Nothing smells quite like a Marine.
Pungent with hints of the Parris Island swamp. The unmistakable notes of sweat-soaked combat boots and the earthy musk of a well-dug trench. Isn’t that the smell of a Marine?
Perhaps. But it’s not what the officially licensed Marine Corps cologne smells like. At $45 a bottle, “Devil Dog” is far from eau de grunt. Instead it boasts a “finely crafted fusion of sandalwood, cedar and citric spices” that “stands as a proud reminder of honor and tradition.”
The Corps, like the Army, the Navy and the other branches of the armed services, has realized that it is far more than the world’s premier fighting force. It is, like Coca-Cola and Apple and the University of Notre Dame, a good brand. A brand that can move merchandise, from T-shirts to playing cards to camouflage baby bibs.
Ever since the draft was discontinued in 1973, the military has had to sell itself to the general public, which has often seen service as someone else’s problem. But generally that selling was done by the advertising executives who produced recruiting commercials and the marketing consultants who coined phrases such as “Army strong.”
Now the services have entered the retail market, generating an explosion of military-themed products that sell for tens of millions of dollars annually — this year will net record sales for the Army — and have attracted such corporate giants as Under Armour, New Balance and Gillette.
For years, the services worked with private companies that sold items such as T-shirts and mugs. But those agreements were governed by relatively informal permission letters, and the services didn’t charge fees or collect royalties. Then in 2004, as the all-volunteer force was going through a recruiting crisis, Congress passed a law allowing the military to keep the revenue it generated by issuing licenses and trademarks.
As a result, the services have created offices dedicated to issuing licenses and making sure that slogans such as “The Few. The Proud” and emblems such as the Corps’ eagle, globe and anchor are registered trademarks with legal protections, just like “The King of Beers” and the Nike swoosh.
The agreements the military now has with companies are much more detailed and robust, ensuring, for example, that the firms are reputable and that the products are tasteful — no sex, politics or booze — and made without child labor.
The idea is simple brand management: promoting a positive image.
So, Air Force vodka? Not going to happen.
Air Force Christmas stocking? It’s only $22.95!
“U.S. Navy Alphabet Book”? “A is for aircraft carrier.”
With a more formal procedure in place, an increasing number of companies have signed up to do business with the Defense Department in recent years, military licensing officials said. In fiscal 2007, private retailers sold an estimated $5 million in Army branded products. This year, officials expect to sell $50 million worth, already generating more than $1.2 million in fees and royalties for the Army. By law, the money pays for the operations of the licensing program. Anything left over is mandated by Congress to go to military morale and recreation programs.
Royalties the services collect can range from nothing for small businesses to as much as 8 percent of net sales for large corporations selling through major retailers.
As it turns out, soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen have the kind of cachet that companies want. And the success of the military’s retailing efforts shows how far the armed forces have come since the days after Vietnam, when so many service members were treated with disdain.
The Army “is one of the most unique brands on the market right now,” said Jasen Wright, director of brand management for the Beanstalk Group, a licensing agency that works for the Army (and Paris Hilton). “Consumers have a strong affinity and a great pride for what the U.S. Army stands for. . . . Retailers — Wal-Mart, Target — know it is very attractive to consumers, and they want to make sure they have it on the shelf.”
Which means the market for these products is almost anyone: young boys smitten with G.I. Joe, high schoolers who want to enlist, veterans and their family members, anyone who wants to display his or her patriotism.
What makes the military brand so great is its “elasticity,” Wright said. “You can put it on apparel or on a toy, and that helps from a brand marketing point of view.”
Roxanne Reed got the idea for a line of women’s accessories after attending an event for Marine Corps wives that let them do their husbands’ jobs for a day.
“I saw all these amazing colors,” she said. “I thought it would be a cool idea to have spouse gear — something for the spouses — that would embody the pride of what our husbands did.”
That’s when it hit her: What the world needed was a camouflage handbag with pink-trimmed ruffles and a dog tag ID badge. Thus, the Cammio-a-Gogo was born.
The company, Jane Wayne, took off, and soon she was making Tough ’N’ Tiny backpacks, which “hold your child’s treasures in military style,” and Deployment Blues candles, whose “fragrance has a masculine cologne aroma to remind you of him while he’s away from home.”
A lonely wife could also perhaps spray a little Marine Corps cologne, called “Devil Dog,” to evoke memories. There is also “Patton,” a scent that Army officials said they are in the process of licensing, which “defines masculinity with a sensual, woodsy fragrance.”
“If you smell the fragrance, and you thought about it, you could probably guess which branch it would work with,” said Eli Zafrani, a vice president at Parfumologie, the California company that manufactures the colognes. “Everybody has a tie in some way to someone who has been in the military, and it’s a nice way to pay your respect.”
So how do they smell? Pretty good, at least according to Stephanie High, who works at the L’Occitane en Provence boutique in Georgetown and was asked for her expert opinion.
“It’s light, not too strong,” she said after smelling “Devil Dog.”
“Patton,” by contrast, is “sweeter” and “stronger.”
“Stealth,” the Air Force cologne, “is a little more delicate,” she said. “It could be unisex.”
But, ladies, even if the cologne could be worn by a woman, there is no need go out and buy it. Parfumologie is thinking about creating a feminine line of military perfumes, which could soon be coming to a store near you.