It takes a lot to bring American culture to a screeching halt, but that’s just what happened on Aug. 26, when a suicide bombing in Afghanistan killed 13 U.S. service members assisting with the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The tragedy immediately dominated social media, news coverage and conversations around the world.
As the deadliest day in a decade for the American military, the attack was arguably the first mass troop casualty of the social media era. Users took to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to post names and photos of the 13 fallen heroes. Influencers and reality TV stars put aside their petty squabbles to do the same, and their frenemies thanked them. For one day, the country stood united in grief, shock and horror.
And then businesses started following suit. All across America, bars and restaurants reserved tables for the 13 who wouldn’t be returning, with a drink in front of each of their empty seats. Florists, barbers and other professionals offered similar tributes, which also went viral.
One of the criticisms of an all-volunteer military (as opposed to a conscripted one) is that many families and communities don’t know anyone serving. The military can seem like something “other people” serve in, and wars a distant and remote phenomenon that “other people” fight in.
These tributes brought the loss close to home for Americans of all walks of life -- including me, who learned on Instagram that one of the fallen, Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui, had deep ties to the community where I grew up.
These viral tributes are changing America’s relationship with its 1.4 million active-duty troops, and 19 million veterans, in ways that aren’t yet fully understood. Will knowing these 13 service members make young adults more likely to enlist, or less? Will it inflame passions to re-engage with the Middle East, or reinforce an isolationist tendency to walk away from “forever wars”? Only time will tell.
Until then, how can brands better support our troops, and appropriately acknowledge this moment?
*Promote hiring vets and spouses. Starbucks is a leader in this regard, launching a program in 2013 to hire 10,000 veterans and spouses, meeting that goal a year early, and raising it to 25,000 by 2025. Verizon,
Nestle and Coca-Cola are also leaders in veteran hiring. And don’t forget about the special challenges of spouses, suddenly moving to a new state, uprooting lives and careers, and often finding that their professional license or credential doesn’t carry over.
*Support service-member organizations. The USO, Fisher House, America Supports You, Folds of Honor, Blue Star Families, Homes for Our Heroes, Pets for Patriots, Wounded Warrior Project and the Semper Fi Fund are just some of the outstanding organizations that support service members, veterans and military families. Memorial Day, Independence Day, 9/11 and Veterans Day are particularly good occasions to show that your brand supports the troops with not just dialogue, but dollars.
*Provide in-kind contributions. Verizon once let service members call home for free on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Independence Day. Coca-Cola provides military personnel with over two million beverage servings a day. Starbucks partners with the Red Cross and USO to provide coffee to troops overseas. Anheuser-Busch’s partnership with Folds of Honor promotes bar fundraisers and benefit concerts for military family scholarships. What can your brand donate that aligns your mission with that of our troops?
Brands that honor service members aren’t just showing support for 20 million consumers and their families. They’re reminding us that marketing, commerce and our entire way of life wouldn’t be possible without the ongoing sacrifices of a special group in which all give some, and some give all.