Fix up, look sharp

Siân Davies is a brand and marketing consultant with a decade of experience working for some of the world’s biggest companies


The British Army is doing itself a disservice by failing to communicate its brand effectively. The Army needs to have a brand that appeals to multiple stakeholders, so that it can be a stronger organisation over the longer term. There is residual goodwill and public respect towards the Army, with 90{4dab693c107f7b6d4058a0febcf4eed43717abc6a37e80004208d6080fd302b5} of people stating that they support members of the Armed Forces, but there remains a clear gap in public understanding of their role.[1] They respect the Armed Forces – even more so than NHS staff – but don’t quite understand what it is that they do.[2]

However, these high levels of respect have not translated into a clear understanding of the Army itself. It is one thing to respect a serviceman or women, but another to hold affection and regard for the institution. The Army can learn from the NHS here. As an organisation, it is loved by consumers, beating even global juggernauts like Dove and Visa, who spend millions on brand campaigns every year.[3]

Part of this is due to the regular access and interactions many people have with the NHS, but it is also the result of a highly strategic approach to managing the brand across multiple groups of stakeholders. The NHS knows exactly how valuable its brand is, and the trust it generates, and it therefore seeks to maintain a strong hold on how it shows up in all public arenas.[4]

The success of the NHS demonstrates that size, complexity and public funding is no barrier to building a brand. The NHS employs 1.3 million people,[5] and its budget is about 3.5 x bigger than the entirety of UK defence.[6] There’s no excuse, and no reason, for the Army’s failure to have a brand that communicates effectively with its key groups of stakeholders.

Building a strong brand

In order to build that institutional respect and understanding, and bridge the gap between civilians and the military, the Army must first understand and clarify the needs of their stakeholder groups. Then it must decide on the role the brand plays for that audience. There are five broad audiences to consider:

  1. Existing servicemen and women

The brand can be a rallying cry, inspiring them in challenging times (particularly during budget and staffing cuts) and encouraging them to stay the course in the long-term. An effective brand could significantly help to improve retention.

  1. Potential recruits

The brand can act as a beacon, persuading people to choose the Army over both other public sector and defence organisations, and over easier (and sometimes better paid) jobs in the private sector. A strong Army brand here could help address some of the challenges of under-staffing.

  1. Politicians

The brand demonstrates the value the Army uniquely brings to UK defence and security capabilities, showing how it fulfills UK defence aims and ambitions. This helps to ensure that the Army does not unduly suffer from funding cuts – a particular risk, given the long-term equipment spending plans of the Navy and Air Force.

  1. British public

The brand helps to build support, enthusiasm and empathy for servicemen and women. This further helps recruitment and retention, as people see the Army as a viable career choice that leads to status and wider appreciation by the public, which can help compensate for some of the challenges of a life in service. It is important that this message steers clear of purely venerating veterans and the injured. It needs to put forwards a positive message and build understanding of the realities of Army life; not create a pity party that lionises the forces and their sacrifices.[7]

  1. The wider world

The brand projects power and influence, supporting broader UK defence ambitions. A successful brand will reassure allies, deter enemies, and help the UK to secure and retain an influential place in global politics. A strong global brand can also assist in procurement negotiations with major global firms – be someone they are proud to supply, and you can often negotiate better terms and agreements.


There are two critical implications for the Army. Firstly, it needs to set out a precise strategic viewpoint that can then be translated into relevant messages for each stakeholder group. Secondly, it needs to build the internal capabilities to deliver this message consistently.

Setting out a strategic viewpoint

The most effective brands are intertwined with a coherent, long-term strategic view. To succeed, the Army’s brand needs to reflect the long-term ambitions of the Army and its role in wider UK defence. This will help ensure that messages are consistent, meaning that they look and feel like part of a coherent overall strategy. It will also mean that messages stay consistent over time, reinforcing the long-term strategy of the Army. The messages need to be fully embraced by those within the Army, but particularly those in HR, communications and leadership roles, who can then also work to ensure that brand and messaging is consistent with the reality of service life day to day.

Realistically, this will be very hard for the Army to achieve in its current state. There is a lack of clarity on the role of the Army in the long-term, which others have covered in much more detail and nuance elsewhere.[8] It is cornered by complex political realities, and thus far has failed to put forwards a clear view.[9] Solving that challenge is beyond the purview of this post (and this author), but once a strategic direction has been set that needs to act as the basis for the Army brand.

Building internal capabilities

The complexity of managing a multiple-stakeholder brand means that the Army needs to have a team of people who are experienced and able to agree a strategic direction, and push it through to execution, year after year. It is important not to outsource this task to ad companies and consultants – they will no doubt deliver excellent work, but they are very expensive to maintain in the longer term. It will be more effective and cost-efficient for the Army to develop the capability internally. This will likely involve some external hires at the start, and then as the capability is embedded, new Army recruits can be trained up as specialists. This will help further ensure that brand and messaging is consistent with the lived experience of Army men and women.

