By Nicholas Drummond
If the Army wants to be seen as a relevant and essential component of UK Defence, then it is vital that it gets its message across to several diverse audiences. But who are they and how well is the Army engaging with them? What can it do to improve how its “brand” is perceived? This article looks at stakeholder engagement and argues that the Army’s core strategy is the foundation of effective communication. If the Army can reinforce external perception, then it will re-establish its importance and attract the increased investment it needs for modernisation.
02 The Three Marketing Levers – Strategy, Delivery and Communication
03 Identifying key stakeholder groups
04 Does the Army know what it exists to do?
05 A failure of communication?
It has been said that the British Army is fighting a major battle at the moment, the battle for its own survival. This may be an overstatement, but it has certainly struggled to secure sufficient investment for the modernisation it now urgently needs. Without it, various former chiefs have said, the Army risks being a hollow force or little more than a gendarmerie.
The roots of the problem can be traced back to 1990 when the Cold War ended. The resulting “Peace Dividend” allowed defence spending to be re-allocated to other areas of government. Almost a decade later, the 1998 defence review began to consider what a post-Cold War British Army ought to look like. It created a well-crafted strategic blueprint with a revised budget requirement that would have renewed many ageing capabilities fulling preparing the Army to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Unfortunately, 9/11 and the consequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan consumed most of the money earmarked for renewal. The situation got worse after global financial crisis of 2008. Faced with a potentially overwhelming budget deficit, the coalition government singled-out the UK’s Armed Forces for further deep cuts. Today, with 77,000 personnel, the Army is less than half the size it was in 1990, yet it faces an increased number of threats. Worse still, further cuts may be needed depending on the financial impact of Brexit.
To those who would dispute that the Army is in a state of crisis, the following issues show the extent to which it has atrophied in recent years:
- The Army’s combat vehicle fleet (Challenger 2, Warrior, CVR(T) and FV432 Bulldog) has an average age of 40 years with the latter platform approaching 60 years of service life.
- A lack of money has restricted spare parts availability meaning that many vehicles are un-serviceable and therefore un-deployable.
- Only 12 out of 31 regular infantry battalions have protected mobility. The rest rely on unprotected MAN trucks and Land-Rovers, creating serious potential operational risks should they need to deploy.
- The Royal Artillery’s 155mm and 105mm howitzers are approaching obsolescence; it has limited ground-based air defence systems and insufficient long-range precision strike missiles.
- Although recruitment figures have improved, the latest MoD personnel statistics (July 2019) show that soldiers are still leaving the Army faster than they can be replaced.
- Training budgets and associated ammunition allocations remain far from optimal.
- Many accommodation and training facilities are in dire need of refurbishment, with many barracks lacking adequate heating and hot water or being in a general state of disrepair.
Given the above factors, it isn’t clear how quickly the Army could generate a combat ready armoured brigade in an emergency, let alone a full war-fighting division. Many of the problems described have existed for some time.
Given the seriousness of the above issues and their potential to affect the Army’s readiness and combat effectiveness, you would expect the Army to come out fighting in defence of its budget. Strangely, however, the Army has somehow failed to establish a case for wholesale regeneration and increased funding. Some would say that it has failed at an even more fundamental level, by not re-establishing its relevance and importance to UK Defence. In contrast, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have been more effective in justifying their existence, although this may be because ordinary people can more easily relate to warships and combat aircraft than they can to armoured formations, which are more like orchestras with multiple components, rather than just tanks and infantry.
The burning question is how does the Army respond to this situation? How does it re-connect with key stakeholder audiences, especially those in Government, so that it can reinforce its position and secure the budget it needs to be fully fit for purpose?
02 The Three Marketing Levers – Planning, Delivery and Communication
The Army engaging effectively with key its stakeholder groups is analogous to the challenges of a large commercial corporation doing the same with its own essential audiences. Developing an engagement plan relies on corporate branding as a vital management function to coordinate what an organisation wants to achieve strategically, with what it actually does and what it says about itself.
