Neil Armstrong and the power of being first

The whole world knows Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon.

His name is practically conjoined with his achievement, as we saw in the headlines over the weekend: “Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is dead” (or some variation thereof).

Some people might be able to tell you that it was Buzz Aldrin who joined him on the lunar surface to become the second man to walk on the moon.

Very few people will be able to tell you the name of the third man.

121 days after the Apollo 11 mission, it was Pete Conrad landed who on the moon to become the third man to leave his boot prints in the gray, fine powder of its surface.

All three achieved exactly the same thing within a matter of weeks. All equally brave, equally skilled, yet it is the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man, that has been immortalized.

It’s a curious thing about “firsts”.

Anyone remember John Landy? 46 days after Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile Australian John Landy did it faster. It is Roger Bannister’s name that has gone down in history.

What about Tenzing Norgay? He followed Edmund Hillary up Everest to become the world’s second person to summit the mountain, yet it is Hillary whose name is forever attached to the feat.

In their 1981 book, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout argue that while positioning begins with a product, the concept really is about positioning that product in the mind of the customer. The easiest way of getting into someone’s mind is to be first in a category.

They use the case of Xerox to make this point. Xerox was the first plain-paper copier and was able to sustain its leadership position. However, time after time the company failed in other product categories in which it was not first.

Neil Armstrong was first into the mind in the walking-on-the-moon category, but Pete Conrad has his own “first”.

He died on July 8, 1999, while motorcycling in Ojai, California. As co-incidence would have it, Ojai just happens to be a Native American name for “moon”.

In the end, Pete Conrad became the first astronaut ever to die there.

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