Using NASA's Logo: Expensive T-Shirts Or Global Soft Power?

Keith's note: I'm the last person to say that NASA should not explore new ways to put its branding in front of people so as to further explain the agency's mission and accomplishments. Indeed I harp on NASA relentlessly to seek out new ways to get its brand out. People like to identify themselves with what NASA is and what it does. In so doing, NASA itself gets more visibility. And NASA just turned 60 so its doing a victory lap right now.

This recent article "NASA Releases Streetwear Fashion Line To Celebrate Its 60th Anniversary" talks about the new clothing line by Heron Preston that features NASA's retired "worm" logo: "If you would have asked me to figure out how NASA would celebrate their organization's 60th anniversary, I probably wouldn't have guessed a new streetwear fashion line. Yet, that's exactly what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opted to do. .... If you're hoping to get your hands on some of the NASA gear, you better have some deep pockets, as t-shirts are currently priced at $326, while some of the more popular items like the iconic backpack ring up at a hefty $1,342. The most expensive item in the collection, the parka pictured above, will set you back nearly $2,000."

Great stuff. The items being sold by this designer perfectly match the logo usage that the agency's original stylistic guidelines specify and they look a lot like the stuff I used to buy in NASA gift shops when I worked at the agency in the 80s and 90s. And of course, as many of you know, I am a NASA worm logo fan. But I paid $20 for those t-shirts - not $326. Hmm.

Read what the article says. I have seen this fashion line mentioned in other articles. What this article says is misleading. it sounds like NASA itself has launched the expensive clothing line. This is what happens when you allow someone to use your logo, your name, and your brand identity as they wish. I have asked NASA for a copy of the agreement between NASA and the clothing line's designer Heron Preston to see what wording is included when it comes to selling things since there is usually a broad prohibition by NASA against using NASA logos for commercial purposes. I'm also wondering if the company making all the money off of NASA's logo (owned by all citizens) is donating any of the proceeds to an educational non-profit organization.

Keith's update: I heard back from the folks at NASA Headquarters who coordinate agreements with companies and organizations. Despite the common use of words such as "agreement" or "partnership" or "collaboration" in articles describing the relationship between Heron Preston and NASA in reality all Heron Preston did was fill out a routine form specified by NASA Merchandising Guidelines. This is the same routine form that companies who make t-shirts and coffee mugs featuring the NASA logo fill out - the kind of items that you can buy at souvenir shops on Route A1A in Cocoa Beach. NASA said that they worked with Heron Preston to "approve their designs" but otherwise "this is no different from how we work with H&M, Target, etc." So, to encourage marketing hype that suggests that this company has a unique, formal marketing agreement or collaboration with NASA is, at a minimum, an extreme exaggeration of something that is rather routine.

In recent Forbes article Heron Preston, who had a previous collaboration with New York City Department of Sanitation said that he "admitted that his NASA dream hasn't been fully actualized, and is actively working on a project that goes "above and beyond" what the space agency has ever accomplished with another fashion designer." Heron's interest in NASA goes back to 2015. In a interview with the New York Times where he said "I've emailed NASA about stuff to work on," he said. "I went to their website, and I emailed the first address that made sense." He wants to design spaceships and astronaut gear. He's still waiting for a response."

So here you have a clear fan of NASA who wants to use the whole NASA worm log meme in new ways in front of new audiences. Great. But NASA already has an official logo - the "meatball" - so having a second NASA logo out there competing for attention (with no web links back to NASA itself) might serve to split or dilute the visibility for NASA. That would seem to be contrary to what they teach in Advertising 101. Then again, all NASA logos say "NASA" so ...

One other thing that bugs me (but probably not others) is the pricey aspect of this clothing. It clashes with what the agency should probably be doing: reaching everyone, everywhere, regardless of societal stature, income, or educational level. The price of just one of these items could probably outfit a child at a school for months. I would not be so stuck on this if were not for something I posted several years ago "Understanding NASA's Global Reach". this piece I describe how former Pete Worden with Breakthrough Initiatives spotted a student in La Serna, Chile wearing a NASA logo t-shirt. "So why is a boy wearing a NASA t-shirt in the Atacama region of Chile? Worden did not know. I have a theory. In 2010 NASA was instrumental in rescuing 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped in the San José copper mine. The mine is located near Copiapó, Chile. Parnal Observatory, where the VLT is located is 411 Km north of Copiapó a town with a population of 200,000. La Serena, the town where this photo was taken, is located 349 km south of Copiapó and also has a population of over 200,000. These locations are all connected by the same road (Route 5). I would have to assume that NASA remains a very popular entity in the region after the mine rescue - popular enough that its logo is something that children want to wear."

As has been recently noted by several former NASA administrators, NASA is a consumate example of the global soft power that America has at its disposal. It is seen around the world as a standard that other nations aspire to achieve since everything it does is seen as being for the betterment of humanity - while simultaneously being exceptionally cool and inspirational. I am happy that someone in the U.S. sees NASA's branding as something worthy of novel injections into culture and society. But I am more pleased to see things such as the child in Chile where NASA's pervasive value has inserted itself into a place that many of us would think to be unlikely. I guess there is a balance to be struck.

I have a strong feeling, however, that the young boy in Chile probably has a better, more inspiring idea of what NASA does than the kids in the U.S. who wear one of these expensive branded t-shirts. Just sayin'

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on August 8, 2018 10:47 AM.

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