Mars One founder on why sending people to die on another planet is the ultimate brand opportunity

Red Bull’s sponsorship of Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking space jump has been dubbed by many as the most successful marketing stunt in history. Eight million people tuned into the live-stream and estimates at the time put the value of the exposure at over £100m for the energy drink brand.

But Bas Lansdorp wants to go where no man, or brand, has gone before. Mars.

Lansdorp is founder of Mars One, a not for profit organisation which aims to establish a permanent settlement on the red planet by 2026. Financing the operation is complex. Mars One has estimated it will cost $6bn to send the first crew up, $4bn for each subsequent manned mission. To acheive this, it is primarily reliant on (unnamed as yet) private investors with “media exposure” – comparable to the Olympic Games – cited as the main stream of providing ROI.

"The Olympic Games in London, which lasted only three weeks, yielded more than $4.5bn from broadcasting rights and sponsorships. The revenues from media exposure are estimated to be the equivalent of 10 Olympic Games between today and the first year after human landing,” claims the website.

Criticisms of the project's feasibility and the way in which it has sourced the potential crew aside, sending people on a one-way trip to Mars – returning is costly and complex – is a far more difficult proposition to sell to brand marketers.

“Space is inherently dangerous. But there are also brands that sponsor the Volvo Ocean Race where people die every now and again [Hans Horrevoets was killed in 2006],” Lansdorp tell The Drum. “You have to be clear about the risks and explain why it’s worth it taking those risks […] I don’t doubt something will go wrong. That’s how space exploration works.”

So why should brands take the risk?

“This is one of the most exciting things that will happen in the 21st century. We’re not sure if Mars One will make it, or if [another organisation] will make it, but people will be sent to Mars in the 21st century. When we look back on this time, we’ll remember it for the fact that humans left the planet. That’s why it’s interesting for companies to attach themselves to it. We want to communicate this grand story to people all around the world.”

Lansdorp claims to have already held talks with one of the world’s biggest car companies and a global beer brand. He declines to name them, or detail what the deal might have entailed, but explained that although it was “too early” for them to commit their interest is encouraging.

Sponsorship and product placement agreements could be on the cards for brands as a more immediate opportunity lies in a planned documentary series.

Negotiations with international broadcasters are ongoing since Endemol-owned Darlow Smithson Productions – behind the popular Big Brother series – backed out last year. But Lansdorp revealed eight 50 minute episodes will follow teams as they train and complete challenges until the first crew leaves.

“We’re going to build a copy of the Mars outpost and each year the teams will be “locked up” for a certain period of time. They will not know how long so they can’t count down. They will have all the same restrictions, like communication, and medical facilities and we’ll give them challenges to overcome. Life support systems will breakdown for example and we’ll see how they deal with these challenges,” Lansdorp explained.

“We want the whole world to know who [the people going to Mars] are. We don’t want them to be four random pilots but to be our TV friends going to Mars.”

Overseeing the selection of the crew is chief medical officer Norbert Kraft who has work with NASA as wel as the Russian and Japanese space agencies. Lansdorp himself will not be a part of the crew going to Mars.

“We hope the mission will succeed but what matters is the story of trying to achieve the almost impossible. Of progress. Of inspiration. And if we succeed that’s a great bonus and if we don’t it’s still a very inspiring and creative story,” he said.

Lansdorp is set to address marketers at the Festival of Media Global in Rome this week (10-12 May)

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