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Brands in Space: What’s behind the rush to advertise in the final frontier?

Nino Paoli Apr 10, 2024
When Intuitive Machines' lunar lander touched down on the moon in February, it was brandishing the Columbia Sportswear logo, part of an advertising partship with the outdoor apparel company. GREGG NEWTON / Getty Images

Brands in Space: What’s behind the rush to advertise in the final frontier?

Nino Paoli Apr 10, 2024
When Intuitive Machines' lunar lander touched down on the moon in February, it was brandishing the Columbia Sportswear logo, part of an advertising partship with the outdoor apparel company. GREGG NEWTON / Getty Images

A lot has changed in the 50 years between NASA’s last Apollo mission and the landing of Intuitive Machines’ lunar lander this February. For one thing, the Apollo mission didn’t brandish the Columbia Sportswear logo.

The unlikely partnership between Intuitive Machines and the outdoor apparel company created the first U.S.-built commercial spacecraft to touch down on the moon, highlighting an explosion of private sector space endeavors. But, why Columbia Sportswear?

As NASA waits to decommission the International Space Station in 2030, the government agency is helping private aerospace companies like Intuitive Machines, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin “advance capabilities for science, exploration, or commercial development of the Moon,” according to NASA’s website.

In addition to a possible lunar economy, the privatization of the space industry is creating a competitive market for space tourism. Take, for example, Blue Origin’s spaceflight booking page, or the British company Virgin Galactic selling 800 space tourism tickets, with prices as steep as $450,000 each, in June 2023. The company performed its first space tourism flight carrying private passengers the next month. As with all commercial travel comes the opportunity of sponsored ads and amenities from other companies.

Brands using space as a backdrop to market their products that have seemingly nothing to do with it isn’t anything new — see KitKat and Estée Lauder chucking their merchandise into the expanse for some eye-catching images. And with the surge of private companies developing technologies to reach space, these partnership opportunities may multiply. But, just how effective is this marketing strategy?

In Columbia’s case, part of Intuitive Machines’ lunar lander was layered with patented material called Omni-Heat, which can be found in their bulkier coats, and was said to be “protecting [the lunar lander] from extreme temperatures in space,” according to the company’s promotional web campaign.

“They make black puffer coats, like all of their competitors,” said Ian Parkman, associate professor of marketing at the University of Portland.

Parkman sees this marketing strategy as leaning into hyperbole to differentiate Columbia’s coats from the countless other options consumers are given by, say, The North Face, Patagonia and other apparel brands.

“It just becomes increasingly difficult for those firms to find any point of differentiation,” Parkman said. “No one is meant to really think that the Columbia material is really protecting the spacecraft… But if it works in this extreme environment, it’s just good enough for me walking around on a rainy Saturday in Portland, Oregon.”

Just seven days after landing on the moon, Intuitive Machines announced its lunar lander mission ended, citing “harsh temperatures of the lunar night” as the reason. All is not lost, though.

Parkman said that Columbia Sportswear is now the apparel brand that can be associated with space, which can be seen as innovative and exciting. But, is space really exciting to consumers anymore?

“I don’t know if young people care as much about space as much as maybe even those of us a few years older,” Parkman said. “I’m looking at the webpage right now, you know, they’re talking about Apollo in 1972. You might as well be talking about the colonial era.”

Parkman said the ad’s messaging is more “salient” to an older target audience, who may also be more likely to splurge on products like the Omni-Heat hooded jacket that retails for $180.

“Gen Z might be interested in other messaging from Columbia,” he said.

Anna Kim is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who specializes in advertising and digital storytelling. She said the marketing value of Columbia’s partnership with Intuitive Machines also lies in the aspirations of consumers.

“As consumers, we care what’s in there for me? How that makes me feel, and then how [products] can help me to express who I am, who I want to be,” Kim said. “Some people dreamed of traveling to the moon and space.”

And now that possibility is closer to consumers than ever before.

NASA is assisting private companies in building commercial space stations like Voyager Space’s Starlab — a low-Earth orbital designed for astronauts to conduct scientific research in place of the ISS after its shutdown — which will be launched in 2028 at the earliest. Hilton partnered with Voyager Space to design the interior of the space station in hopes to make a more comfortable zero gravity environment.

“We’re looking at this through the lens of space tourism,” Hilton Senior Vice President of Global Design Larry Traxler said. “How do we elevate the stay?”

This isn’t the first time Hilton and Voyager Space partnered for a space stunt. In late 2019, the global hospitality company Nanoracks — most of which was acquired by Voyager Space the following year — and Zero G Kitchen, a food development company creating products for space, teamed up to bake a batch of the famous Doubletree cookies in the ISS. 

According to internal data from Hilton, the experiment garnered a 422% increase in brand conversation during the initial launch week back in November 2019, along with other metrics meant to trace the collaboration’s ROI — which, Kim said, is almost impossible to do with space stunt digital ad campaigns like Columbia Sportswear’s.

“It’s kind of a huge investment, but it’s not really giving you any ROI,” Kim said. “That’s risky.”

Despite the risk and unclear rewards of space partnerships, Traxler said opportunities like Starlab can differentiate Hilton from competitors, marketing Hilton as a leading, innovative brand in the hospitality industry. He added that he receives emails regularly from other companies asking about Hilton’s experience working in the space sector.

“You know, it’s pretty exciting to think about the new Starlab orbiting the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour with the Hilton logo on it,” Traxler said.

In 2021, the Space Foundation reported that the global space economy hit $469 billion. Traxler said he has no concerns about demand for space tourism once companies are equipped to send consumers to space regularly, and that pre-launch programs preparing people for space travel, as well as post-launch medical facilities, are being developed for the future as well.

Although space marketing may seem like one big leap for ad-kind, companies promoting products in the final frontier may not only be looking to differentiate their brand, but also to establish a stake in the ever-growing space industry.

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