What Brands Can Learn From NASA’s Marketing of the Apollo Missions

Putting a face on the space program literally brought us to the moon

NASA leaned into using the experts behind the space missions—i.e., astronauts like Capt. Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17—as the faces of its movement to gain public and financial support. - Credit by Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Headshot of Theresa Līna


The fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was so palpable that a common joke at the time was: “What do you want to be if you grow up?”

In the late 1950s, 60% of American children suffered nightmares about it. Hollywood didn’t help. During the 1950s, science fiction crossed to the dark side. What had been tame Flash Gordon-style serials now proliferated as terrifying tales of radioactive fallout, mind control and alien or robot invasion. They were all metaphors for the nuclear holocaust and possible dominion over the United States by communists—or, worse, machines.

Meanwhile, machine-driven space flight was taking off, and some within NASA argued it should stay that way. Why risk lives unnecessarily? Others knew the public would not want space travel left to machines that could one day develop minds of their own. So NASA put pilots on board during Apollo-predecessor Project Mercury, even though they were effectively “Spam in a can,” as characterized by renowned flying ace Chuck Yeager.

After a few flights, ever the marketer, NASA even decided to rebrand its vehicles from the passive “capsule” to the more human-operated “craft.”

The problem is that sending humans into space would be infinitely more complex, expensive and controversial, requiring sustained public support and funding. NASA’s strategy was to ignite a movement in the market around the Apollo space program’s higher purpose in society. And the astronauts themselves would be the face of the story.

Taking turns, each astronaut would have a “week in the barrel” to travel around the country and talk about why the program was so essential. Goodwill tours followed each mission to give the public direct access to someone who had been in space. Life magazine regularly profiled the astronauts’ personal lives, and people couldn’t get enough. It was a raging success, and Apollo enjoyed abundant political and financial support all the way to the moon.

Brands, too, can distinguish themselves by igniting a movement in the market around their points of view and unique offerings. And because human stories sell, brands need to put a face on their messages.

President John F. Kennedy made a big splash with his moon shot speech, and the astronauts carried on from there. Apollo’s unique circumstances made it possible for several people to interchangeably play the public role of astronaut at any given time. But in a brand’s case, more than one will likely make it too hard for the audience to latch on. Even with Apollo, the luminary was the astronaut and not a collection of other people in other roles.

Choose carefully. Authenticity is key. It’s ideal when a spokesperson is an expert in the field with a deep understanding of the market problem and a brand’s unique solution. Elon Musk genuinely knows and cares about the problems his companies tackle, and people listen. A luminary must be relatable, someone the audience will emotionally connect with.

This person should be a charismatic ambassador with a strong presence, great speaking and presentation skills and industry expertise. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is a luminary who personifies the company brand. This person needs to be able to project confidence, speak to the issues and fire people up the way Oprah does on behalf of her media empire. This person needs to be naturally persuasive and genuinely passionate about the issues.

Capt. Eugene Cernan, commander of the Apollo 17 mission and the 11th and last person to walk on the moon, offered a perfect encapsulation of the importance of igniting your market, the luminary role and how to make it work. As quoted in the book Marketing the Moon, he said, “If your desire is to bring others into your camp, they must know that you, yourself, believe in what they are hearing; your sincerity and passion must be evident. You must share your ideas with them—not talk at them—if you want to achieve your ultimate goal.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@theresa_m_lina Theresa Līna is a Silicon Valley thought leader and strategist, CEO of Lina Group and author of the book Be the Go-To.
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