Branding’s final frontier: Shaking off the sci-fi clichés to deliver brand attitude at high altitude

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Since the 1950s, space exploration has captured the minds and imaginations of the masses. It has permeated everything from the design aesthetics of fridges, caravans and even buildings to film, TV and music. Actually going into outer-space was heroic, insanely dangerous and so monumentally expensive that only the largest states could attempt it. To become an astronaut required superhuman reaction skills, elite physical fitness and years of training. People could only look up at the moon and dream (or turn on the TV and tune in to the latest episode of Star Trek). 

The rockets that were launched were always a vehicle for national propaganda, as well as pioneering humans. From the American flag on the moon and NASA’s rockets, to the iconic images of the USSR’s Yuri Gagarin.

The iconic Yuri Gargarin, the first man in space (1961) and Neil Armstrong, the first on the moon (1969)

The iconic Yuri Gargarin, the first man in space (1961) and Neil Armstrong, the first on the moon (1969)

A new era of space travel

Fifty years later, space travel is opening up to the human race, thanks to a handful of eccentric billionaires. If you have a spare $250,000 you can buy a ticket for a suborbital flight on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. $20 million will get you to the International Space Station and back, like pioneering space tourist Dennis Tito with Space Adventures. For $70million, you can buy a seat on a SpaceX voyage to the moon and back. Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa has just become the first man to do the latter, allegedly buying six seats. Not all of these companies have actually completed a manned voyage, and the launch dates keep shifting further and further into the future.

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Battle of the brands

Despite the high ticket price and lack of a definitive launch date, there is no shortage of paying customers. Richard Branson claims his Virgin Galactic waiting list has 80,000 potential tourists signed up, the first 700 of which have already paid their ticket price in full. 

Virgin Galactic is proving that there is a market of wealthy space explorers and whilst the price tag doesn’t seem to be putting many off, Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin are allegedly going to offer an even cheaper ride at a mere $200k. At a relatively similar price point, branding is going to play a large part in both company’s marketing strategies.

Virgin understands this and back in 2009 enlisted branding agency GBH to design their brand identity. The logo features a hyper-detailed image of Branson’s own iris, which doubles as a solar eclipse, selling the brand as a life-changing and perspective altering experience. GBH explain:

“Virgin Galactic celebrates this undeniable urge, in the vision of humanity to explore beyond our reach. The Iris is Branson’s own, the DNA of Flight is that history, begun by the bravery of Icarus.”

Conceptually, the brand succeeds. Visually, the decade old brand feels already outdated, failing to capture the timeless quality that the NASA logo does so effortlessly. In contrast, all the other Virgin brands are known as challengers in their sectors. Airline Virgin America for example, achieved this by making flying all about the experience at a time when competitors focussed on no-frills. A simple feather-light logotype paired with charming plane names (like California Dreamin’) and bright playful illustrations ensured the brand stood out. Unfortunately Virgin Galactic fails to emanate this challenger brand spirit (their latest rocketship is called Spaceship Two) and instead sits alongside tired sci-fi clichés such as NASA style typography and a cold scientific brand language.

Animated airlines   Virgin America used playful characters to stand out.

Animated airlines Virgin America used playful characters to stand out.

Blue Origin does things differently. The evocative name allows the logo to be more functional featuring just a bold electric blue condensed typeface and feather illustration – perhaps hinting at the weightless, zero G experience offered. Their rocket names are more engaging with titles like New Glenn and New Shepherd, hinting at the next step in the human narrative.

However, the award for best names goes to SpaceX, owned by Tesla/Paypal founder Elon Musk, which gave the name BFR (Big ‘Falcon’ Rocket) to it’s latest spacecraft, though Musk insists the ‘F’ stands for something different.

Personality clash

Looking at today’s dominant companies, it’s safe to say they all have one thing in common. They reflect their billionaire founder’s egocentric personalities. Musk’s SpaceX is boastful and overly masculine, Jeff Bezo’s reassuring quiet confidence filters through Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic ups Branson’s ego by using his own iris to represent an earth-like planet.

This is restricting and preventing them from effectively redefining the space travel narrative for the 21st century. As space tourism expands these brands will need to become more about consumer experience rather than the founders themselves.

Gateway to another world

Space tourism is big business. The Federal Aviation Administration predicted that it could become a billion-dollar market by 2030, but sales already reach over $2billion. 

Closer to home, four new spaceports in Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland are in the pipeline which are expected to be worth £3.8billion to the UK economy, bringing with them thousands of skilled jobs.

They follow in the footsteps of Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose built commercial space hub. However, looking at the branding you’re more likely to associate it with a small regional airport rather than a gateway to other planets. The same can be said about the current Spaceport Cornwall and Spaceport Scotland identities. Both lack any sense of excitement and emotion that should come with traveling to the outer reaches of Earth. Instead they sit comfortably alongside East Midlands Airport’s uninspiring identity with abstract swooshes and that familiar clichéd sci-fi typography.

