How Valuable Is the Mars Space Race for Country Brands?

NASA Perseverance Panorama of Mars

Jon Tipple, Global Chief Strategy Officer at FutureBrand, takes a look at the race to Mars and what it means for the brands of the countries and companies participating in it.

Millions tuned in last month to watch as NASA’s Perseverance made the descent from Mars’ atmosphere to the Red Planet. After 12 months of domestic and international turmoil in the wake of COVID-19, the out-of-this-world mission was a welcome distraction from the more immediate issues on Earth. More than a competition played out in orbit, however; the space race could have an impact on how these countries are perceived more broadly, whether it be by investors or tech talent.

Mars has become the ultimate trophy in the 21st Century space race – with space veteran America joined this time around by a significantly more diverse cohort including the likes of India and China. When the world tuned in to see the race to the moon in the 1960s, against the backdrop of a Cold War between the US and Soviet Russia, the space race acted as an endorsement of each country’s value system, expertise and way of life. Today, the race to Mars offers the same opportunity to shift global perception of the countries involved – and this could have a trickle-down impact on business.

Like businesses, countries also have a “brand” that influences perception both internally and externally. This brand can impact everything from business potential to tourism, metrics we track each year in the FutureBrand Country Index. However, unlike other consumer or business brands, country brands are not so easily molded or improved. Instead, they are comprised of myriad hard to articulate associations, built up over a lengthy period of time and through a variety of complex lenses. Places can’t be wholly disentangled from the people that inhabit them, much like they can’t be separated from the successes or failures of their endeavours, space race included.

Like businesses, countries also have a “brand” that influences perception both internally and externally.

The forerunners in the race to Mars are the US and China; as NASA’s rover touched down, China’s probe was in orbit and preparing for its own exploratory mission. For these two established country brands, the space race represents a focal point at which they can compete over geopolitics, technological leadership and advanced infrastructure. For India – perceived on the global stage as less technologically advanced – the Mars mission offers an opportunity to improve its international perception and provide evidence that it can compete at the highest level.

Of course, another nuance of this new space race is that it isn’t just nation states competing. Tech leaders including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are looking to cement their own brands’ places in the history books. If Tesla is successful in its SpaceX mission the brand will become something of a stateless power in its own right, proving it has just as much technology expertise as government-run programmes. This would reinforce the existing perception about the US being an exciting tech incubator and a place of technological innovation at the forefront of tech leadership.

Countries not directly involved in the mission to Mars also have the opportunity to share in the positive associations of the space race. The UK and France, for example, are both part of a wider conversation about innovation on Earth. Earlier this year the UK and Australia signed a new ‘Space Bridge’ partnership in order to increase knowledge exchange and investment across the two countries’ space sectors, collaborating on everything from robotics to AI.

Equally, it can be just as impactful for countries to enhance their global perception through initiatives here on Earth – amplifying their higher education, arts and culture offering. Crucially, countries should be conscious of inviting any unfavourable comparisons between the realities of life on the ground and their lofty achievements in space.

Mars is a high-profile technological playground for countries to showcase what they are capable of. These players will be seen, at least for a while, as holding the key to human potential beyond this planet. But will reaching Mars really make a nation more attractive place visit, study in or invest in? It’s certainly likely there will be a halo impact on the countries involved, but perception change is not a linear process and it will join the long list of associations which inform investor perception of country brands.

How Valuable Is the Mars Space Race for Country Brands?