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Marketing to veterans means more than just offering military discounts

Store owner Chris Young tells customer about variety of juices.
Sharryse Piggott
Juice Keys co-owner Chris Young helps a customer at the Durham juice and smoothie bar he co-owns.

Marketing to military veterans can be tricky. There are 19 million U.S. veterans who have a buying power of more than $900 billion.

Among the most common ways that business try to win a share of those customers is by offering discounts and incentives. Companies from Advance Auto Parts to Zappos offer special military pricing, such as 10 or 15 percent discounts off retail prices, according to a list compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Some veterans appreciate the discounts and incentives to buy products. Others, however, choose not to take advantage of them and may even feel insulted by the special prices.

"10 percent is nothing but a tax write off,”said Army and Marine veteran Tim Darling of Jacksonville, N.C. "I will patronize a family owned veteran business rather than dealing with the big corporate companies."

But the discounts are popular in the home of veterans Tricia-Ann and Leason Beckford.

“Wherever we go, we’ll randomly ask for a discount,” said Tricia-Ann. “It's a gesture. It's literally just something that says we salute you, somewhat.

With the overall buying power of veterans, “the military audience in the United States is not one that brands should be ignoring,” said Elizabeth Carmo, the Vice President of Military Marketing at Refuel Agency, a marketing firm.

“You have to find how to connect to the audience, which at the core, is their military history ethos,” said Carmo. "Thanking them for the journeys they've been through, not necessarily for their service."

And that, she says, means more than just offering 10 percent off a pair of shoes. She encourages businesses to learn about the audience.

Carmo says the veteran community is large and diverse. They endured different wars. They served in different branches of service. It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of situation.

And Carmo warns not to do things that can seem demeaning to service members.

"Don't fly the flag wrong. Don't put it a half mast, if nothing's going on," she said. "So there's so many things that someone might not understand that they're doing wrong."

Business owner Chris Young of Raleigh understands how hard it is to entice veterans, because he is one. The former Marine co-owns juice and smoothie bars called Juice Keys.

“I think you just have to be aggressive with it," he said of marketing to win veterans' business. He said merchants need to develop thoughtful marketing efforts to capture their attention.

Young has tried to hire veterans and use other veteran-owned businesses as suppliers. The goal, he says, is to create an atmosphere in his stores where former service members feel comfortable.

"Our customers enjoy Juice Keys because it's very relatable," he said. "They form relationships with our front of house staff, with our customer service... and it's something I think that relaxes them."

Once you know how to do that, Young and Carmo agreed that veterans can become very loyal customers.

"They're there every day," Carmo said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sharryse Piggott is WUNC’s PM Reporter.
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