Posted by , SHS Group Director - Brand Management.

mars survey pic

Who wants to go to Mars? (Photo:

If there’s a lack of clarity with the NASA brand today it’s largely because NASA needs to polish the lens and refocus. Right now it’s more a marketing mission than an extraterrestrial one. And it can and should be undertaken. Here’s a good start.

Clearly, the current economy is a hindrance to major space exploration, but the space agency’s brand has taken the brunt of it. And unlike the heady days of the 60s and 70s, where the moon was the ultimate bullseye, there’s been a lot of target confusion since NASA downed the Space Shuttle program.

The Constellation initiative was on, then off. Interest in Mars peaked with the success of the rover programs, and then idled back when funding shifted from sending astronauts to Mars to sending robots. Or had it shifted to mining? Or was the goal now to explore and mine large asteroids? The NASA brand, once the mega-brand of space has been weighted by this confusion and humbly splashed back to earth.

It’s time for NASA to take a look at itself, not in the “good light” of where the easy funding comes from, but where most marketers look: by asking the target audience (a.k.a. the public) what they want.

The question’s already been asked. So, here’s an obvious place for NASA to start. The recently completed national opinion poll measuring U.S. citizen support for the exploration of Mars:

Conducted by Phillips & Company and sponsored by The Boeing Company, this March 2013 poll reinforces a consistent theme throughout American history that “the American public is still committed to doing great things, ‘not because they are easy but because they are hard.’”

The study could give NASA, and the Congress that funds it, the message it needs to refocus the brand. It points out findings significant enough to make any good marketer salivate:

  • NASA’s current funding of 0.5% of the national budget is well below the 2.43% that Americans believe it is.
  • Slightly more than 75% of those polled think that it would be worthwhile to double the current budget to 1% (including a Mars mission).
  • Americans ranked sending humans to Mars as more important than sending humans to the moon, or sending humans/and or robots to mine asteroids.
  • The public “gets” that the biggest reason to get a man on Mars is to maintain U.S. leadership in commercial, scientific and national defense applications.

It’s no easy thing to solidify and re-establish a leadership identity for NASA and the space program as a whole. The poll also shows that cooperation with other nations and with commercial space entities are needed to overcome the combined gravity of budget and politics. But clearly there’s a “reason to buy” and a fierce sense of “wanting to be seen as leaders,” a public sentiment that could retarget, refuel and relaunch the NASA brand.

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