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.