Q&A: Army CMO Edward Walters

NEW YORK The U.S. Army is going retail. Last Friday, an “Army Experience Center” opened at the Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia, alongside a Sam Ash Music store and across from an indoor skateboard park. The purpose of the estimated $12 million project is to explain how today’s high-tech Army operates and create a hub for community outreach programs.

Staffed by soldiers and civilians, and equipped with interactive displays and helicopter and Humvee simulators, the center is part of a pilot program that tests new marketing strategies.

In an interview with Adweek senior reporter Andrew McMains, Army chief marketing officer Edward Walters discussed the rationale for the effort, how it’s being marketed and why the Army is shifting more dollars into experiential marketing.

Adweek: How is this different from a classic recruiting center?

Walters: It’s not a recruiting center. It’s really a place for the American public to get educated about the Army and for us to show that the Army is very high-tech and relevant. We also have over 20 soldiers that are assigned to this location that are very, very diverse in terms of the types of things they’ve done in the Army. They’re from all different career specialties [and] we have men and women. So, it’s not just about combat specialties.

What led you down this path?

There was already experiential work being done, because, if you think about it, the Army has a lot of simulators that we train soldiers with that are very realistic of what it’s like to be in the Army. Then at West Point, there was a colonel, Casey Wardynski, who helped pull together something called the Virtual Army Experience. One of the [other] things is when you look at people who join the Army, it’s people whose parents have served or it’s people who’ve lived near military bases. And over the last 50 years or so, the number of Army bases that are out there becomes less and less. . . . Major Larry Dillard, who is the full-time project manager on this, really was inspired to take other aspects of what we were doing in the experiential area, such as the VAE, and round that out.

Why Philadelphia?

Philadelphia is an area where we didn’t think we were getting our story out to the American public. The other thing is it’s a very diverse city. And we actually found an opportunity in the Franklin Mills Mall, where demographics are right.

How was the mix of stores at the mall relevant to what you’re trying to do?

There’s a Dave & Busters here, there’s a skate park here, there are a lot of 17- to 24-year-olds here that we are interesting in telling our story [to] and, of course, their families that would accompany them.

What other retailers did you look at in researching this?

The Apple store is very high-tech and modern looking. And you look at other places where there’s a lot of interaction, like [the] ESPN [Zone]. There’s a lot of interaction with the sports and personal experience. So, that gave us a confidence to proceed forward with a lot of the experiential aspects that we are doing.

You’re promoting something very serious. Are you concerned about that getting trivialized by the retail environment you’re in?

No. First of all, this is realistic talking to soldiers and everything. But we need to engage the American public where the American public is. [Given] the professionalism of the soldiers here and the way this experience center was put together, it’s very engaging and very professional. I don’t feel trivialized by that.

Will the soldiers at the center wear uniforms?

They’ll be wearing khaki pants and very nice polo-type shirts that say, “The Army Experience Center” . . . with name tags that have their name, their rank and where they’re from.

What criteria will you use to gauge the success of this?

There are no objectives on specifically how many people join the Army in this area. We’re looking at what do we learn about telling our story and what do we learn from the community on what’s important.

Are you doing focus groups or quantitative or qualitative research?

Yes, we do focus groups. We look at awareness of the Army before the center opened in the area and impressions of the Army before the center opened and then after. We look at different programs that we’re going to do in here. We’re going to be doing educational outreach programs, so we’re going to be looking for changes in perceptions about the Army.

How did you arrive at 13 as the minimum age for using simulators or playing games in the center?

A lot of that has to do with the America’s Army game. There is a station in here where there are Xboxes and PCs and while they’re waiting for the simulators and to go through the tactical operations centers, they can play the America’s Army game. And that is rated T for teens for 13-year-olds.

By what means will you draw people into the space?

We do marketing-mix modeling, just like they do out at consumer packaged-goods companies. So, we’re trying to balance how much do we do in terms of national advertising versus local marketing. It has been difficult in that model in the past to measure the impact of local marketing. So, we are really focused on being relevant to the Philadelphia area, using fun facts about real soldiers from the Philadelphia area and getting out and doing more local marketing in the community. . . . We’re going to look at doing everything from advertising on buses and by rail. We’re doing some advertising on the sides of buildings. It will be very relevant ads to where they are. So if they’re by a medical center, [we’ll talk] about how many medical technologies the Army invented.

Is your shift toward experiential marketing a result of frustration with traditional media not really connecting with people the way it used to?

No, I don’t think that’s the case. But this will be a greater part of our marketing mix. I’ve really made the decision to put a greater portion of our marketing [dollars] into experiential-type marketing like this. It’s really how the marketing mix works together. Our traditional marketing and advertising that we do really needs to pique the American public’s interest, intrigue them and [make them] say, “You know what? I didn’t really think of that. I didn’t know that.” [So], that the Army is now into their consideration set. That’s really still at the top of the operational framework, but [its] purpose is to drive people to experiencing the Army. Without experiencing the Army at centers like this or talking to real soldiers on military bases or seeing the virtual Army experience center [and] if we put all our eggs in the basket of traditional media or marketing, I just don’t think that we would be successful. So, those other parts are successful in combination with this.

Do you intend to open more such centers down the line?

I’m very open to that opportunity. There may be things in here like the career configurator [that can be spun out on its own]. We may actually say, “We’re still learning about the whole experience center. I don’t know if we’re quite ready to launch another one yet, but we’re going to start immediately getting those career configurators out into other places so that people can experience that.” So, it’s a combination of spinouts from this experience center and other experience centers like this.

How is the “Army strong” campaign tracking, almost two years since it launched?

The “Army strong” campaign has been doing really well because that campaign was inspired by real soldiers telling their stories about how they’ve become stronger individuals. . . . That campaign is working well for us. Putting this center up does not mean that that campaign is not working well for us. Like I said, we’re just making sure that our marketing mix is right and we have enough experiential assets out there.

Do people recognize the “Army strong” message when you do your polling and tracking?

They do. They understand the core of what it is, but it’s the right time now to allow the soldiers to talk about how they’ve become stronger. . . . The real context of what it means to be Army strong.

Are you frustrated that other people are telling the Army’s story and it’s not the full story and it’s portraying the military or the Army in a negative light? Is that also an impetus for doing something like this?

Sure. I don’t think our story is being told fully. We have over 150 military careers. We have great educational programs. We are a very high-tech Army and . . . we’ve gone out and talked to people and they don’t realize that. And we’re really proud to show those other aspects of the Army that aren’t being covered.

What will you do if people protest or march outside?

This is America’s Army. The American public very much appreciates learning about the Army, getting to talk to real soldiers. We’re in a free country. So there are opinions on things. We’re going to stand behind this and continue it and embrace the majority of those who really want to find out more about us. But anybody has a right, if they want or if they have other opinions, to express themselves.