The Innovation 50: How Virgin Galactic are marketing the era of passenger space travel

The Innovation 50: How Virgin Galactic are marketing the era of passenger space travel

By spring 2021, Sir Richard Branson may be broadcasting one of the biggest marketing announcements in history, in person, from space – the dawn of passenger space travel.

He is expected to fly on board his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle by the first quarter of 2021, at the earliest, and provide the ultimate cabin and spaceflight experience evaluation for his own company.

That deadline may not hold though as spaceflight is unpredictable at the testing stage (although a milestone test flight took place in early December). The initial plan was to begin commercial service by the middle of 2020. Plans changed and Branson was then expected to be in orbit by the end of this year. But covid has hampered the test flights required before the craft is deemed ready to accept Branson on board. Spring is the earliest it could happen. And when it does, markets expect its stock price to soar to record levels.

Marketing space travel

Marketing for Virgin Galactic has several objectives. Most of it so far has been about keeping space travel in the limelight, through marketing and PR, before it has been able to send anyone into orbit on a commercial basis.

Space flight is also incredibly expensive and so sponsorship has been a priority from the early days. Land Rover, for example, became its first sponsor in 2014, 10 years from the company’s launch (Branson wore a Virgin-branded spacesuit at the launch press conference).

Ticket sales are also crucial. At a reported US$250,000 each, and with Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber believed to be booked in already, they don’t come cheap. But how much would anyone pay to fulfill a childhood dream?

And that’s the key. Its recent ticket marketing initiatives are what have attracted admirers to nominate the brand as an Innovation 50 company.

Pamela Brown, CMO, Vodafone IoT (Internet of Things), says, “A few months ago, Virgin Galactic offered a glimpse into its suborbital spaceplane. Media, stakeholders and the general public raced to YouTube to check out the features and interiors of VSS Unity, getting a glimpse of what passengers can expect to experience on flights to the edge of space. An incredible marketing tactic gave people a taste of the art of the possible.”

The spectacle of the test flight

Test flights have been the most important marketing spectacles to date. In May this year, for example, its first successful SpaceShipTwo test flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico was captured on film.

Video of the takeoff and subsequent release of VSS Unity from mothership VMS Eve at 50,000 ft was released online and showed it reaching a glide speed of Mach 0.70, completing several tests before touching down smoothly.

For the marketing team, it was material made literally in heaven.

Once commercial spaceflight becomes a reality, Virgin Galactic will be offering far more than dream fulfilment. And this is when its marketing strategy will change gear.

A prominent player in this nascent sector already, the company is hoping to become a successful provider of space services. That includes providing affordable commercial space travel but also suborbital spacecraft, orbital launch vehicles, liquid rocket engines, suborbital launch for science missions, launches of small satellites and other payloads, and more.