Branding: Sometimes it really is rocket science

A few days ago, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, became the first of the billionaire-class of private citizens to successfully travel into space under his own steam – or rocket fuel more accurately.

Branson’s strategy and brand are focused on being pioneering – the swashbuckling challenger brand. Come for the ride!

Whilst it’s entertaining stuff, it’s also interesting to look at the different branding strategies each are pursuing and, in particular, two learnings for other knowledge-led businesses staying on the ground:

On one level, these three entrepreneurs appear to be competing for the same prize but dig a bit deeper, and it’s clear that each has a different strategy and, therefore, a different brand narrative to bring it to life.

Elon Musk’s brand is all about innovation and building better rockets

Google each of them and the lines they choose to promote the brands with are:

Virgin Galactic is launching a new space age, where all are invited along for the ride.

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft.

Blue Origin is opening the promise of space to all.

Branson’s strategy and brand are focused on being pioneering – the swashbuckling challenger brand. Come for the ride!

Whereas Elon Musk’s brand is all about innovation and building better rockets and Jeff Bezos looks beyond the hardware, promising the customer benefit and utility of space travel for all.

These different approaches are, unsurprisingly, direct manifestations of the approach each entrepreneur takes to branding in their non-space travel pursuits.

The tip for those of us thinking about how to position a knowledge-led business on earth is that there’s no one way and each brand narrative can be powerful in their own right if they are authentic to the purpose and strategy of the organisation they represent.

Jeff Bezos looks beyond the hardware, promising the customer benefit and utility of space travel for all.

The power of symbols 

No one understands the power of brand symbols more than Richard Branson. And, by being the first of the billionaire rocket-owners’ club to make it into space, he knows that is a powerful symbol for a brand that’s all about being a pioneer. He also knows that being first is a guaranteed way to get your brand story told by others without paying for it.

SpaceX is all about the rockets. They have geek-chic names like Falcon Heavy (think, Large Hadron Collider or Extremely Large Telescope). They designed the spacecraft themselves to look cool in a retro way that evokes childhood memories and enthusiasm for space travel.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, like Amazon, has never really been into brand symbols – they just deal in substance. They give the impression of simply wanting to get on with the task of building an efficient and reliable space rocket service. More build it, and they will come. It might be a bit boring compared to the others, but it works for them.

On the other hand, I bet they’re privately a bit miffed that Branson beat Bezos into orbit.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's leading strategic consultancy specialising in brand-led transformation for knowledge-led businesses.