Logos in space

Space. Silent and infinite. As dark as night, and as icy as death....

Space. Silent and infinite. As dark as night, and as icy as death.

Not exactly a prime location for advertising, one might think. But the operators of the MIR space station are convinced they can sell corporate clients on the idea of launching their brands into orbit. And a Toronto-based PR agency is going to help them try.

MIR, which orbits 200 kilometres above the earth, is managed by a company called MirCorp – a joint venture between Russian space systems manufacturer RSC Energia and U.S. investors Walt Anderson and Chirinjeev Kathuria. Increasingly decrepit after nearly 15 years in space, the station could badly use an infusion of cash to cover maintenance and repair bills. Which is why MirCorp is now actively looking to sell sponsorship packages to major corporations

GPC International, a global public relations firm founded and headquartered in Toronto, is responsible for soliciting sponsors on MirCorp’s behalf.

It may all sound a bit, well, out there. But Freda Kemp, account group director, sponsorship with GPC sees a model here for private-sector involvement in future space exploration projects.

‘We’re inventing something new,’ says Kemp, who came to GPC from the Canadian Space Agency. ‘If MirCorp can be successful in the next five to 10 years, it will show that funding for other programs, like trips to Mars, won’t have to come from government.’

Coming up with the kind of money that MIR needs won’t be easy. First deployed back in 1986, the station has, frankly, seen better days. For a start, it needs to be kicked into a higher orbit, because global warming is – quite literally – threatening to pull it down. The past few years have also seen a fire and some serious collision damage sustained during a docking procedure. Annual maintenance bills alone top $150 million, and there have been rumblings that Moscow would like to just close down the whole operation.

Still, the MirCorp folks believe blue-chip advertisers can be lured into the final frontier. Within the past couple of years, they’ve scored a few notable one-off deals. Pepsi-Cola, for example, shelled out US$1.5 million for the honour of having cosmonauts open a can of Pepsi in space, before an international TV audience. And Pizza Hut slapped its logo on the side of a shuttle bound for MIR – a name-drop that cost the company US$1.2 million, but generated ‘between $20 million and $30 million in media value,’ according to Kemp.

GPC is now pitching a number of different packages to advertisers. Notable among these is the opportunity to sponsor one of a series of ‘Citizen Explorer’ missions in which private citizens make the journey to MIR. The first of these, featuring U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, who forked over $20 million for the privilege, is scheduled for February 2001.

Kemp says a number of major events are planned for Tito’s mission – including the first-ever online stock purchase from space, and the first-ever credit-card purchase from space – and there are, of course, opportunities for sponsors in appropriate categories to associate themselves with each of these.

(The price tag for involvement in one of these ‘first-ever’ events starts at $500,000. Sponsors can leverage the investment by using the event footage in subsequent advertising.)

Other packages offer sponsors the opportunity to purchase official supplier status, acquire naming rights to a ‘habitation module,’ engage cosmonauts for product endorsements and underwrite specific experiments or scientific research payloads.

Kemp says GPC’s efforts to date have focused primarily on major U.S. corporations, but she would certainly entertain a serious Canadian offer.

One development that should help raise MIR’s profile and assist GPC in marketing the station as a sponsorship property is the deal signed recently with television producer Mark Burnett, who masterminded the hit CBS ‘reality’ series Survivor.

Burnett’s plan is to develop a series called Destination MIR, which will chronicle the training of 16 wannabe cosmonauts. As on Survivor, contestants will be eliminated one by one, and the winner will get to visit MIR, where the final episode will take place. The show is slated to air on NBC during the 2001-2002 season.

For now, anyway, MIR represents a one-of-a-kind opportunity. But that could change in a few years. A rival facility, the International Space Station, is scheduled to begin operating by 2006 – at an annual cost of $3.2 billion – and could pose competition for sponsorship dollars.

Mike Gouinlock, president of The GEM Group, a Toronto-based sponsorship marketing firm, says companies are often keen to associate with new and unique properties like MIR, because it helps foster an impression of being leading-edge. But he warns that clients need to take a pragmatic view, looking beyond the pure awareness benefits to understand ‘how it’s going to impact the bottom line, and how relevant it seems to consumers.’

So is space the place for advertisers? RadioShack certainly seems to think so. The retailer’s U.S. arm currently plans to invest several million dollars in a lunar rover that is scheduled to launch from MIR in 2003, and will transmit broadcasts from the moon.

‘This will provide the brand with tremendous differentiation,’ says Jim McDonald, senior vice-president, marketing and advertising, with RadioShack. ‘It resonates with our brand. It’s about leading-edge technology, and reinforces our aim to be the pre-eminent provider of high-speed bandwidth.’

Kemp, for her part, says the value of association with MIR extends well beyond sheer novelty.

‘We’ll have leading-edge companies participating, helping to fund man’s exploration of space,’ she says. ‘They deserve all the credit they get for being true pioneers.’

Space, she adds, ‘is sexy and appealing – if it’s presented properly.’

Also in this report:

- Canadiens work on sponsorship play: Hockey team hones image with local events p.B17

- Forum reborn as entertainment venue: Venerable old home of the Habs will be transformed into state-of-the-art complex p.18

- Bingo promoter gambles on the game: Trying to make $7.5-billion industry more attractive to players and sponsors alike p.B21

- For the love of a good cause: Event marketer Pete McAskile reflects on the power of marketers to make good things happen p.B22