A fresh take on the visual language of space is needed in order for brands to align with this sentiment. It’s safe to say ‘the future’ today looks the same as it did in 1977, with the same typographic treatments and visual metaphors.

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Buying an experience, not an ego

Currently, space tourism belongs to the richest members of society but as the price comes down, new customer groups will enter the market. Rather than millionaires, less wealthy tourists will be spending life savings and inheritance on a once in a lifetime experience. These people will be more receptive to customer service and how it’s communicated through branding and marketing. 

There’s no denying that the current race for commercially viable space travel is primarily technical. But as each company competes for talent and skilled expertise as well as future customers, branding and marketing can’t be overlooked. It is down to each brand to shake off and live beyond their founders personalities and appeal to wider audiences outside the billionaires club. And just as airports compete for airlines, the battle between spaceports for space operators will too. Not to mention the countless number of pre-flight space training bootcamps, equipment brands and hotels that will spring up to compete for a share of the market. 

Avoid clichés

Life-changing experiences enable you to see things with a new perspective and a fresh take on the visual language of space is needed in order for brands to align with this sentiment. It’s safe to say ‘the future’ today looks the same as it did in 1977, with the same typographic treatments and visual metaphors. Just as airlines evolved their visual language to reflect the experience, so should space tourism.

Stronger narratives

It’s clear that a fresh narrative for the sector is needed to match the excitement, optimism and emotion in space travel. Attitude led messaging is largely missing from the big name brands – surely speaking in a human way is vital to selling the ultimate human experience? 

Space travel is truly mind-blowing, from experiencing weightlessness and flying over the earth at several km/second to witnessing all the continents in a blink of an eye. It is said that seeing the earth from orbit can change your perspective on life, bringing grown adults to tears. It is this emotion and sentiment that the leading brands are failing to capture. Ed White said of his pioneering spacewalk in 1965, “I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life”.

Lantern brands fitness club and social enterprise Run Rural


The UK based running club approached Lantern to inject character and attitude into their identity

Run Rural brings friendly, non-competitive run coaching, fitness and wellbeing to rural communities. Currently based in the South East, the club aims to inspire people of all abilities to get outdoors, get active, get healthy and meet new people through running. 


The logo combines a running form with a tree, bringing energy and personality to the identity. The simple shape, core colour palette of black and white and slick typography is a nod to the minimal and accessible nature of running. 


Running is a fast growing sport with over 2.5 million participants in England, according to Sport England's recent report, and is increasing year on year. With our working lives becoming more and more sedentary, it's now more important than ever to get outside and get running!


We're excited to see the identity rolling out across advertising, running t-shirts, banners and social media, and look forward to seeing the club grow to reach and inspire even more runners.


We’re the face of AXA’s new ‘Meet the Inspired’ campaign

Lantern selected to front a new business insurance campaign for the UK’s biggest insurer of startups.

AXA Business Insurance provides tailored business cover direct to UK small businesses and is the UK’s biggest insurer of startups (founded within the past three years). The company is also ranked as the No. 1 insurance brand worldwide, so we were understandably delighted when we were selected to be the face of their new campaign.

Running online and across social media, their ‘Meet the Inspired’ campaign launches today and includes a host of advice and support on building and growing a business and brand, with plenty of content from our very own Founder and Director, Ryan Tym.

After almost a decade working in different agencies, Ryan decided to go it alone and start Lantern in 2014. From a spare room, to achieving an award-winning team and an office in East London, Ryan speaks candidly about what’s kept him driven and what advice he’d give to other entrepreneurs.

First port of call? A point of difference.

As you might expect, building a brand is an integral part of the process. He launched ‘brand attitude’ agency Lantern from a spare bedroom and hasn’t looked back.

“When I created my first business plan I knew the kind of companies I wanted to be like. I used them as benchmarks to pitch myself against, and then improve on.”

“It’s a real challenge to stand out from the rest of the competition,” Ryan says. When starting Lantern he saw few agencies focusing on brand attitude and tone of voice “I felt like that was missing a little bit in the way that UK agencies work, so that was really the driving force for how I wanted to do something a bit different.”

“It’s really important to understand what your point of difference is and what you stand for.” No point of difference? No point starting up.

Creating something with lasting impact

Ryan explains, “people fall into the trap of [building] a brand or a business around themselves.” But this can undermine the company’s credibility.

“You need to think about it on a bigger level… separately from you as a person, to what this is as a business and what you want it to stand for. I think it’s quite easy when you’re starting up to miss that step.”

It’s about, as Ryan says, creating a legacy that you can build and evolve alongside others. “I’ve always wanted to create something that was a business entity in its own right, so that one day maybe I might not be a part of it and it can live and exist on its own.”