Corporate branding, like product or service branding, is about positioning. This is about building a desired perception in the minds of the audiences you wish to influence. Using top global brands as an example, Apple’s positioning is about cutting-edge technology that’s easy to use. Disney is entertainment that the whole family can enjoy together. Harley-Davidson Motorcycles’ positioning encompasses perhaps the most powerful and simple of all concepts: it is about the sense of freedom that riding a motorcycle gives you. Many years ago, the US Army developed an enduringly powerful positioning idea. Being a soldier was about being the very best version of yourself, expressed as: “Be all you can be.” Behind this thought was a comprehensive set of tangible attributes and intangible values that defined the US Army’s brand. Its positioning was or rather is a shorthand summary that encapsulates everything it stands for in a single idea or message. As one of the oldest of all British institutions, the British Army also has an equally powerful brand that can trace its origins to the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Over the years, it too has achieved a resonance that has struck a chord with key audiences. A problem common to all brands is that, in time, they lose their relevance and become stale. The challenge is to re-invent the brand and product or service that underpins it so that it remains relevant to successive generations.
Distilling everything you stand for into a single-minded thought requires comprehensive planning and implementation. Agencies and consulting firms often divide the task into three stages as follows:
1. Strategy. The start point of corporate branding and positioning is strategic planning. This is about knowing why you exist, defining the values that underpin the organisation behind the brand, defining what you do, and setting your corporate goals. It is about developing the offer and working out how to package it in an experience that it is unique and compelling to those at whom it is targeted. Part of engineering a successful strategy is identifying the separate groups you need to reach. Segmenting stakeholder groups so that you can effectively engage with each is a vital part of this process and will be discussed further below. The process begins with insight that understands where key stakeholders are in terms of being converted, so that they buy-in to your message. The Stakeholder journey goes through five stages: awareness, understanding, belief, consideration, purchase and loyalty. At each of these stages there may be bottlenecks to conversion. SO insight that understands how stakeholders perceive the brand are extremely important. Ultimately, your brand is the interface between you, your offering and your target audience. The strength of your brand will determine the strength of the relationship you build with those it is aimed at. This is truce for consumer products, but also for service brands, like the Armed Forces.
2. Delivery. Once you have determined who you want to target and what product or service you wish to offer, the next thing is to deliver it. Airlines don’t just sell airline tickets, they create wall-to-wall experiences that start with the booking process and end when passengers collect their luggage at the airport. For the Army, it has to have a clear sense of purpose, but it needs to translate this into a comprehensive system for protecting the nation, which is no small task. Fortunately, the Army has existed for centuries and has created a highly sophisticated and effective means of preparing for conflict, fighting in combat and winning. Clearly, people are a key resource. But times change and society’s values with it. The question is whether the Army as it was a generation ago is still the Army we need today. Whatever the Army is, can it also maintain its appeal to the people it needs to recruit? It may need to refine its offer, not only to attract recruits, but more importantly to retain serving soldiers. It must also reinforce its relevance to politicians and other stakeholder groups who will ultimately decide if its utility makes it important or not.
3. Communication. Advertising has been a standard marketing tool even before television was invented. Today, we live in a thoroughly over-communicated marketplace, where people are bombarded with selling messages 24/7. Human beings have learned to tune-out unwanted messages, so the challenge is to cut through the clutter. The Army has successfully relied on advertising to convey its message, as its latest “Snowflakes” poster and print media campaign shows. It also relies on public relations in the form of TV news stories, press and magazine articles. Increasingly, online media has become an essential tool. What the Army says publicly must reflect its strategic objectives and the experience it offers. But communication can be a double-edged weapon. How often have you seen clever advertising, responded to it by rushing out to buy something, only to be disappointed by a product that didn’t work as advertised? So, a golden rule of marketing is do not communicate before you are able to deliver the experience you promise. If the Army’s offer to recruits has been eroded for various reasons, advertising will not help it if the fundamental issues have not been addressed.
