The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Suborbital vehicle mockups
With the diverse range of companies entering the space field, the challenge is for each company to distinguish itself from the rest. (credit: j. Foust)

Promises, promises

The following extract should explain everything you need to know about a key marketing concept:

“Marketers should ensure the choice map… derived from the customer’s cognitive space and customer benefits, aligns with new business concepts, derived from the company’s competency space and business domain.”

You probably lost the will to live halfway through that paragraph, or vaguely wondered if language assassination is federal crime. The academics who wrote it were discussing a popular term in business circles—the “value proposition”—and describing how to create one. There is some debate now about the value proposition of space. (See “What’s the value of space?”, The Space Review, June 19, 2006.) This needs to be clarified before too much energy is spent going in the wrong direction.

Let’s start with a definition of “value proposition”. It means simply a “promise”, the promise a company makes to its customers to deliver a specific set of features, benefits, and services. Doing this consistently implies a guarantee of quality. A promise is therefore indistinguishable from another word, “brand.” The promise becomes the brand that identifies the goods and services of a company and differentiates them from competitors’ offerings. As customers, we are used to making our own associations with brands and setting our expectations about what we will receive each time we buy. A brand helps us to answer the question: “What is at stake if I decide to switch my spending to another product or company?”

Space does not have a value proposition any more than an unexplored continent on Earth does before the first settlers arrive. There may be rumors that the land is rich in natural resources, but they are worth little until people develop technologies to cross the ocean and adapt tools and methods to live off the land. Once established, they begin the long process of spreading out, finding and using the resources, and creating an economy. Therefore, people can only assess the value of a new world after establishing a permanent foothold in it and exploring widely. Space exploration will follow a similar path. Unlike terrestrial colonists, however, space explorers may not be as fortunate in meeting indigenous people who can show them how to survive and where to find the gold!

Space does not have a value proposition any more than an unexplored continent on Earth does before the first settlers arrive.

The value of space may be anyone’s guess, but can we define a value proposition for the new space industry? Since a promise is a brand, the answer is no, we can’t. The automobile, pharmaceutical, and computer industries do not have brands, but the companies that make up these industries such as Ford, Pfizer, and Apple do, and each of them is very different from their competitors. What an established industry can lay claim to is a bundle of benefits to society and the nation such as total wealth created, number of people employed, the value of patents and other intellectual property, taxes paid, investment in R&D, and so on. These benefits are derived from the total activity of the industry and are not directly related to the promise inherent in the brands of individual firms that make up the industry. Describing the value of an industry is useful background data for lobbyists seeking to influence government fiscal and regulatory policies and answers the question: “What is at stake if we don’t promote or protect this industry?”

Currently, the new space industry is being created and we cannot assess the value of it in the way described above. Guesses can be made, but hard data will have to wait until the future unfolds. At this early stage, space advocacy groups have a vital teaching role: lawmakers need educating about space and the general population needs to know about space and be inspired by its human, not financial, potential. As pioneer aviator Antoine de St. Exupéry wrote: “If you want build a ship, don’t drum up the crew to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Only when the skies have been populated with space travelers can we populate the spreadsheets with real numbers.

So far, so good. Now comes the difficult part: the new space companies will each have to spend time, a lot of it, defining their brands. No matter what the current difficulties are—technical, regulatory, funding—they will seem like a day at the beach compared with the challenge of building, extending, and defending the brand. It has been said that you can learn all you need to know about marketing in a day, but you spend the rest of your life trying to get it right! That’s the story of brand building—it’s never-ending. Yet it has to be done because it is the promise of the brand that will keep customers coming back for more. The winning entrepreneurs in the new space industry will be the ones who can make this transition from an intense engineering focus to a customer-centered outlook.

A marketing approach that says, “Here it is, come and get it,” may work for a short time, but what really brings customers back is the total package—the experience.

The critical task is to figure out how many different types of need there are out there and how they differ from your own view of the product or service you provide. For example, in space tourism there are those passengers for whom weightlessness will be an important part of the experience, while for others the main reason for going up is to see the astronaut’s view of black sky, blue planet; zero-g is not their thing and may even be an unwelcome distraction. To float or just observe are both are valid reasons for wanting to go into space, but are you going to focus on one of those groups or try to satisfy both? The key point is that, like all the great brand-builders in business history, you must engage in regular two-way communication with customers to find out what they want, let them know what you can provide, and work out what you might do differently tomorrow.

A marketing approach that says, “Here it is, come and get it,” may work for a short time, but what really brings customers back is the total package—the experience. How to create compelling experiences is the subject of many business books. However, I’m about to give you the most valuable advice any consultant has ever offered: go to Disney World! If you’re on the left coast you may prefer Disneyland. Either way, this is a serious field trip.

Walt Disney created a company that has become a master storyteller through films and the parks. We are all familiar with the overarching themes in the various areas of the park such as Frontierland or Tomorrowland, but on your field trip you should take a closer look at how the main attractions are designed. Like all good stories they have a beginning, middle, and an end. The “beginning” phase starts as you walk up. The design of the building, music, dialogue, and staff dressed in appropriate costumes, all establish the mood and heighten anticipation (as well as managing the waiting line). The ride itself is the central act in the story. Then there is a transition back into the world outside where the immediate surroundings are still tied into the theme—you really have been on an adventure with the Pirates of the Caribbean! Your mind is imprinted with a memorable experience. What’s more, you will expect to receive the same, consistent experience every time you take the ride: the same fun, everything works just like the time before, and no unpleasant surprises. This is the heart of a promise or brand whether you are building theme park attractions, making toothpaste, or offering trips to space. Promises are not kept now and again, but must be delivered now and again and again and again…

There’s another lesson to be learned at Disney World: people are reveling in the experience but don’t waste a moment thinking about the incredible engineering that makes everything work and the mind-boggling logistics being carried out in the underpark. You may love your stuff but the paying public only cares that it works and doesn’t need to look under the hood.

Space tourists will be looking for memorable experiences, and so will customers wanting to launch payloads. In the latter case, the issues may be: Will customers find it easy to do business with you; how much assistance will you provide as customers design their package; how responsive are you to any queries and problems that arise?

These may seem early days to be worrying about brand-building, but the brand-meisters in history established the basics of their brands right from the start.

Listening to customers and promising a consistently great experience also depends on understanding what you are good at and how you think of yourselves as a company. Do you see yourselves as Southwest Airlines with a low-cost, no-frills offering or are you Singapore Airlines with full service that pampers passengers? If you can set up your company to achieve excellence in one of these options then don’t try the alternative where you may be merely mediocre. Trying to be all things to all people often means you are not special to anyone.

These may seem early days to be worrying about brand-building, but the brand-meisters in history established the basics of their brands right from the start (think Henry John Heinz and pure food) so it is worth giving it some thought now. But be prepared for the long haul. It took twelve years before the Post-It Note became an overnight success and went on to be a billion-dollar brand—and it wasn’t rocket science!