Do brands really know how to talk to veterans?

Fewer Americans have a real connection with the military and the disconnect shows in marketing missteps.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

The PR business prides itself on understanding society’s subgroups, whether Gen Zers versus millennials and Baby Boomers or Middle America instead of the East and West coasts. 

But do marketers really know how to talk to veterans? 

"It’s one very large group," says Raymond Crosby, president of Crosby Marketing Communications. "There are 22 million vets in the U.S., some 2.1 military personnel, both active duty and reserves, and there are 6.2 million military family members. It’s a combined market of almost 27 million people here in the U.S. alone."

It's easy for brands to misread this group, largely because many Americans have little to no connection to veterans or the military, experts say. 

According to Frederick Wellman, founder of veteran-focused PR shop ScoutComms and a vet himself, there is a significant disconnect between civilians and America’s military. 

"Part of the challenge, and the reason why my business exists, is the civilian-military divide," Wellman says. "Fewer and fewer people know people who serve. I’m a late Gen Xer, and growing up, everybody I knew had a vet in their family or several of them." 

Wellman adds that when he launched the firm nine years ago, there were 22.4 million U.S. veterans. That number has dropped to 18.9 million. "We’re at a time in America where after 18 years of war, many civilians don’t know much about who we are."

When World War II ended, almost 10% of the country consisted of active duty service members, according to an article on the divide in The Atlantic. Yet today, more Americans live on farms than are in active duty or in the reserves. 

The Defense Department acknowledges the problem. Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Anthony Kurta said this year that the civilian perception of the military is often "characterized by misperceptions, a lack of knowledge and an inability to identify with those who serve."

That unfamiliarity means it’s easy for people who don't know the military to make mistakes. For instance, the terminology of rank, seemingly obscure job descriptions and even differences between the service branches can cause confusion for civilians. 

"It’s a very unique and different audience," says Crosby, whose firm has worked in the space for more than 10 years. "People can look from a distance but the understanding of it takes a lot; everything from the actual role of the military to how it works to confluence of all the different service branches. Then there are all the different family connections. It’s a complex ecosystem."

That’s one reason why Crosby Marketing hired Meg O’Grady in August to lead its veteran-focused work. 

O’Grady is a veteran, was a military spouse and has worked on veteran and military personnel issues for the Defense Department and in the private sector. She experienced civilian misconceptions first-hand as she reentered civilian life and helped other veterans do the same.

"A lot of civilians who work with military lack that cultural competency about what the ranks are and even the differences between the services," she says. "I’ve even met people who thought officers and enlisted people were the same."

Wellman agrees. "It’s so easy to get the little things wrong," he says. "One of the things I saw that happened was a designer created a National Guard birthday social media post, but the image they used was a stock photo of a marine. There is no Marine national guard. My team and I took a screenshot of that and sent it to our clients saying ‘Don’t do this. It’s a trap.’"

O’Grady notes that one of the largest assumptions that civilians have about veterans as a group is that they’ve all been to war and had "really traumatic experiences," she says. "Some have, but in fact so many military service members do other kinds of jobs."

Another serious issue is authenticity. In the same way activists call out brands for "pink" and "green washing," businesses can face sharp criticism if they appear to be pandering to vets.

"You have to do your homework just like with any audience, but with this one, you really have to be careful," says Price Floyd, a former Pentagon public affairs staffer and director of campaigns and communications for the CT Group.

"I’ve told clients, even if I’m not doing PR for them, that if they want to help vets as a company, be careful," he added. "You don’t want to look like you're benefiting off their sacrifice. You do need to approach it carefully and thoughtfully and bring veterans into the process."

This can play out when companies offer discounts for holidays such as Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day. There’s a risk, Wellman says, of brands turning the occasions into generic military discount days. 

"That is the challenge I see for us when it comes to discounts," Wellman says. "Because there are a lot of good-hearted companies that are helping, and you don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. Our community needs it, no doubt, but discounts are a funny thing."

The solution, Crosby says, is for agencies to pick clients based on their sincerity.

"We feel it’s very important to only work with companies who want to authentically and positively engage with this market," he says. "We’re very selective agency and want to work with people who want to do positive things for this community and who do not view it as a dollar sign. Because vets can smell people who aren’t authentic a mile away."

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