BBDO to Take Peace Corps Past ‘Flower-Child Image’

The Peace Corps has chosen BBDO Atlanta to tap into the unfulfilled idealism of “echo boomers” and their empty-nest parents. And given the recession, the agency says it has a better value proposition for potential recruits, too.

The federal service organization has recruited some 168,000 volunteers since it was created by President Kennedy in 1961, but its appeal has fluctuated over the years. It now wants to reclaim its brand and become relevant to a new generation.

The estimated $300,000 account, which is largely pro-bono (not all of the media is donated), went to BBDO after a review of undisclosed shops. A campaign is set to launch in September, and while the bulk of it will speak to postgraduates, baby boomers will receive a share of the message. The client is “worried about [the brand] not being as relevant as it once was,” said BBDO Atlanta president Chris Hall. “The flower-child image needs to be updated.”

BBDO’s strategy, based around Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred,” is to capture what Hall called the value proposition of the organization and make it attractive to “the unfulfilled idealist.”

Periscope in Minneapolis won the Peace Corps account in 1998. The marketing budget then was less than $40,000. The organization suffered in the late 1990s, when campaigns cast Peace Corps service as a form of professional development—a message that lacked impact at a time when unemployment was near record lows. But as the economy has tumbled, interest in the Peace Corps has rebounded. Recruiters in San Francisco received almost 400 applications last year, up sharply from the previous two years. “We can now make the point that the value offering is a two-way street,” said Hall. “You give and you get.”

With an operating budget of $275 million, the Peace Corps has almost 7,000 current recruits, and is looking to double that number in the next three years. (Its high point for recruitment came in 1966, when it had 15,000 volunteers.) Part of the task of making the organization more relevant involves making it more diverse. Only 39 percent of current volunteers are male, and only 15 percent are nonwhite. Six percent are over age 50. Eighty-six percent have college degrees.

“There are other pockets of the population for very skilled volunteers, like baby boomers who can help communities build infrastructures,” Hall noted.

Another challenge, he said, is to overcome the belief among some would-be volunteers that there is more useful work to be done in the U.S. than overseas. “To some people, the idea of the Peace Corps seems like a boondoggle, but exporting compassion is a valid and meaningful thing to do,” said Hall.

The war in Iraq is also having an effect. Peace Corps inquiries are up 15 percent nationwide this month alone, according to client representative Barbara Daly.

BBDO was the largest of the five finalists to pitch the account, and its selection was applauded by some Washington observers. Mike Smith, vp of communications at marketing firm White & Baldacci in Herndon, Va., said the client needs a large, multidisciplinary agency to offset the diluting effect of other “corps” organizations, such as AmeriCorps, JobCorps and EntrepreneurCorps. “Borrowing equity is a great marketing example, but it dilutes the core franchise,” Smith said.

The Peace Corps’ mandate is to “promote world peace and friendship.” Volunteers work to improve educational, environmental and economic conditions on a local level. The organization currently works in 70 countries.