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Army Deploys 'Experience Center'

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NEW YORK The U.S. Army today opened an "Army Experience Center" in a major mall in Philadelphia with the goal of explaining how the modern Army operates and becoming a hub for community outreach programs.

But unlike recruitment centers in office complexes, the center is surrounded by retail stores and designed to look hip and modern, with giant plasma screen televisions, brushed stainless steel fixtures, interactive displays, helicopter and Humvee simulators, a gaming area and a cafe.

"It's not a recruiting center," said Army chief marketing officer Edward Walters. "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."

READ AN IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH ARMY CMO WALTERS.

The center is next door to a Sam Ash Music store and across from a Dave & Buster's restaurant, H&R Block outlet and skateboard park inside the Franklin Mills Mall. It's part of an Army pilot program that tests new marketing strategies and will become a model for other such centers in the future, Walters said.

The Army has invested about $12 million into the project, which includes the cost of renting the 14,500-square-foot facility for two years and creating content for the site, marketing expenses and the cost of building out the space. El Segundo, Calif.-based agency Ignited developed the technology and design of the center and US2 in Los Angeles managed the expansion.

"The Army was doing a lot of sponsorships previously. And sponsorships can be really, really great to build awareness of who you are, the fact that you exist and some basic things about the brand," said Walters, a former Kraft Foods brand manager who became CMO about a year ago. "But I pulled away from a lot of sponsorships and have put a lot greater percentage [of marketing dollars] into experiential marketing. And we will continue to do that."

Staffing the center are 20 Army soldiers and a handful of civilians. But instead of military uniforms, the soldiers will wear polo shirts and khakis. Their purpose is to tell their own stories in their own words, said Walters.

To draw the public into the center, the Army is running radio and outdoor ads in the Philadelphia area as well as national ads from its "Army strong" campaign, which replaced "Army of One" as the military service's theme in November 2006.