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Recruiting troubles accelerate Army's plan to bring back 'Be All You Can Be'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Army, which fell 25% short of its recruiting goal last year, has rolled out a new marketing campaign. And while most of it is fresh, as Jay Price of member station WUNC reports, one part is familiar.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The Army unveiled its new branding with a sizzle reel. It features commanders and other soldiers talking about the possibilities being an American offers and revives a slogan the Army hadn't used in more than 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH LEE SMITH-DANIELS: Be all you can be.

PRICE: Be all you can be. This iconic tagline ran for two decades through the 1980s and '90s, an eternity in advertising. Originally, it was accompanied by an irresistible earworm of a jingle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Be all that you can be. Find your future in the Army.

PRICE: Those original ads began running in 1981.

BETH BAILEY: That is the moment of Army advertising that people look back to with nostalgia.

PRICE: Historian Beth Bailey is the author of "America's Army: Making The All-Volunteer Force." The draft had ended just a few years earlier. The Army was still struggling with the transition to solely volunteers, trying not only to find enough recruits but bring in better-qualified ones. And it badly wanted to reverse deep image problems lingering from the Vietnam War.

BAILEY: The move to a new recruiting slogan and a new recruiting campaign was meant to really recast the Army.

PRICE: After a run of uninspiring ads, it settled on what's regarded in the ad world as one of the greatest campaigns of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

: Because America calls for nothing less. So you can be all you can be.

JAMES MCCONVILLE: Be all you can be.

MICHAEL GRINSTON: Be all you can be.

CRAIG LATIMORE: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Be all you can be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Be all you can be.

SMITH-DANIELS: Be all you can be.

PRICE: Now that line is back in ads crafted for different times and different potential recruits. The rebranding has been in the works for years, but at the official unveiling, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said the rollout was accelerated by several months because of the recruiting troubles.

CHRISTINE WORMUTH: We in the Army and frankly all of the military services are facing the most challenging recruiting landscape in decades. So it is a perfect time to be launching our new brand, and as a child of the '80s, I am super-excited that we are bringing back a reinvented version of be all you can be.

PRICE: Despite the tagline's nostalgia-inducing past, she said recycling it was based on substantial market research. It showed young people are looking for a sense of purpose and a way to build community, so the phrase works for them as well as their parents and others who might influence their career decisions.

WORMUTH: This was not just sort of a, let's reach back to a thing that, you know, we all remember and like. It was put through its paces against other alternatives, but it resonated. It resonated by far the best with audiences of all ages.

PRICE: Army leaders said the rebranding and marketing campaign also targets a cultural gulf that's widened for decades. Fewer families have ties to the military, leaving fewer young people familiar enough with it to consider enlisting. Major General Alex Fink leads the Army's marketing office.

ALEX FINK: This is more than a recruiting campaign. The brand refresh and the creative executions are about reintroducing America to its army.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN MAJORS: And if you have the will to make the world the best it can be, the Army has a place for you.

PRICE: The new campaign is just one way the Army is tackling its recruiting problem. It's also offering incentives for recruiters, bigger bonuses to new soldiers and promotions for some troops who refer enlistees. But recruiters still have their work cut out. Their target number this year is even higher than last year. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.