President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous moonshot speech on May 25, 1961. Speaking before a joint session of the US Congress, he presented his great nation with a historic challenge: to land a man on the moon, and return him safely to earth, before the decade was out. This was a daring goal, and one that appeared impossible when Kennedy spoke. Yet it fired up NASA’s Apollo moon programme, and succeeded beyond the nation’s wildest dreams. On July 20, 1969, well before the decade had run out, Neil Armstrong became the first man to land on the moon, and he then returned safely to earth. President Kennedy’s moonshot had delivered spectacular results. His famous words still resonate, and continue to inspire mankind to “reach for the moon” in everything we do.

Brands and their moonshots Many great companies and brands have announced their own moonshots, since then. Here are a few:

Speaking way back in 1980, when computers were still huge and bulky mainframes primarily used by large companies, Bill Gates, then the CEO of a relatively new company Microsoft, urged his company to enable “a computer on every desk, and in every home”. Thirty-five years later, the personal computer, powered by Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows, has virtually delivered on this moonshot.

Nissan’s ‘Vision Zero’ is a moonshot which targets zero traffic accidents involving Nissan vehicles that inflict serious or fatal injuries.

Coca-Cola, one of the world’s iconic brands, has boldly announced that it will “replenish” 100 per cent of the water it uses, by 2020.

Google has spoken about, and demonstrated, its dream of a self-driving car which will save the effort we put into driving, and give us time to perform more fulfilling tasks.

Solar-Aid, an international development organisation and solar lights company, has targeted eradication of all kerosene lamps in Africa by 2020.

Virgin, led by its charismatic chairman Richard Branson, has announced Virgin Galactic, whose purpose is to become the space line for earth. Its lofty yet clear aim is to democratise access to space for the benefit of life on earth.

Each of these moonshots is larger than life and audacious in intent. Some of them may deliver the desired results, and others may not quite work out. Yet all of them are immensely exciting and inspiring goals to pursue. Closer home, and within the Tata Group where I work, I have seen some equally impactful examples of such moonshots.

Many years ago, at Titan, the then Managing Director of the Company, Xerxes Desai, announced a bold objective – of developing the thinnest wrist watch on earth. This galvanised the company’s horologists, and resulted in the development of the Titan Edge, which is indeed the slimmest watch in the universe today. It has been recognised as one of the finest innovations in post-Independence India, and continues to capture the imagination of anyone who sees it. Similarly, the path-breaking development of the Nano car at Tata Motors, inspired by a specific vision enunciated by the company’s chairman Ratan Tata, is now the stuff of legend. The Nano has perhaps been the most famous product innovation to come out of India in the recent past. While this brilliant car is not yet a commercial success, the sheer boldness of the product creation effort makes it a memorable moonshot for the company.

All these examples are great to read about and reflect upon, but why should practical marketers and brands consider moonshots of their own, particularly when these are likely to be very risky ventures, with little or no guarantee of success? Here are some important reasons.

Inspiration First and foremost, a moonshot hugely inspires the entire organisation. It serves as a single point around which the entire team rallies, even as it actively grapples with the intellectual and operational challenges that must be addressed and surmounted if the goal has to be achieved. Everyone likes a challenge, so it virtually puts the team on steroids, and injects everyone involved with huge amounts of motivation that often spills over well beyond the specific project itself. President Kennedy’s moonshot speech inspired the team at NASA to stretch well beyond its capabilities, and deliver beyond its wildest dreams the Apollo man-on-moon mission. That is indeed the power of inspiration.

Iconic status The achievement of a moonshot also provides a brand iconic status. For instance, the Titan Edge watch has given brand Titan a halo that has lasted for well over a decade now, because designing and manufacturing the world’s slimmest watch has established the brand’s mastery in the field of watchmaking. If a good brand which has proven itself on basics now has dreams of achieving greatness, then a moonshot is one of the surest ways of getting there.

Accelerated learning Even if a moonshot does not eventually succeed, its pursuit provides an organisation many accelerated learnings. Take, for instance, Google’s self-driving car. Even if this bold project is finally abandoned by Google as unviable (which I hope does not happen, but who can say for sure after the death of Google Glass?), its scientists would have learnt many new things about techniques of data analytics based on visual mapping, which are essential for successfully navigating such a self-driving car. These learnings can then be applied to enhance many other search and related applications, which can greatly improve Google’s core search business.

Consumer admiration Brands which pursue bold moonshots capture the imagination of consumers and thereby win their admiration. This is perhaps why Amazon announced its grand plans, more than a year ago, for delivery of packages on unmanned drones.

Jeff Bezos announced and demonstrated the “delivery drone” at a packed press conference that made it to the front pages of virtually every newspaper the next morning.

This undoubtedly left millions of consumers feverishly imagining all these technologically advanced drones flying into their homes, with books or shoes they had ordered online only a couple of hours earlier.

It enhanced their admiration of Amazon as the most advanced e-commerce shopping site, though there is no confirmation still of when the drone service will actually commence operations.

Social progress Most moonshots not merely propel brands forward, but also help society to move ahead. Consider Microsoft’s lofty goal, announced 25 years ago, of “enabling a computer on every desk, and in every home”. Or reflect on Nissan’s stated goal, which targets zero traffic accidents.

Both these moonshots constitute big, positive steps for human and social progress – which in itself is always a fulfilling goal for a marketer to pursue.

So, if your brand is aspiring for true greatness, put on your organisation’s thinking cap, and shoot for the moon. Your company can stand to hugely benefit, if you choose your moonshot really well, ensure it is broadly aligned to your company’s mission and risk appetite, and thereafter arouse your team with a grand vision that rides on this big, ambitious, audacious goal.

A good place to begin may well be by reading to your team President Kennedy’s original moonshot speech. It continues to be one of the most stirring and inspiring pieces of oration ever delivered in modern times.

(Harish Bhat is author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless institution.These are his personal views. He acknowledges valuable inputs from Jishnu Surendran, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article. bhatharish@hotmail.com )

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