'That company is awesome. They're hooking our buddy up.'"
So this Veterans Day, instead of tossing out a blanket "Happy Veterans Day" statement, consider using the opportunity to celebrate the vets who work for you. And when Memorial Day rolls around, unless you have a really good and relevant story to share, consider keeping quiet.
Featured image attribution: R.D. Ward