Again, solving this will be hard for the Army. It’s okay for the brand to be a journey, and it’s okay to not be perfect all the time. It’s only natural that sometimes the Army won’t live up to every brand ideal it espouses. But it is not okay to ignore vast groups of stakeholders.

The Army is living the consequences of this right now in the form of recruitment and retention issues. These cannot be solved with yet another snazzy, short-term recruitment campaign that seeks to conceal a declining offer for new joiners behind sexy messaging and facebook ads. A long-term, strategic approach, which reflects a clear strategic view of the Army’s role in the future, and considers the needs of multiple groups, is the only way forwards.




[4] See to get a glimpse of how tightly controlled brand guidelines are. For a more detailed view, they have publicised 2016 research on stakeholder views, which shows the depth of consideration they give to their brand. You can find it at






The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to

Horse Guards Parade, June 2017
Image courtesy of MoD/Crown copyright 2017

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9 Comments on "Fix up, look sharp"

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Ross McLeod
This is an interesting article, and some parts of it are almost convincing. It was the sort of thing which led me going to Sandhurst all those years ago. Unfortunately, the author herself completely contradicted the substance of this article earlier this year, when she argued publicly – and accurately, in another article: “At the start of this year, the British Army and its agency Karmarama revealed its new recruitment campaign… And it’s rubbish. I don’t normally get too annoyed by ad campaigns, but this one has personal resonance for me. When I’m not being an international brand consultant, I’m… Read more »
Well, the issue of branding is a controversial one, as who “owns” the brand? Until the army is clear about “who” they are then it is doomed to circle round and round individual interests, capbadges and vague tribal loyalties (such as tanks, parachutes, equipment support etc etc). Media and comms seem utterly denuded of freedom to be proactive, instead they trot out safe lines and rather dull messages which the original post hints at, probably due to a irrational fear by senior officers, themselves in fear of MB and government. Coming back to the brand, until the Army and Defence… Read more »
Sian Davies
Cris – agree, and it’s a complex question in the Army with so much history. I have faith it can be resolved. Again I tend to look to the NHS, as they’re such a strong brand nationally, and yet individual hospitals also have very strong brands and histories, such as the Royal Marsden. They have their issues, of course, and Great Ormond Street has sadly been dragged through the mud in the press recently, but generally I think they have a good balance between hospital branding (analogous to regiment/cap badge) and NHS branding (analogous to the Army overall). For the… Read more »
Senior doctors, the BMA and other professional bodies all have freedom to speak and yet their reputation isn’t enhanced particularly. Even the current speaking truth to power narrative rings hollow when one sees the old and bold urging it, yet when in office the same folk were notorious for their temper and reaction to free thinkers. My feeling is that “political” control of the military remains poorly defined – perhaps a national/state covenant is required, the MOD structure (rather than just the military) is in part to blame and the media messaging is a symptom rather than an individual malaise.… Read more »
Sian Davies
Hi Ross – thanks for the comment. For me personally, it’s more of an evolution in thought than a shift, and I apologise if it comes across as contradictory because it didn’t feel that way to me. As you say, I had rather a visceral reaction to the new recruitment campaign when it first came out, and I’ve spent a lot of time between now and then reflecting on why that was. The conclusion I came to was that the army was essentially only acting as a brand targeting potential recruits – not all of the different stakeholders. I think… Read more »
Ross McLeod
That makes sense, Sian. I tend to agree that the Army felt that it had a clear purpose in TELIC and HERRICK, too (though both from my own observations, and from reading far more authoritative analyses such as Christopher Elliott’s High Command [1], I fear that in reality we squandered lives primarily to maintain institutional relevance, and to bolster senior officers’ careers, promotions and perks). To me – now looking at the the Army from the outside – it looks like Blockbuster video stores in the mid-1990’s: the vestigial remnants of a once-superb organisation, now fated to drift to into… Read more »
Ben Benwell
Sian, Your article is timely. I am unsure whether you were aware of current activity or whether this was genuine coincidence but much of your article, and indeed your previous article, are recognised within the Army and form the basis of new work. One could argue that we have not, at least in recent history, ever really understood our brand. The best we have managed is to free load on the back of a recruitment campaign strap line from the 90s, and to exploit the very visceral effect that two long campaigns brings to the national psyche. As a result,… Read more »
Siân Davies

Ben – many thanks for the thoughtful reply. It’s reassuring to know that the Army is taking such concerns seriously, as I wasn’t aware of the current work on brand. I would love to take you up on the offer to meet. September is difficult but I’m around all of October if there is a date that works for you? I don’t want to put my email on a public forum but if you message me via linked in ( we can arrange an appropriate time?
Many thanks and kind regards,

Dave W
I’m torn. Clearly the Army needs to recruit, and the strength or otherwise of the Army’s brand will have an impact on this. However I’m as minded to attribute failures in recruiting to a buoyant economy, the lack of a shooting war and the experiment in operationalizing Kafka that Capita are currently engaged in, as any problem with branding. However: There is never an excuse for using the word stakeholder. Unless you’re a management consultant, in which case you’re already beyond saving, so you may as well. The Army does have a clearly defined purpose and “role in the long… Read more »