Originally posted on Forbes.com.
After a long, hard winter, we’re all especially looking forward to Memorial Day this weekend. Let’s face it: For many people today, Memorial Day is a holiday because it’s the official start of summer. It is its own reason to celebrate, and lots of Americans do, even without thinking about the holiday’s origins.
A recent advertising-industry survey about how consumers are celebrating the day and how brands are leveraging it found that 54 percent of people surveyed plan to have a barbecue or party, while just 28 percent expect to attend a parade and 14 percent to visit a military cemetery. (Even among those who have served in the military, that number is still only 24 percent.)
Thanks in part to my longstanding relationship with and work for the Bob Woodruff Foundation (BWF), which works to help veterans who have suffered from brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, I’m one American who takes the origin of Memorial Day—to remember and honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country—seriously.
So it heartened me to see data pulled from a study commissioned by the foundation. Using the proprietary SONAR online research tool of JWT, where my fellow BWF board member and former boss, Bob Jeffrey, is chairman and CEO, the survey looked at how support for our troops gets translated by brands during this Memorial Day weekend.
“What we learned is that military service is still very much part of the American experience,” wrote Jeffrey in an email. “We all have awareness that the sacrifice of men and women of the armed services is worthy of our support and that big brands should jump in and lead with their support.”
Drilling deeper, a number of the study’s findings interest me—and seem especially relevant for any brand trying to strike the right tone (and those that might be skittish after recent social media insensitivity brouhahas). To start, there’s a different in perception about military service among generations, something brands should tune in to when crafting their holiday-themed messages. Asked what words come to mind when they think of military service, millennials were most likely to say “war”; veterans say “duty,” “commitment,” and “pride”; and older civilians say “discipline” and “bravery,” as well as “war” again.
Despite this, older generations seem to have a higher regard for the military (maybe because they didn’t know about equivalents of Abu Ghraib when earlier generations were at war). When asked for more word associations, 76 percent of boomers said “loyalty” and the same number said “pride,” while only 11 percent said “brutality” (compared with 32 percent of millennials who used that word—still a small number, but nearly three times as high).
Still, the overwhelming feeling across generations is positive. More than 70 percent of all respondents said “discipline,” “honor,” “bravery,” “sacrifice” and “teamwork.” And these American values haven’t been too strongly altered by the Bush administration’s controversial wars. People now are more willing to articulate the distinction than they were during Vietnam: Seventy-six percent of respondents agree that “I have been antiwar at times but have always been pro-soldier.” And 94 percent agree that “I respect people who have served in the armed forces,” while the same percent agree that “I am proud of our American soldiers.” Perhaps most relevant for marketers, 89 percent agree that “the soldier is an American icon.”
Just as Americans generally hold positive views of the armed services, they’re typically willing to get behind brands that support military troops and veterans. Half the respondents strongly agree that “I support brands that recognize the damage wounded soldiers suffer from things like PTSD,” and nearly as many (47 percent) strongly agree that “I support brands that support veterans”—a statement to which more than 85 percent of all generations strongly or somewhat agree.
Brands that earned the highest marks for supporting veterans were Wal-Mart, USAA and Home Depot (which also all three rated high for hiring veterans), followed by Target, Nike, Sears, USO (natch), Ford, Applebee’s, Salvation Army, Disney, General Motors and Coke.
But as with everything these days, the support has to be tangible, real, and an authentic part of a brand’s story and actions. Consumers will see straight through anything less. Ultimately, brands need to be paying attention to the armed services and people’s perceptions of them—not in hopes of any marketing payoff, but in the proud American spirit in which the holiday was created.