Rebranding Effort: USO heralds past to set foundation for future growth

New management took over the United Service Organizations World Headquarters (USO) in the spring of 2002.

New management took over the United Service Organizations World Headquarters (USO) in the spring of 2002.

When John Hanson became SVP for marketing and communications, he sent a friend to Atlanta with a video camera to find out what people there thought about the organization.

"'They come down, they get you, they take you away. I don't believe in them things, but my husband does,'" Hanson recalls one woman saying.

Not everyone was so oblivious. Older people remembered the USO fondly, but many didn't realize it was still around. Hanson realized that the USO needed to remind people of its good works and to clarify that it is a nonprofit organization, not a government agency.


Williams Whittle Associates (WWA) beat four competitors for the USO's PSA contract. The firm participated in an omnibus phone survey that reinforced Hanson's informal findings.

"If you know Bob Hope, you know the USO," says Martha Wilcox, WWA's director of strategic marketing and development. Awareness dropped for each decade younger than 35.

The first step was to reinforce the USO's warmly regarded brand. The nonprofit could not afford airtime, but team members knew that Americans most closely associated the USO with entertainment. It created PSAs set to an updated rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You (In All the Old Familiar Places)" that featured a montage of performers ranging from Hope to Drew Carey.


The campaign's timing, though unintentional, proved ideal. Due to complications in obtaining music rights, the launch was delayed until March 2003, just as the war in Iraq began. "People weren't buying [ad] time, and PSA directors had almost nothing [to] use to show support for the troops," Hanson says.

"I thought it was the patriotic thing to do," says Judy Womack, community affairs director for Fox 5/WNYW in New York, who added the spots to her station's PSA rotation. Team members also believe the PSAs' strong production quality made them attractive.

The USO introduced the spots by hosting breakfasts for PSA directors in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and LA. Hanson and WWA personnel spoke at the breakfasts. The firm followed up with personal contact to PSA directors, several of whom had parents or grandparents who met through the USO or had family or friends serving overseas, the team discovered.

The USO's board of directors also pitched the PSAs in their own communities, and one promoted them at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. "It was not the typical guerrilla campaign, but it was a campaign of people committed to our cause who had the ability to buttonhole people and say, 'Sit down. You're going to watch this,'" Hanson says.


WWA's media tracking shows that the PSAs ran more than 110,000 times on nearly 1,000 TV and radio stations between March 2003 and March 2004. No airtime was purchased, but the agency estimated the exposure at $24.5 million in ad value.

"What we can't truly measure is whether people gave to us because of it," Hanson notes. The spots didn't directly solicit donations, but they did include the organization's website address ( "We got more [donations] from our website than ever," says Hanson, adding that fundraising in general spiked during the campaign.


WWA is working with the USO on its current "Nerves of Steel" campaign, which includes print and broadcast spots showcasing service members.

"For the next step, I would like to show more of the things we do," Hanson says. While the USO is linked to entertaining troops, entertainment represents only 20% of its work. The USO also provides recreation centers, airport lounges for service members, and other opportunities for relaxation.

PR team: Williams Whittle Associates (Alexandria, VA) and the USO (Washington, DC)

Campaign: "I'll Be Seeing You"

Time frame: March 2003 through March 2004

Budget: $300,000

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