Aligning the above marketing levers is crucial to effective engagement. Converting audiences to your way of thinking is not a battle that can be won with brute force and obstinance. Like so many recent campaigns, victory can only be achieved by winning the battle for the hearts and minds of key stakeholders. This relies on rational factors, but emotion plays a large part of the process. We forget the power of emotional appeal at our peril.
03 Identifying key stakeholder audiences
Corporate branding is intimately concerned with identifying different stakeholder segments and then devising targeted messaging strategies that ensure effective engagement with each. Typically, a commercial organisation will have six constituent groups. The most important of these is its Customers. For example, Boeing’s recent troubles with its 737 Max airliner have required it to provide a constant stream of updates to customers about what it is doing to rectify the problem, even though it doesn’t know when a fix will be approved by the relevant aviation governing bodies.
The second most important group is Talent. This can be divided into current employees, former/ retired employees and potential employees. Within each stakeholder category, sub-groups are likely to have different needs and priorities. Facebook, for example, has recently had to reassure current employees concerned about the Company’s image that it uses user data with integrity. This differs with potential employees who are more concerned about remuneration and long-term career prospects.
Companies also need to communicate with Strategic Partners including suppliers. The more a firm can build a perception of market strength within its category, the more negotiating power it will have when agreeing costs, fees and salaries.
Opinion Shapers are another essential stakeholder group. Within the car industry, for example, people like Jeremy Clarkson are hugely influential. Mainstream and specialist media, academia and activist groups all matter, because they can make or break a company.
Engaging with Capital Markets is vital for quoted companies. Maximising returns to shareholders is a primary management responsibility, but so is attracting investors. Although, like customers, investors will be concerned about product functionality and quality, they will also care about profitability more than value, which means firms have to manage conflicting priorities between different stakeholder groups.
Finally, there are Regulators. In the wake of the “Dieselgate” scandal, Volkswagen has had to re-assure EU and industry regulators that it has now put its house in order. This has involved positive communication, but equally corrective actions that deliver on its promise. In the wake of the scandal, the EU introduced the WLTP emission testing and required every car firm to comply. This compliance process has taken two years to complete. While it was happening, car companies couldn’t sell their cars and were left with stockpiles of non-compliant inventory that are now sitting unsold in fields.
In contrast, as a government organisation, the British Army has a very different set of stakeholders with whom it needs to engage. The first group is the General Public, many of whom will have no interest in the Army at all. It will also include families of serving and ex-personnel and people interested in defence, who will be extremely interested in it. Together, these audiences will create a prevailing view. The aggregate perception of the Army is likely to determine how other stakeholders view it, which makes it important.
Generally, the British Army enjoys a positive perception among the UK population and this directly influences the second constituent stakeholder group, Talent. Just as commercial firms communicate with potential, current and retired employees, so the Army must engage potential recruits, serving personnel and veterans. With 2019’s Snowflake advertising campaign the Army demonstrated a good understanding of what drives the current generation of potential recruits. With serving members, however, the Army has not done enough to drive retention, but this may be more about the offer itself than what the Army communicates. In contrast, the hounding of veterans by rapacious lawyers and the Government’s slowness to protect them has damaged its reputation. Establishing a Veterans Affairs office may help rectify this.
A fundamental part of the Army’s stakeholder engagement challenge is that it is a government department, but not the Government itself. It cannot say anything that criticises its political masters. It must be apolitical and show no bias whatsoever. Government is perhaps the Army’s most important stakeholder group, because what the Government thinks and believes about our Armed Forces will directly influence their funding and perceived importance. Within Government circles, the Army must engage Members of Parliament, including the House of Commons Defence Committee, which independently reviews the prevailing Government’s management of defence topics. It must also work with HM Treasury, which controls its funding. There is also the Ministry of Defence, which is the interface between the Army and Government. Like the Armed Forces, the MoD is also subservient to the Government and has to balance the needs of the Services with Government policy and finances. The Ministry of Defence not only manages the Army, but also the Royal Navy and RAF, so the Army must position itself relative to the other two services.
