Here’s my hot take: Space Force doesn’t have a functional problem. It has a communication problem. When Space Force was created in 2019, I was excited. The opportunity to build a brand for an entirely new branch of the armed services is a really exciting and cool prospect. This is an opportunity to push boundaries and communicate to the world that the United States is serious about space operations and the future of war. There is, of course, a great deal of skepticism regarding Space Force’s feasibility in both strategic and budgetary terms. Some analysts argue that Space Force is not strategically necessary and many argue that it is too expensive and wasteful. While all of these concerns are valid, many of them could have been addressed already if Space Force prioritized communication.
As the sixth branch of the armed forces, Space Force’s debut has been more fizzle than sizzle. What should have been a key moment signaling that the United States was deliberate in its approach to great power competition and understood the national security implications of space operations instead gave us lots of internet memes. Even Netflix made a satire. As entertaining as the jokes and memes are, especially during this pandemic, Space Force shouldn’t be a joke.
Americans don’t understand what Space Force does, why it’s important, and most importantly, why we’re spending money on it. A year later, Space Force unfortunately is still not taken seriously and even more of a problem is that when they do make announcements it’s hard to tell if it’s real or an article from The Onion. For example, dress concept designs floating on Twitter left many wondering if they were real or a joke. The popular Twitter account, @Doctrine_Man, retweeted the designs saying “Courtesy of US Space Force WTF Moments on FB. I’m sure it’s a joke. Well, to us, anyway. With Space Force you just never know.” But the dress concept designs were not real.
Therein lies the problem. Space Force leadership needs to understand the costly disconnect between the public and those working on creating Space Force. Space Force’s mission is crucial in great power competition and anticipating future conflicts in the space domain. As we transition from an industrial to an information age, the future of war will continue to reside in the human and information domains with the space domain emerging as the newest battlefield. The United States, therefore, can’t afford to miscommunicate its role or its importance to the American public.
SPACE FORCE’S BRANDING PROBLEM
A year after it’s inception, Space Force has unfortunately failed to legitimize itself — and a large part of that comes from a failure to develop and communicate its brand. From an arguably poorly designed logo that looks suspiciously like Star Trek, to a laughable decision to call personnel “Guardians” — not to be confused with Guardians of the Galaxy that has aliens, a talking raccoon, and a lovable tree with a limited vocabulary — these choices impact much more than aesthetics. Each decision is a strategic choice that communicates identity, values, and overall utility. For example, Space Force having horses is not on-brand and makes the mission and utility of the force confusing. Why does a command that is focused on protecting our interest in space have living, breathing horses?
Space Force, however, should command respect due to its complexity and relevancy, but unfortunately is doing the exact opposite. It needs to take a page from the brand developers’ playbook, and prioritize building a successful narrative in 2021. Telling compelling stories, designing purposeful logos, and creating an emotional connection are just some protective measures communication professionals use to protect and communicate the legitimacy of a brand, and there is no reason why Space Force should not use these measures. For example, stories are an essential tool for brand development and management. Stories do not just make a brand stand out but also give it legitimacy — and Space Force needs both a brand narrative and legitimacy within the national security landscape. It is not enough to toss the mission up on a website or measure success by engagements and impressions on Twitter.
The national security community has an opportunity in 2021 to capitalize on our complex history and emotional connections to the space domain. Space Force is arguably the only federal organization that can connect technology and innovation, national security and American identity in a location tens of thousands of miles from earth, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Space Force also needs a strong origin story. What’s even more ironic is that despite being resurrected in 2019, it’s not a new idea. In 1982, the United States Air Force formally established Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), and during the Cold War, space operations became its main function. Space and the protection of space as a domain that is critical to national security is arguably an inherently bipartisan issue. Plus, American romanization of competition in the space domain spans half a century. In other words, if any branch could have a compelling narrative, it’s Space Force.
A brand is also only as good as its pictures, and it’s hard to tell a story if your logo is already taken by Hollywood — and Space Force’s logo resembles Star Trek insignia. While Space Force’s seal was used by the US Air Force as early as 1942, it’s hard to justify using what looks like a Star Trek knock-off. In the past, however, Hollywood has aided the Department of Defense through propaganda films. For example, during World War II, Disney released Der Fuehrer’s Face in 1942 in which Donald Duck dreamt he was slaving in Germany under Nazi rule. Warner Brothers also produced a series of propaganda cartoons designed to increase morale and clearly demarcate lines of good and evil during World War II. But the Star Trek-looking logo is a missed opportunity in today’s time.
Stories also have characters. It’s almost impossible to tell an origin story without heroes that are seen as paragons. Until December 2020, Space Force didn’t have a hero to its own story. How can anyone develop a compelling story without knowing what to call its members? Last February they opened a virtual suggestion box to help figure out “Space Force ranks, names for operational units and what members should be called.” It took almost a year for them to settle on “Guardians,” which immediately brings to mind the movie series “Guardians of the Galaxy” that debuted in 2014. But the term “Guardian” has an almost 40 year history with US space operations and is derived from an 1983 Air Force Space Command motto, “Guardians of the High Frontier.” Marvel Comics, however, introduced “Guardians of the Galaxy” in their super hero series in 1969. While it’s unclear who is copying who, one thing is clear: as long as “Guardians of the Galaxy” exists — and Hollywood keeps on making more movies in the series — Space Force will need to aggressively explain itself.
Lastly, brands need emotion to survive. Psychologists and branding experts — and even Aristotle — know this. The Space Force brand, however, offers little emotional connection. Can Americans have an emotional connection to space? Before you say “no,” think about last month’s Chistmas Star, the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, or the Space X launch. These were more than just scientific achievements or events that occurred in nature. They were significant emotional events that were directly tied to grand narratives of exploration, the frontier, innovation, and American exceptionalism. All these narratives define who we are as Americans and are important for advancing US interests and national identity. President John F. Kennedy used space exploration to create an emotional tie between national identity, exploration, and science. He invited the American people to share his dream of putting a man on the moon, and when Neil Armstrong did in 1969, his steps on the moon became a national moment of wonder, awe, and above all, pride. So the reason why Americans don’t have an emotional connection to Space Force is not because Americans don’t connect with space, it’s because Space Force hasn’t given them a reason to make an emotional connection.
WHY COMMUNICATION IS ESSENTIAL FOR SPACE FORCE’S SUCCESS
Space Force’s success or failure is directly dependent upon its ability to communicate and connect. In a year where American national identity is fragile and fractured, Space Force and its missions have an opportunity to strengthen national identity, reignite narratives of American ingenuity, and help millions understand the connection between a strong national security strategy to a strong space strategy. The national security community has an opportunity in 2021 to capitalize on our complex history and emotional connections to the space domain. Space Force is arguably the only federal organization that can connect technology and innovation, national security and American identity in a location tens of thousands of miles from earth, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding Space Force. If the message is not immediately understandable and clear, energy is wasted trying to explain it. If there’s one thing communication professionals know, it’s that explaining is the enemy of branding. If you’re explaining you’re losing. Right now, Space Force is doing a lot of explaining their choices that are making people wonder if it’s a joke.
The Biden administration, however, could hit the reset button and create an opportunity for people to connect with a branch of the armed forces in a way that they never could before. To do so, the Biden administration will have to prioritize Space Force’s branding and communication strategy. It’s time to convince Americans that Space Force is real and not something from Babylon Bee.
Karla Mastracchio, PhD is a strategic communication professor and consultant. She is a former DIA intelligence analyst and writes, teaches, and researches narrative strategies, disinformation and influence.She teaches at the University of Iowa.