Capt. Sarah Rhodes and Wunderman Thompson’s Alan Whitley and Sydney Busby speak to LBB’s Addison Capper about putting gamers to the test in ‘Inside the Battle’ and why connecting with America’s youth is so important
Once upon a time, the vast majority of American youths had a close connection with someone that had served in the military - a grandfather, uncle, aunt, brother that was an advocate for the virtues of military service. Over time and for various reasons, fewer people have joined the military and, as such, been advocates to potential future joiners.
In a bid to connect with America’s Gen-Z community, the Marine Corps and its long-standing agency Wunderman Thompson recently tapped gaming influencers to help launch 'Inside the Battle: Battle Tactics'. The campaign challenged four top gaming content creators - Melonie Mac, The WarOwl, Strange Rebel Gaming and WhosChaos - to train with Marines to compete together in a realistic battle experience aboard the Marine Corps Base Quantico. With help from Marine mentors, they prepared for the physically and mentally demanding training for four months all while documenting their journey for their viewers before arriving in Quantico to put their skills to the test in realistic infantry tactics training.
Eager to know more about the strategy, production and the challenges associated with not glorifying what a Marine does to a younger audience, LBB's Addison Capper spoke with Capt. Sarah Rhodes, communications strategy and operations officer at US Marine Corp., Alan Whitley, group creative director at Wunderman Thompson, and his colleague Sydney Busby, content strategy director.
LBB> This relationship has such a history, especially in the topsy-turvy landscape of advertising. Why do you think the Marines and WT have stayed strong for such a long time?
Capt. Rhodes> The longstanding AOR relationship between the Marine Corps and Wunderman Thompson can most certainly be attributed to the relationships that have been built and fostered for more than seven decades. Since joining the team in October 2020, I have found that working closely with the WT team has contributed greatly to the impact we have together with our marketing and advertising campaigns.
LBB> What kind of brief did you present to Wunderman Thompson for Inside the Battle? And what were the main goals going into the project?
Capt. Rhodes> The main goals of the project were to introduce the audiences of the gaming content creators to the Marine Corps and increase awareness of the Marine Corps within this community.
LBB> Alan and Sydney, what kind of brief were you presented with for this campaign and what were your initial thoughts when you saw it?
Alan> The agency brief for this was simple and smart. Our team handles the Marine Corps Recruiting social properties so we see first-hand the power of peer-to-peer influence. Here, the ask was to help a group of popular Gen-Z influencers come to understand important truths about the Marine Corps and why service matters. But they needed to figure that out for themselves. We couldn’t think of a better group than gamers, because it’s so easy for the average person to assume that gaming (first person shooters, etc.) is close to what Marines do. It’s not, and that’s what made the discovery so interesting.
Sydney> The brief covered familiar territory - how do we bridge the gap between the Marine Corps and American youth - but with a slightly different slant. The threats America faces are changing, and to defend it, the Marine Corps needs to recruit and develop a different kind of warfighter. At their core, this new warfighter’s motivations to serve are the same as those who came before them. All Marines have in common a sense of purpose driven by the belief that our country’s values are worth defending even at the highest costs. But the battles the Marine Corps faces today require a strategic mindset based in critical thinking and an analytical approach to defeating an adversary.
The challenge for Wunderman Thompson was how to create a platform that would resonate with American youth with these skills while still remaining true to the Marine Corps’ cause and identity. We’ve partnered with the Marine Corps Recruiting for 74 years and are deeply invested in their mission. The team was energised by this problem and got to work on a solution.
LBB> You are looking to bridge the gap between the Marine Corps and American youth. Why is that important for the Marines as a brand? And why do you think that bridge exists?
Capt. Rhodes> We are looking to bridge the gap between the Marine Corps and the American youth. The Corps represents all facets of American society and while there may be a bridge between the Corps and the current youth, it is important to note that they play an integral role in our future. Ultimately, we want to keep them informed of the future opportunities available to them.
Alan> There used to be a familiar proximity between the military and American youth. Everyone had a grandfather, an uncle, a dad, a brother who had served, so the culture was well known and there were lots of advocates to vouch for the benefits and value of military service. Over time, fewer and fewer people have chosen to serve. In particular, the Marines being on their radars as a real option is critical, and it starts with exposure.
