Space tourism is set to become a reality next year when Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic takes its inaugural passenger flight. It will be the world’s first commercial space line.
Marketing Week (MW): How will you build marketing momentum in the run up to the inaugural Virgin Galactic flight next year?
Stephen Attenborough (SA): We know that what we’re doing is of historical importance, so we have filmed nearly everything we have done so far and have a fabulous archive to draw from. But this is not about an event; it is not like the lead-up to the Olympics or the Royal Wedding. It would be wrong not to focus on it to some extent but neither must we lose sight of the fact that we want to remain an exciting brand for many years to come. So we’ll continue to build momentum with a definite media strategy.
MW: You have revealed that broadcaster NBC is going to televise the flight live in the US – what is the plan for the rest of the world?
SA: We have felt for some time that we would like to appoint a strong principle broadcast partner. The deal with NBC will not preclude others from covering it as well though. NBC will be broadcasting it on the Today show in the US but it will also be selling those rights for us around the world.
We want this to be a global live TV event, whether people watch it in digital cinemas or at home on TV, wherever they are in the world. Webelieve the partnership with NBC is the best way to achieve that.
MW: How will you look to drive interest among consumers that can not afford the $250,000 deposit required to book a place on a Virgin Galactic flight?
SA: We are very aware that there is an enormous community of people who would love to fly to space, but cannot at the moment because of the price, so we are keen to come up with ways of giving them an opportunity to fly.
The first part of that is the launch of reality series Space Race, which is being produced by Mark Burnett, who is probably best-known for shows like Survivor and The Apprentice. The prize will of course be a flight to space.
We have not announced exactly what the format is or the timing, but is likely to air to air around the time of the first flight. We then hope to sell the concept all around the world, so there will be a British version.
MW: How important will partnership agreements be?
SA: We are in the middle of discussions at the moment. One of the things that this project has been defined by is its values, which tend to be similar to a lot of other organisations.
This will never be Formula 1 though. We’re never going to cover the spaceship with decals, but we will have some partnership agreements. We will try to use them in a sensible way to help pay for the project and add value to the brand, while broadening our fan base and providing a better customer experience.
If we’re ever going to see flights from London to Sydney in two and a half hours and hotels in space… we must get these first steps right
MW: Could Virgin Galactic be a successor to Concorde and operate super-fast transcontinental flights?
SA: It is 10 years since Concorde flew for the last time. Richard Branson’s thinking is that the successor to Concorde shouldn’t just be a bigger or better version of Concorde, it should be a 21st century game changer. Pushing long-haul, intercontinental aviation up into the atmosphere is definitely the way to go because it overcomes two big issues: first, the environmental impact of punching through the atmosphere with jet engines [as traditional planes do], and second, it makes journey times incredibly fast.
That’s one of the reasons why we went for a winged vehicle for our first spaceship rather than a rocket that launches from the ground because you will need a winged vehicle for point-to-point transcontinental travel. We already have a lot of experience in designing, building, flying and operating winged vehicles, so there was a method to our madness. It’s impossible to say how quickly it will happen, but I think it could be [sooner than people think].
MW: Could flying from London to Sydney in two and a half hours become a reality?
SA: It’s more than a pipe dream but it won’t happen next year. These big, bold technologies are almost always state-funded to begin with. A lot of the pieces needed to do that are now in place, but it will take private sector integration and an innovative touch. It’s Steve Jobs’ idea of ’foolish thinking’, which is how you get from a suitcase-sized mobile to an iPhone.
If we’re successful, there is definitely a wall of private sector money that is always looking for the next big opportunity, so we could see a lot of money coming behind it, which will accelerate the pace of innovation hugely.
MW: Two people have reserved their trip on Virgin Galactic using Bitcoin. Why did you decide to start accepting the virtual currency?
SA: The idea of a 21st century currency that is suitable for the digital age is something that really shakes everything up and is very appealing to Richard and the Virgin brand generally.
