Science marketers must think out of box

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Have you ever wondered why astrology (belief systems which hold there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world) is more popular than cosmology (discipline that deals with the nature of the Universe as a whole) or astronomy (natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects)?

Richard Feynman, the winner of a Nobel Prize for Physics, says it is because cosmologists and astronomers do not take the trouble to market their discipline like astrologists.

I have never seen an article on how astrologists arrive at their conclusions, but few of us question their predictions.

To market science is somehow not as easy as to market fortune-telling, possibly because people tend to develop a mental block the moment anything scientific is mentioned. “Fear of physics”, or of any scientific discipline, is a reality that should be part of a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis by the marketers of scientific endeavours or institutions.

A SWOT analysis is a useful starting point for any marketing repositioning exercise – work out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the business or idea you are trying to market, and you have a basis to start from.

For instance, take the Wits Planetarium, subject of the latest Big Break Legacy challenge. Situated at the University of the Witwatersrand in Joburg, it is often used as a landmark by those traversing the city.

Scientists also use it to help transform the mysteries of the Universe into everyday dinner-table conversation. But it, too, suffers from hellenologophobia – or fear of complex scientific terminology – other science-marketing institutions face. Luckily, on the positive side, who would say no to an evening under starry skies as a fantastic marketing opportunity?

What about opportunities and threats? Well, the astrology I mentioned would be an opportunity and a threat. The fact that everybody reads their star signs presents an opportunity to draw them into the scientific study of astronomy by showing them the constellations in the sky birth signs are named after. But the association of the study of the stars with an ability to foretell the future also means would-be planetarium marketers run the risk of being tarred with the “loopy” brush.

Understanding that science is not a palatable subject when presented in the traditional sense should be every would-be science marketer’s point of departure. This means how the information is packaged and delivered determines success or failure. Very few people know British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking co-wrote a book called The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. But nearly everyone knows about his international bestseller, A Brief History of Time.

Both books explain the mysteries of the Universe. But one is full of complex formulae and diagrams, while the other contains the minimum scientific jargon.

Similarly, the Hubble Telescope is an example of brilliant scientific marketing. While few people know about the technological specifications that keep it in orbit, or the story of Edwin Hubble, after whom it is named, many people marvel at the wonderful and intriguing pictures of the universe the telescope sends back to Earth.

How do we pass the mental block so many people seem to have about science? Why are planetariums not marketed to people with a strong religious background? This is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the complexity of the Universe and, by implication, God. The planetarium could be a tool to help people of different faiths to appreciate more about their Creator’s capabilities and in the process strengthen their faith.

Remember the basics of marketing – providing a service or goods to satisfy a need. If the core idea behind your brand isn’t simple and obvious, it won’t stand a chance in the over-crowded marketplace.

Ezra Ndwandwe, scientist turned entrepreneur, is the chief executive of Dual Point Media and the creator of reality TV show The Big Break Legacy, on air every Thursday on SABC2.

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