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Commercialization & Sponsorship of the International Space Station

Subject Matter

The Canadian Space Agency wanted to undertake qualitative research to better understand perceptions of the International Space Station (ISS). The purpose was to identify the values Canadians associate with the ISS and explore attitudes toward corporate sponsorship of the ISS. The CSA planned to initiate a brand management/promotion program concerning the ISS. In order to do so, the CSA needed to determine the values associated with the ISS, potential concerns Canadians might have, appropriate and inappropriate sponsors, and ‘rules’ to govern the process. The information gathered from this project was used by both the ISS Commercial Development and Utilization Office and the CSA’s Communications Department to develop communications and branding strategies for the ISS (including sponsorship activities). The CSA also wanted to understand the views of its own personnel (employees, middle and senior management) on this issue. In parallel with this qualitative research, a survey was conducted with the general public on related issues. The results of the research program were shared with the CSA’s international partners, including NASA, the European Space Agency, Japan and others.


The qualitative research was conducted with CSA staff and the Canadian public. Research with CSA staff included three focus groups with management and non-management staff and four in-depth interviews with senior executives. The research was conducted in French and English. Recruitment for the internal groups was conducted by the CSA. The focus groups were held in CSA facilities, with 6-9 participants taking part in each group. Participants were drawn from different function areas within the agency. Research with the general public included a set of eight focus groups in four locations: Halifax, Montreal (French), Toronto, and Calgary. Half of the public groups were held with youth. In all groups, we recruited a mix of participants by education level, with an approximate gender split. All participants had to have at least a moderate level of interest in space-related activities. General public participants were shown a 10-minute video on the ISS mid-way through the discussions. Focus groups were selected for the research with the general public because of the need to identify and discuss values. These tend to be somewhat abstract and are more readily ascertainable through qualitative research. Focus groups were also selected in order to foster idea generation and synergy through a group setting, and because of the need to show the video to increase participants’ knowledge of the ISS. In-depth interviews were used with senior managers in order to provide for confidentiality, encourage candour, and for reasons of convenience (i.e. limited availability on their part). A ‘parallel’ survey was used because of the need for representative data in addition to robust qualitative feedback.

This study involved a number of challenges, including:

  • While it was essential to identify core values associated with the ISS, these can be quite elusive and abstract. This was dealt with through an exercise involving flip charts that was designed to draw out the core values, as well as the manifestation of those values (i.e. tangible evidence) in relation to the ISS.
  • Canadians tend to have low levels of awareness and knowledge about Canadian space-related activities, including participation in the ISS. This was addressed by showing a short video on the ISS mid-way through the public groups. This enabled the first half of the discussion to be uninfluenced by the provision of detailed information, and the second half to be more informed. It also allowed for the revisiting of key issues.
  • The idea of commercialization or sponsorship of the ISS itself tends to be quite abstract. In order to make it more tangible, Olympic sponsorship was used as a model, as well as other examples of space commercialization (e.g. Pizza Hut, Russian space tourism).
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