Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX marketing successes and missteps for the official beginning of space tourism.
Space tourism officially began launching civilians into space this summer! All three of the well-known rocket companies, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX, captured the attention of the world with varied results. Why was Bezos vilified while SpaceX is labeled a hero? The answer is marketing.
The three events began on July 11, 2021, when Sir Richard Branson rode to space aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. Spirits were high due to the positive response to the test space flight a mere eight weeks before Branson’s flight that would herald in the age of space tourism. Branson would fly with three Virgin Galactic employees. The luster faded quickly as reports began to circulate that some of the event footage was prerecorded.
Nine days later, Blue Origin’s New Shepard launched into space for a short hop. Bezos would fly with his brother, an 18-year-old ticket holder, and Wally Funk, one of the last two surviving members of the Mercury 13 group of trained female astronauts. There were several marketing missteps that marred this occasion and created a severe backlash on an event that should have been celebrated as a major accomplishment for space. In addition, the negative sentiment that it created splashed back on Virgin Galactic’s reputation and made both appear to be leisure activities reserved only for the rich and privileged.
Inspiration4 followed shortly afterward with the first all-civilian private launch on Sept 15. Instead of a few minutes in space, the Inspiration4 crew would spend three days in orbit around the Earth. The venture was headed by a billionaire, Jared Isaacman, chief executive of the e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments Inc. He enlisted three crewmates that were everyday citizens.
They consisted of a diverse group that brought inspiring stories to the venture. They consisted of 51-year-old African American and social media contest winner Sian Proctor, 29-year-old physician’s assistant and childhood bone cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, and 42-year-old aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski.
These three different events are perfect examples of why marketing is important and cannot be ignored.
Plan to market
Inspiration4 was the culmination of a year’s worth of purposeful marketing. They had a rough estimate on when they wanted to launch and got to work. The competitions for two seats on the crew were centered around marketing campaigns. These campaigns included a social media contest involving contestants sharing their videos and a Super Bowl commercial promoting the lottery for a ticket to be drawn from the donors to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital fundraiser.
In contrast, it was clear that Bezos was having a me-too! moment. Blue Origin did not ramp up the excitement that should have proceeded the event. There was no notice, no climax, no regard for the audience’s part in the event. Like previous Blue Origin’s milestone events, it was built on secrecy which breeds mistrust.
If people don’t trust you, they will find reasons to dislike you. Just as they have with Bezos.
Bezos is not alone in this marketing misstep. Too many good companies have not learned from successful examples in the past. A perfect example of how open communication is a powerful strategy can be easily seen in the success of NASA’s Apollo program. NASA’s Apollo program was successful because they were open and transparent with the public. They educated and included the American people (and the world) for almost a decade leading up to the epic Moonwalk.
Have a story
The Inspiration4 crew members were selected for the inspiring stories that they would bring to the endeavor. Their stories were promoted using popular platforms including Netflix docuseries. Through this marketing strategy, people got to know them and became personally invested in their journey.
The crew members were selected to represent the mission pillars of leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity. These emotional pillars were established using traits that all good people want to embody. As a result, it provides a deeper layer to the Inspiration4 story.
The event was positively colored with their cause of raising $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. This cause was carefully chosen. There are very few people in the world that won’t stand behind caring for sick children. St. Jude Children’s Hospital became a main component of the fabric of the story.
Unfortunately, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did make use of this valuable strategy. Their accomplishments were newsworthy, and people needed to talk about them. The resulting vacuum was filled with fewer complimentary stories. Neither one gave much of a story to ground the excitement or control the narrative.
Blue Origin had the potential to develop the story for Wally Funk. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to develop it.
Branson missed developing an emotional or inspirational story with the Virgin Galactic ride as well.
It is important for an audience to see themselves reflected in the event. NASA used this strategy to gain support. NASA allowed the public to get to know the astronauts on a deeper level. People got to be a part of their families and their stories. They became invested and their efforts created valuable support that inspired people everywhere.
Inspiration4 reflected NASA’s strategy with their crew. They were everyday, average, normal people. They are relatable and the public can see themselves reflected in the crew’s aspirations, joy, and challenges. This element embodies the that-could-have-been-me connection that the other two companies missed.
In contrast, Blue Origin embodied a crew that failed to connect. It contained members that represented the elite few. How many of us can relate to an 18-year-old who paid tens of millions for the opportunity? Bezos’ brother was admitted based on birth. How can the average person aspire to fill that requirement? We don’t know very much about either of them. How many people can relate to their positions in life? This compounded the elitism that plagued the event.
To compound the problem, people were so turned off that any positive conversation or story was not possible.
The Virgin Galactic crew were employees, and their personal stories could have been developed to resonate with the public but were not. Both companies missed this opportunity to connect.
Partner with a cause
Jared always joins a cause when he creates an event. It was a major thread to the Inspiration4 events leading up to the launch and added to the positive sentiment. St. Jude Children’s Hospital was key in his marketing efforts for Inspiration4.
But it needs to be more than just a cause. Bezos donated twice as much as the St. Jude campaign’s goal. He gave $419 million within a week towards several causes, but it appeared as an afterthought. It was further diluted when it was spread between over 20 organizations. The donations missed the “so what?” explanation of why they were important and what the money would accomplish. How would this gift benefit the world? These stories could have been developed and promoted in articles and videos.
Bezos’ donations failed to have the impact that the causes deserved. They were largely ignored and didn’t fit with the story of the launch. What a waste for the causes as well as Blue Origin. It could have been an opportunity to generate additional support for those causes as well as provide an opportunity for deeper connections between Bezos and the public.
The Inspiration4 crew shared their journey through marketing and deeply connected with their audience. In contrast, Branson and Bezos had some serious marketing missteps that hurt their brands and the space tourism industry as a whole. It is a good thing that Inspiration4 did such a good job with their marketing efforts so that the stains of the other events are quickly forgotten for the commercial space industry.
Developing marketing strategies that inspire demonstrates respect for those that are watching. Learn more about space marketing strategies and tactics in Izzy’s new book Space Marketing: Competing in the new commercial space industry.