‘Star Trek’ marketing lessons

Everything I needed to know about the subject I learned from watching the classic TV show


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On the air for less than three years, “Star Trek,” the original series, gave us a lot to think about. It showed a progressive future, where humans had put their petty bickering behind them and reached out into outer space. It shows a universe without racial barriers and nationalism. And it had some key lessons for marketing.

Commodore Stocker sucked in a crisis

In a crisis, have a plan and be in charge. In “The Deadly Years,” Captain Kirk and his landing party contract a mysterious ailment that makes them age rapidly. As Kirk struggles with rapid aging, Commodore Stocker takes command of the Enterprise, plotting a fast course to get medical help. The Romulans soon surround the Enterprise, and Stocker is left frozen, unable to decide what to do. Stocker offers to surrender, only to be told that the Romulans don’t take prisoners.

But a cured Kirk emerges from the turbo lift and issues a statement: “From Enterprise to Starfleet Command this sector. Have inadvertently encroached upon Romulan Neutral Zone … Escape impossible, shields failing. Will implement destruct order using corbomite device … Since this will result in the destruction of the Enterprise and all matter in a 200,000-kilometer diameter and establish a corresponding dead zone, all Federation ships will avoid this area for the next four solar years. Explosion will take place in one minute. Kirk, commanding Enterprise, out.”

The trick works, the Romulans pull back, and the Enterprise escapes. Never walk into a crisis without a plan or message and make sure you have a way forward, that is not dictated by fear, but rather tactics. 

Sometimes, less is more

A huge marketing budget can seem more like an exercise in spending money than ROI. Less means smarter tactics, when every dollar counts. As it was in “Arena,” when an advanced species, the Metrons, force Captain Kirk to square off against the captain of a ship that has destroyed a Federation outpost. The Gorn is a huge lizard that is very strong and smart, but slow. Kirk knows he has to kill the Gorn to survive, but has limited resources at his disposal on a desert planet. Kirk is able to craft a crude gun, but refuses to kill his rival. Impressed, the Metrons allow both ships to depart, saying that humans are still half-savage, but there is hope.

Deprived of powerful tools, Kirk had to use his knowledge and skill to succeed in a challenge where any failure can be fatal.

You can’t control everything

From the beginning, PR people have wanted to control everything — from media coverage, to attitudes to messaging. In “A Piece of the Action,” the Enterprise is sent to Signa Lotia II to follow up on a visit by a starship 100 years earlier. Kirk beams down to find a gangland Chicago civilization, caused by a book left by the Horizon a century earlier entitled, “Chicago Mobs of the 1920s.”

There seems little Kirk can do to repair the cultural damage caused by the book. As a final effort, Kirk uses his superior technology and forces the mobs to work together, and paying the Federation a 40 percent cut gets them to work together. And while that is far from optimal, it is the best result he could get under the circumstances.

Research is key

So many marketing plans are formed with great ideas but little research. Without a solid base of research, the plan is nothing more than guesswork, and hard work can be a total waste of time. This was the error of Captain Ron Tracy, whose ship was wiped out by a mysterious sickness at Omega IV. Tracey is the sole survivor, and he has allied himself with an industrious people called the Comms in their fight against the primitive Yangs. Tracey, who insists he is doing the right thing in fighting off the Yangs, soon takes hostage Kirk and his landing party.

But when the Yangs overrun the Comms, the truth emerges: The Yangs’ holy paper is actually the U.S. Constitution and the survivors of an ancient nuclear war between Yankees and Communists. It was a parallel reality, and Tracy’s big thinking was just plain lunacy — as he had no idea of what he was dealing with. 

Jayme Henriques Simões is president of Louis Karno & Company Communications in Concord.

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