When President John F. Kennedy first roused the nation with his 1962 challenge to send astronauts to the Moon and back, most Americans took it on faith that it was a worthwhile quest.
But they likely didn’t fully appreciate that in the decade that followed, NASA would also marshal all its marketing and public relations know-how to ensure that the court of public opinion would continue to give its efforts a hearty thumbs-up.
To learn more, Forbes.com turned to two U.S.-based marketing professionals — David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek — who co-authored the newly published Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, which also includes a foreward by Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan.
What does NASA need to be doing today to further the marketing of its manned program that it currently isn’t?
Jurek: A global imperative, full stop. Apollo was NASA’s Super Bowl event – targeted, scheduled, and sustained, with enough global interest to draw a big audience-share in a world with less media and communication choice. But similar to the challenges that media companies face today, NASA is challenged by focusing a large enough audience [from] a highly fractured, global audience base.
Meerman Scott: Perhaps, there’s opportunity for NASA and SpaceX to work more closely on manned mission marketing. Rather than NASA taking the lead and the contractors following, maybe the roles could be reversed.
Does NASA have a branding problem?
Jurek: From a marketing perspective, NASA is involved in so many areas, that there is no unified theme that pulls a large enough focused audience. It is a challenge many marketers face in many industries. One needs to think of NASA like Coca-Cola. If you just defined Coca-Cola by Coke, then you would miss its many other brands and message channels, like Sprite, Fanta, Dasani, Fresca, etc.
How can this new generation of commercial space entrepreneurs better market themselves?
Jurek: Marketing isn’t their problem. They are geniuses at marketing. Their issue is on the demand side – is there enough commercial and recreational interest to sustain their business models for the long haul?
You note that Apollo was the most important marketing and pr case study in history. How so?
Meerman Scott: Imagine convincing the American public to spend as much as four percent of the national budget in some years, to send twelve people to the surface of the moon. It was a crazy thing to do and marketing got us there.
Jurek : Apollo happened at the dawn of real-time technology, and in many ways, helped drive its development. NASA Public Affairs was at the vanguard of pioneering rapid response communications on a sustained basis with a real-time event of unprecedented proportions. They were understaffed and underfunded, yet they responded with incredible ingenuity and output. Marketers today are all concerned about content, brand journalism, and real-time marketing. They work with these concepts as if they are brand new. They aren’t.
Today, in terms of manned spaceflight, there’s no palpable sense of “What’s next?” among the general public. Is this generation just not interested?
Jurek: For NASA [today], the issue is one of having many multiple programs with fractured, multiple niche audiences [rather] than just the main program of Apollo during the 60’s and 70’s. The massive, global interest and support that Apollo enjoyed is just not sustainable [today], and wasn’t sustainable even for Apollo after that first landing. We need to learn from that – and accept it, and, perhaps, change how we measure success for an agency like NASA.
What was the key factor in NASA turning the crippled Apollo 13 mission into a marketing triumph?
Meerman Scott: With long odds the heroes (the Apollo 13 crew and those in mission control who worked to save them) triumphed over extreme adversity. Because NASA ran an open program with real-time communication of information to journalists, people could witness the drama live on TV news. This simply could not have happened in the closed Soviet space program.
Jurek: It also refocused a global audience on the Apollo program and reminded them of the amazing technical capabilities and innovation of NASA and the contractors to get those astronauts back alive.
How important was NASA’s decision to employ former journalists to “report” its news?
Jurek: Absolutely critical. By having journalists work as the conduits for NASA to the outside world, NASA was perfectly positioned to deliver news and information content that could be quickly assimilated into the news streams of the day.
Meerman Scott: NASA relied extensively on the public relations and marketing staffs of the contractors that worked on Apollo at companies like Raytheon, Boeing, and IBM. Making these professionals part of the way the story was communicated meant that a relatively small NASA public affairs staff swelled to more than a thousand people helping to get the word out.
What surprised you most during the researching of this book?
Jurek: The passion of all involved. There was a real sense that they were all in it together, all pulling together to achieve a single goal.
In 1968, everything in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey seemed possible. What happened?
Jurek: We went to the moon to discover space, but in the end we discovered the Earth. Things might have been completely different if we had found signs of life or precious metals and raw resources on the moon. Instead, we saw Earth as a fragile blue marble — and started to look inward.
You note that a generation of digital innovation was essentially a byproduct of Apollo. What can we expect from this current generation?
Jurek: We are the happy, hyper-connected beneficiaries of the technological legacy that is Apollo. It’s no coincidence that Intel was formed in 1965, or that firms like Apple and Microsoft were formed a few short years after the close of the Apollo program; capitalizing on many of the innovations that were advanced by Apollo. The question is – will we choose to spend our days playing “Angry Birds,” or to harness this power to conquer the biggest problems of our time?
What is Apollo’s ultimate legacy?
Jurek: Given their pioneering brand journalism and real-time marketing efforts, Apollo is the single most important case study for modern pr and marketing practitioners in the last 100 years. The space program became a victim of its own success, and rather than having its successes extended across all of the government enterprise, the American people missed out on an opportunity for further innovation and productivity.
Meerman Scott: [Apollo] accomplished the most audacious goal ever attempted by humans. I don’t see anything remotely like that today. The reason we haven’t landed humans on Mars is due to a lack of marketing and PR. By invoking a quest, Kennedy motivated us. If we’re ever going to conquer space again, we need a powerful story to get us there.