Bring endorsements back down to earth

If you were out over the weekend enjoying our new and improved volcanic sunsets you were also, probably unwittingly, bearing witness to the anniversary of one of the great moments of brand endorsement. Exactly 40 years ago last Saturday, just after 6pm GMT, a small metal object slightly larger than a Fiat Punto streaked across the evening sky and splashed down into the Pacific Ocean.

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Inside were three very relieved American astronauts – James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise. Six days earlier, the trio had laughed at superstitious colleagues who had pointed out that flying the 13th Apollo Mission and taking off at exactly 13:13 Houston time might be unlucky. Unfortunately, those bad omens proved prophetic. Fifty hours and 200,000 miles into their mission to the Moon, on April 13th of all days, one of Apollo’s oxygen tanks exploded.

As power, water and oxygen drained from the stricken spacecraft John Swigert radioed mission control: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here”.

What followed was an astonishing feat of NASA ingenuity. Apollo’s planned moon landing was aborted mid-flight and the crew diverted the craft around the Moon and then used its gravity to sling-shot back towards Earth. Apollo 13 now had to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on exactly the right trajectory. This presented a significant problem because the spacecraft was now operating on less power than the average toaster. Aside from its radio, all the electrical equipment including the navigational systems that would normally manage re-entry, were now useless.

Using the view from their window to navigate, Lovell and Haise began to manually manoeuver Apollo 13. Once in position, exactly 14 seconds of thrust were required from the engines to achieve the correct re-entry trajectory. Burning the engines for a millisecond too long or too short would result in either burning the crew alive during re-entry or bouncing off the atmosphere into a permanent, eternal orbit. It was at this moment that John Swigert turned to his watch, an Omega Speedmaster, to time the engine burn.

Like all NASA equipment, Swigert’s Speedmaster was not there by chance. Nine years earlier a team of NASA scientists had purchased watches from the five leading watch brands and subjected them to a barrage of tests. In perhaps one of the most important blind tests in history, the Omega Speedmaster proved the most accurate and became the official wristwatch of NASA astronauts.

Forty years on, we have grown used to a very different kind of brand endorsement in which celebrities and sportsmen lend their equity to a whole range of products including, of course, watches. Roger Federer, for example, is currently earning millions to endorse Rolex thanks to his superiority and sublime precision on the court. But we must draw a thick black line between original, authentic brands endorsements like the one exemplified by Omega and these more modern commercial arrangements.

Authentic endorsements are usually much more meaningful and the brand usually plays a more central role. The Apollo 13 astronauts
needed Omega’s accuracy to pilot a machine with less technology than your mobile phone around the dark side of the moon and safely back to Earth. If Roger Federer gets his timing wrong, he just drops a set. He doesn’t even wear his Rolex during matches, only slipping it on just before the trophies are presented.

Neither the astronauts nor NASA were paid to take the Omega Speedmaster into space.

The money flows in different directions too. Neither the astronauts nor NASA were paid to take the Speedmaster into space. They actually purchased the watches and endorsed the product because they believed it was the best. In contrast, Roger Federer wears a Rolex because the brand pays him to. He used to endorse Maurice Lacroix watches until Rolex offered him more cash in 2006. Too many marketers assume you must always pay for endorsements. They have forgotten the older, more honorouble endorsement prototype that once existed and which has now been almost completely bastardised by the sponsorship industry.

True moments of brand endorsement are organic, authentic and often owe as much to serendipity as they do strategy. You cannot engineer these crucial moments of brand heritage. But you can exploit them. And for the past four decades Omega has successfully leveraged those 14 seconds of performance into millions of pounds of profit and many decades of brand equity.

And perhaps the best thing of all about authentic brand endorsements is that they endure. Long after Roger Federer becomes a footnote in the annals of sporting history and his various watch endorsements are forgotten, they will still speak about Apollo 13 and the three men who made it home thanks to an Omega watch that kept perfect time

Mark Ritson is an Associate Professor of Marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands.

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