Amid Recruiting Crisis, Military Turns To Branding

In the mid 2000s, as casualty counts grew for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces faced a recruiting crisis. So, taking a page from the private sector, the military turned to branding as a solution to their image problem — to make the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps seem accessible and cool. Everything from Marine Corps hot sauce to Army paint ball guns hit the shelves. And Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport tells Robert Siegel the U.S. military is now doing a booming business.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Since 9/11, the U.S. has been needing more than a few good men and women. And military merchandise has become one recruiting tool. If you find yourself looking for a new fragrance, for example, consider the cologne Devil Dog. It is the officially licensed Marine Corps cologne, with aromas of sandalwood, cedar and citric spices - just $45 a bottle. It is one of many products that are licensed and trademarked by branches of the military. Christian Davenport of the Washington Post wrote about this foray into sales and marketing by the armed forces, and he joins us now. Welcome.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And let's back up a bit. How and when did the U.S. military get into product merchandising?

DAVENPORT: Well, I guess, we should start by saying they have always done this to a certain degree. I mean, there have always been Army t-shirts and Marine Corps t-shirts, but what's different now is that, in 2004, Congress passed a law that allowed the services to keep the revenue that they generated from issuing, licensing and trademarks.

And so what the services then did was create offices dedicated to this and the next thing you know, over the last few years, a lot more companies are selling these sorts of military-themed products and there are a lot more products that they're coming up with.

SIEGEL: But was the point of this program to try to make a little money off these very well-known trademarks of the armed services or was it to get out there and encourage people who might be considering enlisting - what a cool brand the US military is?

DAVENPORT: Well, there were several points. One was they wanted to protect their brand. They wanted to have some more legal protections that allowed them to say, go after people who wanted to make a Marine Corp t-shirt that was sexually explicit or was against, say, the commander in chief.

The other thing was, yes, of course, we're in an all-volunteer military, we're fighting two wars, there is a large and robust recruiting effort. And to the extent to which they can use retail products to sell to the general public and to interact with them in what they see as a positive way, certainly, that's going to help. And, certainly, if they generate a little money on the side from this, well, that's not an entirely bad thing, either, from their point of view.

SIEGEL: But what are some of the stranger products that you've found?

DAVENPORT: We found an Air Force birdfeeder. We found items for senior citizens, such as walking canes. And we found items for children and babies, such as camouflage bibs and sippy cups, items for women, a camouflage handbag that was lined with pink. Almost anything you can think of, the companies are coming out with.

SIEGEL: One of the sadder products, I thought, that you write about is the Deployment Blues candle, which is marketed as having a fragrance with a masculine cologne aroma to remind you - it's presumably a woman - of him while he's away from home.

DAVENPORT: Right. And that was developed by a Marine Corps spouse who thought, you know what, there's an entire market here for military-themed products for women and then she thought, and for children, as well. And so she developed Marine Corps backpacks for kids going - so that they could go off to school in military style. And, you know, it appears that she's right. I mean, there's a huge market for this sort of thing.

You know, the military, they're realizing that they're more than just a fighting force and that they are a good brand that people want to be affiliated with in the way that people want to wear New York Yankees t-shirts or University of Notre Dame baseball hats.

SIEGEL: So in simple dollar terms, since this office was opened, how much is it bringing in now?

DAVENPORT: Well, the Army estimates that Army-themed products in retail stores sold for an estimated $5 million in 2007. This year, those products, they estimate, will sell for a total of $50 million. So it depends on what the royalties are for all of those, but so far, the Army has already generated more than $1.2 million in revenue.

SIEGEL: Well, Christian Davenport, thanks for talking with us about it.

DAVENPORT: Great. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Christian Davenport is a reporter for the Washington Post.

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