There have clearly been some early issues, but it is beginning to gather momentum and its legitimacy is certainly increasing in the US following the Senate hearing [at the end of November, which suggested it offers the same benefits and risks as other online payment systems]. It could become the 21st century equivalent of gold.
We also have quite a few customers who have been involved in Bitcoin from an early stage. It is something Richard has been watching with great interest, and maybe there will be a Virgincoin one day.
MW: How did you get the first customers on board considering it is such a new concept?
SA: It was a big ask at the time. Having the Virgin and Richard Branson brand behind us helped, as did having aerospace designer Burt Rutan on board and winning the $10m Anasari X Prize [a competition looking for the first non-government organisation to launch a reusable manned spaceship].
We then said to people if you would like to make an early reservation there is the opportunity to do that, but we’re not going to be able to tell you when the product is going to delivered, where you’re going to be flying from, what the experience is really going to be like, or what the eligibility terms are.
We also said if you do want to book an early spot and become one of the world’s first private astronauts, then we would like $200,000 upfront and we’re not going to pay any interest, but if at any time you decide you don’t like what’s happening, you can get your money back.
We were overwhelmed by the response and although 98 per cent of people offered unbridled enthusiasm but no money, we were very quickly able to raise the amount needed in deposits from the other 2 per cent.
MW: How many people have made a reservation?
SA: We have 670 people signed up who come from 57 countries around the world. We have a customer base that goes from Stephen Hawking to Justin Bieber and just about everybody in between. They are incredible brand ambassadors and remain very patient.
MW: How do you build the sense of community?
SA: We have a dedicated team that run the club [made up of future astonauts] and there is a lot of interaction. We have a social networking site called Spacebook, which is only for future astronauts, and we also run trips around the world for our customers. A couple of times a year we set up a week on Necker Island, for example, and we have also been to a South African game reserve.
MW: Your customers have also formed a charitable foundation – how did that come about?
SA: The group put together Galactic Unite themselves, which uses the same structure as the Virgin Unite foundation. The focus is on STEM+ education [science, technology, engineering and maths, plus entrepreneurship] but using the inspiration of space. It is run by our customers and supported by us.
There are various things going on but the most tangible is that individual future astronauts are providing scholarships for disadvantaged young people around the world, generally in their home countries. They provide the money for that and act as mentors; we can then plug these students into our own organisations to a certain extent. For us it means our customer group is stronger and more cohesive, but it also means that we’re being good for people and planet as well as profit.
Virgin Galactic’s top three marketing challenges
Lack of revenue
We’re nine years in and have no revenue. We have $80m-90m in deposits but we can’t use that because it is proof of market rather than a funding source. So we’ve had to be smart about the way we get the message out, we’ve developed a strong brand and we’re lucky because this is a very media-friendly story.
With our customers it is about communication and giving privileged access behind the hangar doors. But we also need to manage the expectations of the rest of the world, while keeping excitement high. We have a huge responsibility to get the first steps right. If we’re ever going to see London to Sydney in two and a half hours, hotels in space, trips around the moon, or be able to slash the cost and up the regularity of small satellite launches, we need to get these first steps right.
Keeping up momentum
We hope the reality TV show Space Race will keep playing after the launch of Virgin Galactic, and we have a schedule of ideas that will kick in at various points during the first year or two. We will then have other products to talk about. Those that have flown will also be coming home as people of interest; they will be telling their story and sharing their footage.
It is a challenge, but we feel fairly comfortable about how we’re meeting it at least in the short to medium term after the first launch. But it’s hard to think this will ever become dull.
Richard Branson is always pushing on to the next thing so I’m sure we’ll have other things to announce in the not too distant future. We’ll be talking about new things not too long after we launch.
Virgin Galactic in numbers
The new cost of a ticket to space
The number of people who buy a ticket each month on average
The total number of future astronauts
How long it should take to fly all existing customers
The number of passengers that have paid using Bitcoin