Another Stakeholder group is Industry Partners who provide and support the equipment the Army uses. While the Army builds relationships with industrial firms, it is at the same time reliant on the Ministry of Defence to ensure it builds a correspondingly strong commercial relationship with the same firms, since the MoD is the contracting party when it comes to acquisition.
The Army must also engage with Strategic Partners. These are other NATO and European armies with whom it may go into combat. The Army’s close ties with the US Army have proven to be a force multiplier when Britain has formed coalitions with the USA.
Opinion Shapers / Influencers are the sixth stakeholder group. This group includes mainstream and specialist media, but also academia, think tanks and commentators. The rise of social media has made this group much more influential than it was previously. In particular, ex-Army commentators (such as the author of this article) can often say things that serving soldiers cannot. Since they have nothing to lose, influencers can be used as “friendly forces” by the Army to communicate things that the Army itself is not empowered to convey. Often, they will know the Army well enough to criticise government policy without being specifically briefed to do so.
Thus, the Army has a complex web of stakeholders with whom it needs to engage to build its brand and achieve its strategic objectives. Much of what the Army conveys to general audiences will be driven and controlled by the Government and usually through the Ministry of Defence, but in many situations this will be the Government speaking to achieve political advantage. What the Army independently believes about itself, including its fundamental purpose, roles, needs and priorities, may often go unspoken, because it lacks the freedom to express its view. This makes it inherently difficult for the Army to communicate urgent or unmet needs or indeed anything that might undermine the Government. On the rare occasions that the senior Army commanders have stood-up to politicians, they have usually been fired or their careers have foundered. As an executive branch of government, you cannot have the Army questioning those who give it its orders. This is absolutely as it should be. But, at the same time, the Army needs to be able to challenge policy that it believes is prejudicial to good order and military discipline, i.e. evidently ludicrous political decision-making.
It should also be borne in mind that few politicians regard defence as a vote winner. They see defence is an insurance policy that they hope will never need to be used. Instead, politicians tend to be focussed on local issues directly relevant to their constituencies, like hospitals, policing and education. One tactic to influence Government is to influence the General Public, so that defence issues assume a higher priority. When the Modernising Defence Programme threatened to reduce the Royal Marine’s Amphibious Capability, the Navy was able to galvanise public support that made keeping it a political priority. This was about emotion as much as rational arguments in favour of keeping them.
The past decade has been extremely difficult, the global financial crisis was effectively over by 2016, but the uncertainty created by the Brexit vote has extended the climate of austerity that hangs over public spending. As things stand, we should not expect normal government business to resume until Brexit is resolved and we know what type of EU exit we will have and what it will cost. The situation has effectively put UK Defence into suspended animation. Consequently, any reluctance by the Army to engage when it will achieve nothing is perfectly understandable. However, the saying that “nature abhors a vacuum” is pertinent here. Unless the Army actively positions itself through positive engagement across all constituent stakeholder groups, it will be positioned in absentia. As an industry consultant and independent commentator, the lack of a cogent high-level narrative is not helping the Army.
04 Does the Army know what it exists to do?
Some people like to suggest that the Army has lost sight of its own strategic role. During the Cold War, it was built around responding to the high intensity threat posed by the Warsaw Pact Forces, hence the presence of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in Germany. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Army was unable to re-position and re-equip before being thrust into sustained counter-insurgency operations. As it re-prioritises existing and emerging threats, some commentators are saying that the Army itself doesn’t know what it exists to do.
This is nonsense.
The Army has a well-established sense of purpose. This can be summarised by its four over-arching defence commitments, which have remained constant over several decades:
- Domestic defence of the United Kingdom
- Protection of UK interests abroad
- Honouring NATO treaty obligations
- Actions in support of the United Nations
These high-level commitments translate into five primary roles based on conflict intensity:
1. Deterrence includes the Army providing an enhanced forward presence in Northern Europe; similar to our previous BAOR role, but increasingly performed in partnership with key allies. This role stems from a longstanding recognition that we need to go out to meet emerging threats at distance before they turn-up on our doorstep fully formed and implies an expeditionary capability just as we did in 1914 and 1939. But the overall size, structure, equipment, training and readiness of the Army are what most contributes to a positive external perception of its capabilities. (Within deterrence, the Royal Navy is responsible for our nuclear missile submarine deterrent and for North Atlantic security. The Royal Air Force is responsible for the Defence of UK Air Space.)
