[written Thursday, 9 December]
Currently I’m on a bus headed back to Canberra along the highway from Sydney. We’ve passed some spectacular landscapes while the sun’s been setting: groves and groves of twisted gum trees standing guard on the hillsides, the black outlines of their branches cracking the sky, and valleys filled with wisps of cloud beneath which the bottoms can’t be found. It looks like a Roger Dean landscape — we could be driving through a Yes album cover.
Romantic as that is, it’s not actually what I’m writing about. I spent the day in Sydney in a workshop at Yello Brands, who have been contracted by CAASTRO to assist in branding and marketing. Since it was only recently that I didn’t think this sort of thing was part of a scientist’s job description, I’d like to unpack that a little more.
The Australian government has chosen three Super Sciences which have been identified as areas where Australia is uniquely poised to be a big player on the world scientific stage. Astronomy is one of them. Naturally this means that Australia is keen to dump gobs of money into astronomy, which is good news for everyone here and will help to attract talent from around the world. Having identified wide-area survey astronomy as one of the particular areas in which Australia can have a big impact, the University of Sydney has partnered with five other Australian universities (including ANU) to form the Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC, equivalent of the American NSF) to the tune of about $25 million.
The new Centre is not localized at a single institute, though the grant money is nominally administered through the University of Sydney, where its Director, Bryan Gaensler, is on the faculty. Its main purpose is to provide a platform to hire lots of energetic young people with cool ideas to help carry out the big surveys which are going to keep Australian astronomy on the proverbial map (where you will shortly be able to read AUSTRALIA in 96-point font). A lot of the hardware infrastructure (more than $400 million worth) has already been built, and now needs to be leveraged. Large-scale, automated data analysis — the kind of thing I’ve built my reputation doing so far (though I’m not paid by CAASTRO) — is going to be a crucial and necessary precondition for these wide-area survey projects to succeed. The main attractions are radio astronomy, where Australia is already a major player, and Skymapper, which lets the country break into wide-area optical imaging. There has also been some attention given to high-energy astrophysics, including atmospheric Cherenkov astronomy (in which I did my Ph.D., on the US-led STACEE project) and the increasingly-popular Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope.
The new center, of course, needs a solid public relations campaign, complete with website, logo, merchandise etc., and it was to lay the groundwork for the launch of this campaign that about twelve CAASTRO-affiliated scientists and administrators gathered together in this small glass-walled conference room in Redfern. The morning started off with some introductory activities which I think could have been skipped with no harm to the rest of the day, but we then started digging deeply into the question of how one creates a brand for a product or company.
A brand, as it turns out, is “a promise made and kept”. People come to associate your name with a specific set of expectations which you set. If you don’t promise them what they want (one example given: a sporty, well-engineered motor scooter years ahead of its time — being driven by a guy with a bad mustache and ’70s porn-star look), they won’t pay you further attention. If you promise them something, though, and don’t deliver, it’s quite possibly worse for you than if you’d never been discovered. With famous brands like Coke — or, closer to home for me, Starbucks — you know exactly what you’re getting, and that consistency and reliability is a large part of what you’re paying for when you buy their stuff.
Of course, you could promise them the worst experience of their life, and deliver on that promise, and that would also get you nowhere. So you need a few things: a solid identity and demonstrated reliable utility, both of which are relevant to your consumer base and also different enough to carve out a unique niche. The experience needs to be boiled down to a few words and images that will then propagate like a mind virus through the population until everyone knows what you stand for, and everyone who cares is buying your stuff. In CAASTRO’s case, there are several different target populations: primary and secondary school students and teachers, universities, individual astronomers and research collaborations, the general public, the government, CAASTRO’s own employees. The brand created needs to deliver a consistent and compelling message to all of these constituents.
The Yello Brands team led us through a series of exercises designed to uncover our mental associations with CAASTRO and identify those most useful or likely to give CAASTRO a distinctive image among its constituents. It involved plenty of yellow sticky notes written on with colorful scented markers, being shuffled around on different background formats, along with images torn from magazines and “willing volunteers” presenting their findings to the group. The message I took away from the exercise was that creating mind viruses is a lot of work…
Afterwards I went and grabbed lunch at a fairly non-descript Thai restaurant, then walked up to Darling Harbour and sat on the waterfront eating gelato in the lovely 30 C weather. I acquired plenty of pictures.