Sydney> The Marine Corps is the smallest branch of America’s armed forces. And when fewer than one percent of the population serves in the military, the odds of a young man or woman having any proximity to military culture or a service member are low. Pair that with a deeply divided country that politicises institutions like the military, which in previous generations have been able to stay above the fray, and the gap gets even wider. It’s our job to help the Marine Corps bridge the gap to connect with a broad cross-section of young men and women who believe that the values and freedoms that America was founded on are worth defending but haven’t necessarily thought about the Marine Corps as a way to do that.
LBB> What kind of strategy and research drove that insight?
Sydney> We were tasked with reaching young men and women with a strategic mindset and keen critical thinking skills, which are increasingly needed in the Marine Corps today to perform in a more technologically capable and innovative force. Our research showed that these prospects didn’t associate the Marine Corps with technology, strategy and innovation in the same way they did other services and we thought gamers could help. We knew that for our message to resonate authentically, we would need credibility with this audience. We’ve executed influencer campaigns for the Marine Corps in the past and knew how valuable these partnerships can be. They offer both the reach and, when you pick the right partners, the legitimacy to resonate with your audience. This was especially important for us because we know that Gen Z is more distrusting of institutions than previous generations. We needed our creative platform to feel authentic.
LBB> When did gaming / gaming influencers come into the conversation? What initially sparked that idea?
Capt. Rhodes> The Marine Corps has used influencers in the past, in fact, Inside the Battle is the second iteration of influencer created content that we have used to reach a new audience. The use of gaming influencers was brought to the table after several talks and discussions around how Marine Corps Recruiting Command (MCRC) could tap into the STEM community. Eventually, using gaming influencers to reach this new audience was a tactic we decided to invest in. The positioning of the gaming influencers needed to be very intentional. We decided to invite them into our world to show them what it is that Marines do. We needed to demonstrate the mental and physical toughness that is required to be a Marine.
Alan> This effort was the evolution of a successful effort called Battles Won Bootcamp, where our team had invited four YouTube personalities to experience Marine Corps Recruit Training firsthand. That had generated so much excitement, we immediately began planning for how to ‘one up’ ourselves. As a brand, the Marine Corps has been looking to be involved in the gaming space in a way that makes sense for us strategically in terms of recruiting efforts. We have taken deliberate steps not to be part of certain efforts. However, with this campaign, we knew that we wanted to bring gamers into a strategic and tactical Marines environment and let them experience it firsthand. The only questions were which gamers, where and how.
Sydney> Gaming cultivates many of the attributes the Marine Corps is looking for in the next generation of Marines: critical thinking, problem solving and strategy. Pair that with the increasing popularity of gaming and esports and we knew early on that there was an opportunity here. But we knew we had to take a nuanced approach to reaching this audience. For the past few years, we’ve watched other military branches try to connect with this community through competitive gaming teams, but that wouldn’t work for the Marine Corps. We took it very seriously that putting the Marine Corps in the context of gaming could be misleading. We never wanted to imply that the battles Marines fight are a game or that the risks they face are anything short of deadly.
Instead of placing Marines in the gaming community, we needed to bring gamers to the world of the Marine Corps. This provocation sparked the idea to challenge gaming content creators to attempt some of the mental and physical obstacles Marines experience while they defend the country. We didn’t just want to show them the training, we wanted them to carry the weight of a fully loaded pack, hear the chaos of a firefight and feel what it means to rely on the Marine next to you to defend your life and accomplish the mission.
LBB> I actually wanted to ask you about that element of the campaign. Given the nature of the Marine Corps' business, I imagine there's a fine line between connecting with youths and glorifying actually what the Marines do to kids. Did this cross your mind when building the campaign? How did you deal with that?
Capt. Rhodes> This was most definitely at the forefront of our mind when developing and executing this campaign. While we want to reach an audience that the Marine Corps typically does not reach - gamers - we also did not want to gamify the role of the Marine. We wanted to bring these professional gamers (WarOwl, MelonieMac, WhosChaos and Strange Rebel Gaming) into our world and show them how we train to fight and win for our nation. Each of these gamers were uniquely positioned to connect with their audiences on a level that we would not typically be able to by sharing their raw, first-hand experiences.
Sydney> Like I said, it was always top of mind for us that we couldn’t present the Marine Corps’ battles as games. Even though our content creators may play first-person shooters and know some basic infantry tactics as a result, it was important that they walk away from the experience with the understanding that the battles Marines fight to defend the country are real and the costs are high. This also needed to come through in their storytelling for their followers.
LBB> On the flip side, there are still big stereotypes around gamers - the moody teenager locked away in their basement, eating chips and shouting at mom, for example. When in reality, there is significant research into the cognitive and social benefits of gaming. It's pretty cool that a brand as old as the Marines is into supporting that. What are your thoughts on that?
