How Could We Market NASA?

Friday, as the world absorbs the Royal Wedding, another event of historical and sentimental significance is scheduled to take place this side of the pond.

After almost 30 years, and more than 130 flights, the US space shuttle program is set to begin its next-to-last mission.

Despite the accomplishments of the program, and its tragedies, we have become so accustomed to its routine that we barely notice it’s still in business, at least for a short time.

Media interest in the final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour primarily centers around Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — the victim of an assassination attempt in January – whose husband, Mark Kelly, leads the mission.

As remarkable as Giffords’ story, the narrative of the US Space Program deserves more than its limited media attention in recent years. Without the advances in technology developed for this program, I would likely not be writing this blog on a laptop, posting it to the Internet or talking on a cell phone. Every day we directly experience what the space program has delivered. So how did we get blasé about its accomplishments?

This week I sat with two NASA scientists on a commercial jet that, as they explained, incorporates many features from the space program.

“Few people realize, or appreciate, the daily difference the space program makes to our lives,” one said. “There are a lot of very smart people at NASA who are deeply committed to improve lives through the technology we develop for the program. But, somehow, that message got lost. So, when people talk about the space program today, they speak as if the only good years were many years ago, without realizing the amazing things we continue to contribute.”

I explained to him that, just as his work involves precision and planning, so does a communication effort. And one reason people may not be aware of what NASA contributes could because NASA, like other government agencies, hesitates to market as they communicate.

Rather than complain about a lack of media attention, I suggested we consider how NASA could communicate its story. “Let’s pretend, for a moment,” I said, “that you are not NASA. Think of yourself, instead, as a retail story that sells space stuff.”

These scientific non-communicators immediately responded with ideas of how NASA could promote the difference that NASA makes. Here’s what they came up with.

Market an idea. Why should NASA approach how it markets any differently than any other misunderstood institution? The oil companies market all they do for the world at the same time we pay higher prices at the pump; airlines help us visualize how comfortable the travel experience can be; and weight loss programs bombard the air waves on Saturday and Sunday mornings after we over eat on the weekends. NASA, like any organization, cannot assume people understand what it’s all about and what difference it makes. It has to tell the story.

Give people facts. The marketing communications plan for NASA should focus on all the real ways the space program changes lives every day. We live differently today because of the significant advances made in space program technology the past 50 years. We immediately benefit from every step walked on the moon.

Invite people in. Perhaps one reason we hold NASA at a distance is because NASA distances itself. There it sits, across large fields, away from where people live and work every day. Would NASA feel closer if it did more to reach out? The agency’s current focus on Twitter is one way to connect. But the contributions may take more than 140 characters to articulate.

Thank people. As US citizens we pay for NASA every day. Perhaps a missed opportunity in its marketing is, actually, to thank the American people for what we have contributed – through our taxes – for many years. Could this help NASA address the distance that some may feel?

Connect the mission. At the same time NASA marketing could celebrate the past, it must look ahead. And, with that look, NASA must engage people in the importance of its mission. In the 1960s, after President Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon, the mission defined a nation determined to lead the world in scientific achievement. He picked a deadline, defined a task, and asked people to support. And we were happy to follow.

Call to action. Ultimately, any communication effort is only as effective as the action or behavior it generates. And, to motivate the action, the communications must first describe and inspire the action. At the core at how NASA tells its story – no matter if it follows any of the jet-generated ideas from two of its scientists – is a clear call to action for everyone who listens.

As we prepared to land, and I put up my tray table, one scientist reminded me that, too, is a result of the space program. She said, in fact, that every minute we encounter something made better because we went into space. “And, if we want to continue to progress, we must invest.”

Comments (3)

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  1. Susan says:

    Mark, I LOVE this post. I recently had the honor of touring the Johnson Space Center, which included some special behind-the-scenes stops around the shuttle. The history one sees while walking through the halls doesn’t do the program justice. I’m hoping you don’t mind that I uploaded a picture to my blog in an effort to accompany this post. I’ve just realized that we owe so much to NASA and it does pain me that Houston is not getting a shuttle. The point, though, is that this is a great post and prompts a great conversation.

  2. Jeff P. says:

    That marketing plan is not rocket science!

  3. Shannon says:

    I loved this article! I happen to be a daughter of a NASA employee who happens to still be employed regardless of the shuttle program’s end. I believe in this program and feel that we need to bring public awareness. Just because one program ended does not mean we give up on a dream. I am a communications and advertising major and found this article really inspiring. Maybe we can get this across to NASA and start something big.

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