Like many people, watching Richard Branson’s first flight into space was exciting to watch, but more like watching a sequel than anything else. Having followed his entrepreneurial and adventure-based antics for most of my life, it was more of a “Look what he’s up to now,” as though this is just the latest chapter in his billionaire business-based adventures. He was always a promotor, so I typically admire his larger-than-life courage from both the business and adventure perspective. Let’s face it, many, if not most, of his businesses are just as risky as his adventures are dangerous.
As I watched the two-hour live feed, I became acutely aware that I was participating in a two-hour infomercial, but I was ok with that. It wouldn’t be the first time, and Richard does them well.
The “live” broadcast was incredibly well-coordinated. Every aspect of the emission was well thought out. From the moment Richard arrived by bicycle to the world’s first purpose-built spaceport through meticulous messaging during the post-flight interviews. Every scripted word was about children dreaming about space, Richard’s mother’s words of encouragement and that space travel was now open to the tourism world. You couldn’t dream of a healthier message and brand image. The entire presentation was polished perfect.
Virgin Galactica was prepared with a number of videos, images and contests to post before, during and after the inaugural space flight.
During the following week, my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds and email inbox has been filled with an endless, well-coordinated dance of email offers to enter contests, others to sign up if I am interested in going into space; I signed up.
Another set of Facebook posts and emails provided the opportunity to enter a $10 raffle to raise funds to send underprivileged children into space. This last point is by no means a criticism of Branson when I say that the irony is not lost on me that less than a year ago, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia filed for bankruptcy protection. Quite the contrary. I love a swift turnaround and comeback story. All bases are covered, and it would appear that this was another promotional coup for Branson and the Virgin Group.
Fast forward a week, and you have the second billionaire on his way into space: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin Space Company. I found that the timing amusingly suspect, like a little voice in my head that tells me that one Mr. Branson got wind of a competitor beating him to the punch and the headline. He high-tailed his company into action to get a week on his formidable competitor. This, of course, is speculation and a complement to the agile nature of the Virgin Group.
Jeff Bezos has a slightly different character and public persona. He is one of the world’s richest men, with over 200 billion dollars. He is known for having made all his money by creating a website called Amazon, where people buy items online cheaper than they can in brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon has become known as a company that allegedly vastly underpays and overworks its employees and is quick to replace them with robots as soon as technology permits. Additionally, although none of these facts are verified, Amazon negotiates paying little or no corporate taxes, leveraging the number of people they employ in the company’s warehouses.
I know that he is much more complex than this and deserves a more robust and positive introduction, but the truth is, I only know him from what I know about Amazon. This characterization is his public persona and how I suspect the general public perceives him.
On the day of his flight, there was a fair amount of coverage from the media. I learned that one of the astronauts was his brother. One was an eighty-two-year-old woman who was an astronaut from days past, and the fourth passenger was an eighteen-year-old whose father was able to buy his son a ticket for 28 million dollars. This last ticket became available because someone backed out at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict.
Although the launch was arguably less glamorous than the Virgin Galactic counterpart, the flight images were delivered as anticipated. I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the shape of the rocket and the mise en scene. Although I am sure every aspect was practical, there was a certain flare that was missing. There was no Spaceport, and everything looked very temporary.
During the short flight, the rocket went up and arrived in space. There was a certain amount of monkeying around due to the weightlessness, and the passengers paid very little attention to the earth. Skittles received an unexpected shout-out of the century, and the pod descended to earth unceremoniously in the middle of the desert.
The journey concluded with the expected press conference, with the crew members recounting their experience. The most notable aspects of the interview were Jeff Bezos’s cowboy hat and his thanking the employees and customers of Amazon. He went on to explain that it was them who paid for the trip.
I am by no means criticizing the incredible feat and the great ambition demonstrated by Bezos and the Blue Origin team with their project. I can see the future usefulness of the technology, especially in the context of unmanned space delivery for cargo. I was, however, bewildered by how Jeff Bezos missed the mark when optimizing the opportunity to ameliorate his and Amazon’s persona.
Richard Branson and Virgin's Persona
Richard Branson and the Virgin Group have the same interchangeable personas. Richard Branson is Virgin, and Virgin is Richard Branson. The carefully cultivated reputation of Virgin (or Richard Branson) is one of unrelenting ambition, adventure, ability to get back up after being knocked down, love of life, dreaming big and never giving up.
The company positions itself around the customer experience and creating new products and services to elevate its customers’ lives. Every aspect of the companies public communication exudes this.
The Virgin Galactic Flight
Everything from the Spaceport, to the spaceship and carriers, through the videos and messaging, oozed the Virgin mantras and continued commitment to the company’s core purpose.
In these trying times, the inaugural flight injected a sense of excitement into the global environment. As the world starts to see the end of the worldwide pandemic, Richard Branson and Virgin have provided a sense of a new beginning.
Jeff Bezos and Amazons Persona:
Like his counterpart, Jeff Bezos and Amazon are almost interchangeable in their public personas. Amazon, especially recently, has grown exponentially in the last year and a half. Although not entirely, their growth is due primarily to the pandemic and the inability of people to shop in normal circumstances. Their profits and growth never escape the news cycles for too long.
People buy products from Amazon because they are notoriously cheaper than in brick and mortar establishments. Add the convenience of same-day delivery, and you have a recipe for success. By all accounts, this should be a great success story.
However, Amazon is almost always looked upon as an example of a greedy, corporate America for reasons ranging from how they allegedly treat their employees to the inference that they pay no taxes, despite being one of the most profitable companies in history.
The Blue Origin Flight
The optics Blue Origin Flight did not work in Jeff Bezos or Amazon’s public favour as the installation and infrastructure looked like a costly and temporary stunt that added little or no value to his or Amazon’s persona.
It did the opposite. It reinforced the negative public image that Amazon has acquired over the past couple of years.
What’s bewildering is the fact that it would appear that Bezos paid little or no attention to the optics of the event and how this would play out in the public eyes. Given the economic crisis and uncertainty, this was no time to appear frivolous.
He even went as far as stating “It was the employees and customers who paid for the space trip”. With the amount of money spent on transport, you would think that a small communications budget could have been earmarked to control the narrative.
Regardless of the value that both flights brought to the table in these turbulent times, the marketing and communications lessons were invaluable. In Virgin’s case, this was a home run, and once again, Richard Branson demonstrates how you can fly your rocket ship in the middle of economic chaos without looking like a dick.
*All images were screenshots taken from internet searches.