For Marketers, The Biggest Veterans Day Mistake Is Ignoring The Holiday

There are many reasons brands shy away from marketing to veterans. It’s a complicated audience, for one thing, with millennial vets having little in common with their Vietnam-era counterparts. But it's avoiding them altogether that's a mistake, says Liz Carmo, senior vice president of the military market at Refuel Agency, which specializes in target audiences. She tells Marketing Daily the best way to connect with this audience.

Marketing Daily: There are about 19 million vets in the U.S. or about 6% of the population. What do most marketers miss?

Liz Carmo: That it’s much bigger than that. We talk about this community as about 40 million, including active duty and reserve, military-affiliated, the National Guard, and all their families. And there are nuances within that. For example, there are 2.2 million military retirees who served at least 20 years.



Marketing Daily: Should companies treat each of those subgroups differently?

Carmo: You can reach the military and veteran family audience by some core principles, these common threads that tie them together. They’re all bonded with respect and service. And in many ways, it is a complex community to reach, and marketers are right to be nervous. They have many thoughts when they see things being portrayed incorrectly or someone flying the flag the wrong way. So they’re hard to reach. Marketers need to connect with them and learn how to speak to them.

Marketing Daily: But demographically, they are very different, right?

Carmo: Yes. Post-9/11 veterans are digital natives. And they are pretty different than Vietnam-era vets or Desert Storm/Gulf War people. These younger vets are millennials; many used things like Spotify and mobile devices well before their civilian counterparts. They’re more tech-savvy.

About half of all active duty forces now are Gen Z. Among the 25-to-54-year-olds, they have higher household incomes than their civilian counterparts and are more educated. Our work for Veterans Affairs included 27 different personas, and it was hard to narrow it down to those few. To many brands, that level of segmentation seems scary, or they don’t think they have the time to do it.

Marketing Daily: And if they don’t?

Carmo: You can just reach the whole community by giving your thanks.

Marketing Daily: Many fear that a simple “Thank you for your service” has become insulting.

Carmo: It is a flat message. I understand that. And it doesn’t resonate with everyone. But it’s worse if you do nothing. And there are so many other, easy things to do that get noticed and appreciated. Fly the flag. (Just do it in the right way. They see breaches in flag etiquette.) Hire veterans. And if you have veteran employees, have them share their stories.

Marketing Daily: Why are veteran hiring initiatives so important?

Carmo: It’s not just because they’re veterans. They’re talented. They’re disciplined. A lot of them have more education than the average workforce participant. Start employee resource groups for veterans who already work for you if you haven’t already. And have those people share their stories. Storytelling is so important for the organization. People want to understand who they are working with and be proud of it.

Marketing Daily: Other mistakes?

Carmo: Inconsistent promotions. Many companies have Veterans Day sales that offer nothing special for veterans. And when you offer a discount, make sure it’s always on. As extras, it’s OK to pulse larger savings at different times, like Military Appreciation Month.

Marketing Daily: Many companies are becoming increasingly wary of anything that looks or smells like a political cause. Brands like Target and Bud Light have been burned. Any special advice?

Carmo: Reach out to veterans in more authentic ways. You can donate to military service organizations but go beyond that by offering resources. Don’t just write a check. Connect with these groups. One group, for example, offers a home-office makeover for a military spouse. Fund a scholarship. Offer a free online course.

Marketing Daily: Is there a brand you think does this well?

Carmo: BMW North America is one of my favorites. It’s evolved from a program the company began with USAA and now includes a discount for military service members and their families of up to $4,000. It’s a company that’s taken the time to learn the community and give back. It’s done many activations, so that's super-fun, because we've done many event activations across spaces, like being the pace car for the Marine Corps marathon.

Another company is Wargaming, which came to us several years ago about the World of Tanks. The company wanted to tell the stories of the remaining World War II veterans who were tank drivers, many of whom had never shared their experiences. Some of their families had no idea what they did.

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