Military, Inc.: How Companies Use SEALs and Soldiers to Sell

Image: Military service members, former and current, and civilians compete in a BattleFrog challenge

Military service members, former and current, and civilians compete in a BattleFrog challenge. Courtesy of BattleFrog

It's a battle-tested advertising strategy.

U.S. companies, from automakers to brewers, are using footage of soldiers returning from war in ads to sell their products.

But it's ground that is pitted with minefields for companies that don't tread carefully, with either the military or with consumers, experts say.

One Miami business is taking what may be the deepest plunge yet into military-style marketing, and they've drawn the attention of military officials, who are examining whether the company has gone too far.

BattleFrog –- a new, for-profit outfit set to host a series of obstacle-course competitions -– is steeped in the flavor and feel of the Navy SEALs.

Retired SEALs co-founded the venture and designed the mobile event’s water slides, climbing nets and culverts, all meant to “simulate the real training and rigor a SEAL experiences,” according to the company. Atop one ramp, a Navy SEAL flag will flap. At races, a helicopter will fly in and hover as SEALs drop down via ropes to show their skills. On the BattleFrog website, the word “SEAL” appears as does a trident, the SEAL logo.

Following the SEAL-executed raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the brand of that elite force holds heft with many Americans. And the retired SEALs who are driving the company understand that value.

“It’s a perfect fit –- the marketing and the branding (of an obstacle course for civilians). That’s where those courses all started, with the military,” said Don Mann, a BattleFrog leader and retired SEAL. Until 1998, he was on active duty with SEAL Team 6. Members of that same team cornered and fatally shot Bin Laden at his Pakistan compound in 2011.

“When we talk to sponsors or venues or police departments or cities and tell them we want to bring the BattleFrog race to their cities, really what gets their attention is when we say that this is an obstacle course race designed and created by Navy SEALs,” Mann said. “That makes all the difference in the world.”

But U.S. military branches are protective of their names and symbols. Navy regulations state “the use of Navy trademarks for commercial purposes, including reproduction on merchandise, is expressly prohibited unless the producer completes a license agreement with the Navy Trademark Licensing Program Office.

According Nadine Santiago, manager of the Trademark Licensing Department at the Office of Naval Research, representatives for BattleFrog have not applied for a trademark license “nor has the Office of Naval Research granted any license or permission for Battlefrog, LLC to use any Navy names, insignia, or other trademarks.”

In an email to NBC News, Santiago wrote: “Any unauthorized use of the Navy SEAL's name (NAVY SEAL and SEAL) and design mark for the Special Warfare insignia (i.e. Trident Logo) may violate the trademark rights in the names, insignias, and other identifiers of the Naval Special Warfare Command and the Navy SEALs because they are owned by the Department of the Navy.” She added that her office will “continue to look into this matter.”

The issue may, ultimately, prove to be a momentary bureaucratic snag for BattleFrog’s leaders, who say they've have been working to gain the proper approvals from Navy brass.

“We have been in conversations with the highest levels, from admirals on down to active duty and retired senior military leaders, especially SEALs, getting their guidance and getting their permission on what can we say and what can’t we say, because we want to do this in alignment with the Navy,” Mann said. “We want to make sure anything we say or do only promotes the Navy."

Beyond that regulatory tangle, however, more major companies see clear worth in dousing their brands with a military tinge, marketing experts say.

Budweiser’s Super Bowl commercial in February, showing a soldier's Afghanistan homecoming, connected with many viewers. American Airlines, Wal-Mart, and Jeep have all aired similarly themed spots.

“We have become a country committed to our warriors –- they are the great American heroes, and regardless of our politics, we love the soldiers,” said Marian Salzman, chief executive officer of Havas PR in New York City.

But not just any company can churn out a commercial featuring returning troops or footage of the armed forces, said Timothy Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

For that tactic to stick, the brand must already possess some “alignment” with the military, some sort of bond that makes sense to consumers, Calkins said. Like Jeep, a vehicle used in the military. And like Budweiser, which historically has created ads that celebrate Americana.

Companies that venture into military-themed marketing also seem careful to sell their wares through their larger support of the troops without mentioning the mission or the larger conflict, Calkins added.

“There is risk in this,” Calkins said. “A brand could be seen to be exploitative, could be seen to be free-riding on the military imagery. So if you’re going to do this, you have to be sure there’s a fit and you have to be sure that the message is meaningful.”