Watch this space

With a new report from AXA today suggesting one in ten (11 per cent) of British people intend starting their own business in the next twelve months, equating to 3.5 million people, you can also catch Ryan on TV later today, discussing his thoughts.

Why authenticity and transparency matters in branding

Southwold Books is actually a branch of Waterstones. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Southwold Books is actually a branch of Waterstones. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Waterstones defiant in independent shops controversy

This week, the importance of brand authenticity and transparency was again brought into the mainstream, when it was revealed that seemingly independent bookstores in the English towns of Southwold, Rye and Harpenden, were in fact unbranded Waterstones stores – one of the UK’s biggest book retailers.

In truth, the revelation wasn’t new. A BBC News article reported on the Southwold opening as far back as 2014, prompting a backlash from anti-chain store campaigners who were concerned about the deception for residents and tourists alike, as well as the potential damage to genuinely independent, local retailers.

"It's dishonest, because it's a national chain pretending not to be a national chain, but trying to look like a local shop”.

– John Perkins, Southwold Preservation Society

With the repeat revelation this week came more public frustration at the trojan horse approach the brand was taking. Commentators from the world of branding and beyond suggested similarities to the understated ‘indie’ branding of Harris + Hoole. Launched in 2012, the coffee shop was in fact 49% owned by Britain’s biggest retailer, Tesco. The company bought the remaining 51% of the business in 2016, before selling the chain to Caffè Nero at the end of last year.

Harris + Hoole launched with a 49% investment from Tesco. Photo:

Harris + Hoole launched with a 49% investment from Tesco. Photo:

However, the Waterstones approach is arguably more controversial. Rather than part funding a chain of coffee shops, it would be the equivalent of Tesco opening 'independent' corner shops in sensitive high street locations, in a bid to ‘blend in’ with the values, attitude and identity of a particular location.

Waterstones Chief Executive James Daunt, whose background is in independent bookstores, stated: 

“We're coming into quite sensitive High Streets, ones predominantly with independent retailers on them, and we wish to behave as they do”.

In reality, what they have achieved could be seen as the complete opposite. The town’s independent retailers present their brands with authenticity and transparency, while customers entering Southwold Books are reliant on nothing more than a handwritten note in the shop window to discover the true owners of the site. It's a bold move – and a risky one too, which could leave a bitter taste in the mouth of its customers.

“To call themselves Southwold Books is a bit naughty. Locals know what the shop is, but visitors don’t”.

– John Wells, Owner of Wells of Southwold

The adaptation of storefronts to better reflect a local environment is, in itself, nothing new. Back in 2015, Pret-A-Manger opened a store on Brick Lane, complete with traditional glass fascia and gold leaf detailing on the stone work and timber panelling. But it’s the extent to which Waterstones chose to disguise its stores which suggests a lack of confidence in its own self image – and more crucially, a realisation that the values of the towns they are opening, don’t align with that of the chain.

Pret-A-Manger's Brick Lane store opened in 2015, to the dismay of many hipsters. Photo: Alex Lentati

Pret-A-Manger's Brick Lane store opened in 2015, to the dismay of many hipsters. Photo: Alex Lentati

So how can brands get it right? The simple answer is with transparency.

Not often touted as a beacon of brand excellence, Wetherspoon’s approach to naming its pubs is one that Waterstones could have learnt from. Each location has its own name, often linked to a local story. Take The Lord John in Stroud, Gloucestershire. This free house, in a town fiercely proud of its independent stores, is named after Lord John Russell, MP for Stroud and architect of the 1832 Great Reform Act. Alongside the local backstory, the pub’s frontage clearly displays the Wetherspoon name. It's an approach replicated at free houses across the country, with the masterbrand taking a gentle back seat.

Wetherspoons incorporates local heritage into the frontages of their free houses. Photo:  Arthur Chappell

Wetherspoons incorporates local heritage into the frontages of their free houses. Photo: Arthur Chappell

An alternative approach is that taken by Waitrose. Their ‘Little Waitrose’ stores bring a cutesy warmth to these smaller sub-branded convenience stores, softening the potential for any backlash in a small town invasion.

Waitrose has introduced a soft sub-brand for smaller convenience stores. Photo: Talking Retail

Waitrose has introduced a soft sub-brand for smaller convenience stores. Photo: Talking Retail

Daunt’s ambition is to ensure all Waterstones behave like independent stores, and there’s nothing wrong with that in principle:

“If you want to enhance a high street you need to act as an independent ... and part of the reason we did it is to convince our own booksellers that they have the autonomy that they do have”

It’s a strong belief – and one which many other high street brands could learn from – offering staff greater responsibility and autonomy. It should just be approached with authenticity and transparency. The opportunity to create a sub-brand for the business, that can sensitively slip into proudly independent high streets offers a great opportunity to expand and evolve the Waterstones brand – and it’s a brief that any agency would give their right arm for.