2. Peace Support includes disaster relief and aid distribution to ensure that legitimate government and the rule of law do not breakdown after a natural disaster or when there is political instability. It can also include policing, peace keeping and counter-insurgency operations. It is something we do on a regular basis and are adept at doing.
3. Hybrid and Proxy warfare activities include conflict prevention through training and mentoring provided to partner nations, counter-cyber and EW warfare, and counter-terrorism. It also encompasses “grey area” tactics that may be carried out covertly by SF and communication specialists, including 77th Brigade and the Royal Signals. We are not as active in this sphere of operations as some strategists believe we ought to be, but we certainly recognise its importance.
4. Limited War includes short-term, high intensity operations similar to the re-taking of the Falkland Islands, with activities bounded by specific political and military objectives. It might include international rapid reaction to counter a terrorist uprising or organised crime, restoring legitimate governments in the event of coups d’état and neutralising rogue states with WMD.
5. Major Conflict would be a war unrestricted by time, goals and geography. It would likely involve an alliance of several states acting in concert to achieve shared objectives, potentially to defeat a corresponding alliance of aggressor forces. It encompasses full-scale military action against a peer or near-peer adversary and may lead to nuclear escalation. This is obviously the most serious scenario and our land component might be vital in buying negotiating time that avoids a nuclear exchange.
The above roles provide a broad range of potential deployment scenarios for which the Army ought to be prepared. In fact, there is nothing new or special about any of the above. They reflect situations we have recently experienced or are a logical response existential threats that we might need to counter in the near future. Though we might wish to debate which are the most likely and which would be the most serious in their implications, it is invariably difficult to predict what the next deployment will be. Consequently, the Army needs a range of flexible capabilities that are relevant to as many of the above situations as possible.
We can divide resource needs to achieve readiness into six areas:
A. Personnel by type and number required to perform specific tasks (e.g. infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, signals, logistics, and other support units)
B. Weapon systems that degrade an enemy’s ability to wage war (e.g. small arms, cannons, tank guns, artillery, missiles, and explosive devices)
C. Protected mobility vehicles that enable a force to safely deploy on land to where it is needed (e.g. APCs, IFVs, MBTs, MRAPs etc.)
D. Communication systems that enable effective command and control up, down and across different formation types (e.g. combat net radio, computer networks, Satellite communications, batteries and charging etc.)
E. Logistical support systems that enable a force to be sustained when deployed (e.g. resource planning, supply sourcing, storage facilities, transportation, packaging and administration systems and processes.)
F. Training that ensures readiness.
Whether or not the above elements exactly reflect the Army’s own planning frameworks, they provide a frame of reference for devise a credible strategy. As you would expect, the Army has given careful thought to how the above pieces of the jigsaw define its core roles, mission types, doctrine and key capabilities.
What the Army has not done is made sufficient effort to communicate its own view of these strategic areas. If public audiences do not fully appreciate the threats we face or understand the Army’s role in countering them, it would explain why the Army had such a difficult time securing funding not just for renewal, but to ensure its most basic needs are met.
05 A failure of communication?
In 2010, we were presented with the Army 2020 plan. This divided the Army into two parts: the Reaction Force comprised of three high-end war fighting brigades built around Challenger 2, Ajax and Warrior, plus an Air Assault brigade. The other half was the Adaptable Force which lumped together everything else. The plan was widely derided because the Adaptable Force was seen as an un-deployable rump that lacked organic firepower and the logistical support needed to sustain it in combat. This was not a plan based on a rigorous analyst of our defence needs. It was the result of financial expediency forced upon the Army by a rookie government. It was a strategy driven by the Treasury not Army HQ. The Army hated it and disliked having to defend it, but loyally did so.
