You may have heard of the James Webb Space Telescope, which just last month took the deepest infrared image of the galaxy ever seen.
But have you heard of Northrop Grumman, the company behind this scientific feat?
The Virginia-based aerospace and defense technology company has delivered some of the most complex solutions in U.S. space exploration, military defense, cybersecurity and aeronautics since its founding in 1994. But despite having 90,000 employees and being one of the world’s largest military weapons manufacturers, beyond government circles, it has largely flown under the radar.
So when Lucy Ryan joined the company in 2019 as VP of corporate communications, she brought Pete Haney onto her team as VP of brand experience and initiated a major rebranding effort. Kathy Warden had joined as CEO earlier that year and was pushing the team to “make bold choices and think differently,” Ryan said.
“Not only did we have to redefine how we go to market, but also how we wanted to position our company for the future,” she added.
In addition to increasing awareness of Northrop and the technologies it powers, the rebrand aimed to communicate more clearly and effectively with employees in an age where Northrop is competing with many more industries for skilled engineers and technologists, from Silicon Valley tech giants to pure-play space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.
“We needed to show up differently so that we're not just attracting those who would typically come to an A&D type company,” Ryan said. “We're now competing with the Googles and others of the world.”
The challenge of storytelling, however, is the secrecy around Northrop’s products. While technologies such as the Webb Telescope are world famous, other projects the company works on are highly classified.
But Northrop was up for the challenge.
“Any good marketer looks at a challenge as an opportunity. It makes our job that much more interesting when we have to take a story that could be seen as hard to tell, or that we can't tell, and use that as an opportunity,” Ryan said. “It means that we have to do a better job of storytelling. Because so much of what we do is in the classified world, we need to do a better job with what we call, ‘show, don’t tell.’”
What culminated was the launch of Defining Possible, a brand platform rolled out in 2020 that aimed to show off what life at Northrop was like without sharing too much information about its top-secret projects.
In addition to three new, modernized logos that emphasized Northrop’s positioning as a technology company, the platform manifested itself through a few key efforts.
Welcome to Northrop is a brand campaign that ran across paid, owned and earned media. The creative put Northrop employees front and center “in ways that we had never done before,” Ryan said, such as through full landscape photographs.
Overheard at Northrop Grumman is a social video series that showcases conversations between employees about projects they’re working on of strategic importance to the company across its social platforms.
“We look very specifically at the types of people that we're trying to hire, the types of people that we're trying to retain and we craft scenarios that are going to be the most relevant to those audiences,” Haney said.
Northrop also created an AR experience called Portals, which leverages satellite simulation technology to allow consumers and potential employees to understand how satellites orbit in space. Roughly 50,000 people interacted with Portals within its first day of launching, Haney said.
“It started out with the focus on our customers, but the more we’re developing these types of AR technologies, it’'s really engaging a broader audience,” Ryan added.
While awareness was a goal with all of these efforts, Northrop chose to lean heavily into digital media so it could be more targeted about its outreach, given the narrow slice of the population that might be interested in working with or for the company, Haney said.
“Where a B2C brand might think about its addressable audience in the hundreds of millions of adults just in this country alone, we’re in the low millions of people that really need to know about us,” he said. Social and digital video allowed Northrop to “show up differently than what we’ve ever done in the past and probably differently than what we’ve seen from our category writ large,” he added.
For instance, a typical ad buy for Northrop in the past would be in a print trade magazine. Now, the company starts with a digital-first, audience-first mindset and creates content and optimizes from there.
Naturally, Northrop is leaning into the wonder and zeitgeist around space travel in its marketing materials. Space is the fastest-growing division of the business and increasing people’s awareness of the company’s role in the industry is a priority, Ryan said.
But the targeting capabilities of digital media allow it to be more targeted about its outreach around some of the less sexy and more controversial industries Northrop has been at the forefront of for years, such as military defense manufacturing.
“There are certain applications and mediums that use to do that in a really direct and powerful way with the people who need that information,” Haney said. “There are other channels that are more useful for a broader branding effort.”
Overall, Northrop’s rebranding and push into digital is a microcosm of how B2B and B2G marketers are evolving their approaches toward creativity, brand and communications as the media landscape evolves.
“Previously we were very focused on, ‘I only have to sell to this one customer. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world around me,’” Ryan said. “You can’t do that anymore. You have to be aware of what’s happening in your microenvironment as well as what’s happening in the macroenvironment. That’s becoming more and more important for the stories we tell, where we tell them and how we tell them.”