Capt. Rhodes> Marines are strategic warriors that win our nation’s battles, many of which face extreme mental and physical challenges every day. We specifically wanted to challenge gamers because of their unique ability to problem solve and adapt quickly. What we saw play out with our four gamers is their drive, grit and tenacity to never give up. While they may have struggled in the beginning physically, they pushed themselves to their limits. They absorbed the knowledge provided by their Marine mentors and came to Marine Corps Base Quantico ready to train and accept the challenges laid out for them.
Sydney> We know that’s just not true. We never wanted to approach the gaming and esports community like they were this mysterious untapped market. Gaming has become so prevalent and we know we’re probably reaching these same men and women through our other advertising channels. The difference is in the context. Before Inside the Battle we haven’t connected with them through gaming, and this platform gave us the perfect opportunity to illustrate that the strategic and analytical traits they use when they play their favourite games are valued by the Marine Corps as it positions itself to face the next generation’s threats.
LBB> Once you had the idea locked down, what was the process like from there? How did you go about building out the campaign and getting the content creators involved?
Alan> Deciding we were going to invite gamers into the world of the Marines was just the first step. We still needed to design an experience that would allow the gamers to immerse, have fun and be challenged. Ultimately, we wanted them to take away new understanding around the mental and physical challenges for Marines to do in the real world what games only simulate. And we hoped they’d get some insights around why Marines do what they do.
Sydney> We knew that to have the most impact, the experience we designed needed to be authentic. This is where the decades-long partnership with Marine Corps Recruiting really benefited us. The Marines we work with are more than clients, they’re true partners in our creative process. We worked with them to design a training plan that mirrored the physical tests that actual prospects must pass to enlist. We also worked with some of the Marine Corps’ best marksmen and infantry tactics instructors to develop a challenge that would test the creators’ ability to think strategically in a mentally and physically taxing environment.
LBB> What's the production like for a campaign like this? Is it more about letting the content creators do what they do or are you more hands on?
Alan> When we did Battles Won Bootcamp, we saw the power of letting those content creators do what they do with minimal interference. Also, we wanted an honest assessment. So, each of the gamers brought their own production/cameras and we arranged for periodic moments for them to be able to create of-the-moment postings to their followers. Of course, we also supplied a separate production crew to capture all the interactions between the gamers and their respective Marine teams. Ultimately, we captured the action and the action behind the action.
Sydney> We wanted our gaming content creators to be in the driver seat of the story they were telling their followers, but we knew we couldn’t throw them in the deep end. In the months leading up to Inside the Battle, we paired each creator with a Marine mentor to help them navigate the physical and mental training they would need to complete to be fit for the challenge. This had the added benefit of making the Marines key players in the gamers’ stories. For some of their followers with little exposure to military culture or service members, this was the first time they ever got to see Marines being themselves.
LBB> What kind of reaction did you and the content creators get to the campaign?
Capt. Rhodes> The reaction that everyone had to the campaign was an overwhelming feeling of pride. We had a fantastic WT/Marine Corps team working on this campaign and after months of slog, being able to see all the hard work come together, and not only the growth of the gaming influencers, but the reaction their followers had, it was unbelievable.
Alan> We’re still waiting for some data, but there was huge engagement for all the content creators and it was a lot of fun to watch the light bulbs go off as they experienced what really doing the thing is like. In a game, you may get to teleport to the top of a mountain, but in the Marine Corps, you have to run up it with a loaded pack and additional gear. It puts a whole different spin on things.
Sydney> We like to say we knew Inside the Battle was going to be a smash from the start, but it really did exceed all our expectations. The content creators we partnered with were deeply affected by the experience and presented it to their followers in such an authentic and resonant way. TheWarOwl in particular says at the end of his video that he’s going to take what he’s learned with him for the rest of his life. So far, the series has earned more than 5 million views.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Capt. Rhodes> The trickiest component that we faced with this campaign was operating in a Covid-19 environment. The safety and health of everyone within this campaign was the first priority on everyone’s mind. We are extremely proud of how everyone took all precautions to ensure that we could safely operate within the new environment.
Sydney> I can’t stress enough how important we felt it was to be honest and transparent about the risks and challenges Marines face when they defend Americans. The gaming community is playful and honestly a little snarky, we could have leaned into that but that’s not true to the Marine Corps and risks trivialising the battles Marines fight.