I respect the Army immensely for quietly getting on with the job while working away behind the scenes to develop a better plan. In 2015, realising that Army 2020 was flawed, the Government sanctioned Army 2020 Refine. This introduced General Sir Nick Carter’s Strike Brigade concept and added an extra brigade. The resulting structure gave us two Armoured Infantry brigades, two Strike or Mechanised Infantry Brigades and an Air Assault Brigade. Although much more coherent than the previous plan, it was still driven by financial constraints, rather than being based on an objective assessment of our land forces needs.
The problem with Army 2020 Refine is that a single division with five brigades is unwieldy and difficult to command. Ask any Staff Officer with operational planning experience and he or she will tell you that you need three of everything to optimise force generation and deployment cycles. The rule of three allows one brigade to be deployed, one to be working-up for deployment and the third one resting and refitting after a deployment.
The Army now talks about Army 2025, but it isn’t clear how this differs from Army 2020 Refine. Presumably, the Army is fed-up with criticism of Army 2020 and Army 2020 Refine, so has decided not to communicate its emerging future force structure in any meaningful way?
This brings us back to the elephant in the room: the 1998 Defence Paper, (https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/RP98-91) which proposed what many today still feel was the optimal Army strategy. Developed at a time when the UK was not involved in any major conflict, it objectively sought to define a realistic and achievable peacetime structure for the Army that would ensure readiness across for a variety of potential scenarios. It concluded that the UK needed two deployable divisions (heavy tracked and medium wheeled) with a total headcount of 110,000 personnel. The 1998 review set in motion a range of bold modernisation programmes like MRAV (the original Boxer programme) that would have delivered its vision. Unfortunately, operational deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan killed them and the Army has been on the back foot ever since. The truth is the Army still needs two deployable divisions. It would be a stretch to generate them with a total headcount cap of 82,000, but not impossible. A headcount uplift to 92,000 would make it easily achievable. For the foreseeable future, it is highly unlikely that Army headcount will increase above 82,000; yet a single deployable division with five brigades remains sub-optimal. How does the Army support a long-term structure when it knows it is far from ideal?
Unless the Army’s basic structure is coherent then the Army’s doctrine, size, organisational structure, equipment planning, logistics and supporting infrastructures, will all be sub-optimal. When the Army is forced to work within an untested or constrained structure, what does it do when it doesn’t work? It asks for the structure to be modified, as it did in 2015, when Army 2020 evolved into Army 2020 Refine. After the core structure changed, its equipment plans needed to evolve too. The Army has had the devil’s own job trying to re-align acquisition plans with its strategic blueprint and available cash. Various politicians and cvil servants from other departments (with their eyes on the Army’s budget) have seized upon the problems to suggest that the Army mismanaged its budget. This is unfair. The fundamental problem is that the Army is trying to deliver on a strategy that is flawed at time when it is not properly resourced. This has forced it to re-juggle its equipment plans and force structures. It like plugging dam with your finger.
The key to effective stakeholder engagement is the strategy that underpins it. If the Army can get its Army 2025 plan right, insofar as it impacts all key stakeholder groups, then it will be in a position to communicate effectively. It needs a powerful expression of its future direction, including its roles, mission types, existing capabilities, new capability requirements and resource needs, including personnel and training. It needs to convey its top priorities clearly, concisely and repeatedly.
No one expects any revised plan to be fully deliverable in the short-term. Some aspects of it, e.g. two deployable divisions and an increased headcount, may not be deliverable any time soon, but they should be aspirations.
Even those of us who follow the Army closely, who have great affection for it and loyalty to it, who seek to support its agenda and how it is perceived, we do not have a full understanding of where it has got to with its high level strategy. We do not expect to be fully briefed on the minutiae of sensitive contingency plans, but it would be helpful to have a good understanding of the basics.) Unless the Army does this, it cannot make a case for an increased budget and will remain a target for further cuts when the need arises.