Late last year I was working at my desk, waiting for the Tesla CyberTruck event. I couldn’t help but keep glancing up at the countdown timer. As I finished up, I started to wonder, how does a company with no advertising convince someone who can’t afford their product to sit around waiting for its announcement?
So, what is it, about Tesla’s brand that makes people want to understand it, follow it and buy it?
When most people think of a brand, the first two things that come to mind are its products and the designs associated with it.
Most people see Tesla’s cars as what exemplifies the whole company. These are fully electric luxury cars that stand out against competitors. They stand out with a modern sleek designs, sports car level acceleration, a 15inch+ touch screen, and built-in AI/hive learning, that amongst other things halves the rate of accidents.
Tesla’s design identity consists of a small gender-neutral colour palette, modern font and photography-heavy content. This appeals to its primary target audience of style, efficiency and performance-driven men, while also containing sleek and elegant aspects that appeal to women.
These seem like good reasons for why Tesla stands out, but all major organisations must produce products that are comparable to competitors and that appeal to a majority of people. So, there must be other reasons that attract people to Tesla.
One potential reason is the optimism people associate with Tesla’s goals of reducing pollution and advancing civilisation, creating a positive bias towards the company. This positive bias is known as the halo effect. For Tesla, it encourages people to have more confidence in its capabilities. As seen in the number of orders received for new products before production starts.
Secondly, Tesla develops products using the first principles approach, in which every problem is simplified to the atomic level. This impacts the features chosen for its products and a development process focused on what is most impotant. Examples of this include the Model Y sharing 76% of its parts with the model 3, and an emphasis on self-driving, something that will free up time and improve all aspects of automotive transport.
Just as an appealing product and style are not always enough to drive enthusiasm for a brand, thinking positively of a company and knowing it is prepared for the future, doesn’t make it stand out.
So, if Tesla’s appearances and capabilities don’t make it stand out, what does?
1 Origin — Creation Story
Every brand needs a creation story, it contains the reason for its existence. Martin and Marc, the original founders of Tesla had the vision to do what sounded impossible at the time; create an electric sports car, equivalent in performance and competitive in price to conventional sports cars. Early on the company caught the attention of Elon Musk, who brought investment and the vision of producing affordable, high-quality, electric vehicles for the mass market.
To achieve this vision, it was necessary to find a way to create something new and challenging that a large number of people can experience. It was also essential to change peoples openions, grow support and continue to develop.
People can relate to the creation story subconsciously or when it is viewed abstractly. The creation story expresses the desire to create something, to achieve the acceptance of others, to earn a living and to struggle for change. It assures people of their normality, building a relationship that attracts them to the brand. As the brand overcomes challenges in its creation story, people who have aligned themselves with the brand feel joy and accomplishment.
2 Creed — Beliefs & Mission
Beliefs are seen in experiences, actions and intentions; a mission statement summarises these for a brand. Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition toward sustainable energy. Something essential to combating climate change, a challenge facing society today. Just as the scale of the challenge is large, so are the number of people invested in it. These people want to be a part of the solution and support those that do.
One way Tesla measures its success is by its competitors’ transition towards this change. The metric of changing the industry as a whole makes the goal of transitioning towards a sustainable future more believable. While implying that the company is altruistic and caring, something that is typically absent in the business world. Proof of the company’s intentions comes from the public sharing of patents, something often seen as harmful to a company’s prospects. Providing what it has discovered and developed to other companies shows integrity, which in turn strengthens people’s trust in the company.
Whenever a brand states an opinion, it attracts people who believe the same thing. The importance of Tesla’s mission amplifies this, and as Patrick Hanlon said, it causes people to “join it, use it, love it, fight for it and buy it”. But not everyone is a believer. Non-believers focus on negatives and even go so far as to ridicule the company publicly. The media as a whole is proven to have had a negative bias towards Tesla, and there are countless stories about Tesla-killers which to date have failed to deliver an equivalent product by price.
3 Ambassadors — Leaders and Celebrities
Ambassadors can be the leaders in charge of a brand and the celebrities associated with it, adding personality that makes it feel more genuine. Depending on the alignment of their actions align the brands’ beliefs, they can either enhance or diminish the brand’s image. Elon Musk is the CEO and face of Tesla. He is admired for working hard to push new frontiers and move towards sustainability, enhancing the brand. But also despised for his lifestyle choices and controversial statements, with the negative association detracting from the brand.
Elon Musk has defied the odds to achieve his vision of creating a company or product several times over. He is the ambassador for modern electric vehicles (Tesla), increasing solar panel adoption (Solar City) and commercialising space transport (SpaceX). Amongst working on a brain-computer interface (Neural Link), opensource AI (OpenAI) and promoting underground loop roads to improve travel efficiency (The Boring Company). The obstacles overcome and effort involved in doing this are inspirational, enhancing the values of Tesla.
Elon Musk has been criticised for controversial statements on social media including tweets characterising public transport as a “pain in the ass” and calling a rescue worker a “pedo guy”. He has also been criticised for his work/life balance and the promotion of that at his companies. As a leader is entwined with a company, these negatives can come to be associated with its brand.
4 Transparency — Being Open & Sharing
Trust is the basis around which all relationships evolve. With a brand, this can come through transparency. There are many ways to implement transparency. An obvious one is openly sharing and listening to information and opinions. The interactions Elon Musk has on twitter, where he regularly shares, sees and replies to opinions exemplifies Tesla’s open communication.
Transparency is also shown by the public sharing of patents and by being radically honest about its products. But Tesla’s transparency has limits, it leaves few opportunities to question its capabilities by not releasing specific production dates and underselling product specifications. It’s also secretive around its development process so that negative press is limited.
5 Delight — Positive Experiences
Delight is brought about by impacting people in a positive way. It increases brand awareness through memorable moments, that build a relationship with the brand. Tesla does this by enabling its products to be personalised on order, then providing an app that displays the owner’s exact car and encourages them to name it. This gives satisfaction, pride, and in turn, a stronger sense of ownership. People who feel this way want to share their experiences with others.
Tesla’s most powerful way of delighting people is by associating iconic words, imagery and sounds with the brand. It does this by recalling its past, other company’s events, and iconic moments in history. One of the most monumental and impactful examples is the live broadcast of the launch of a Tesla roadster into space on the test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, accompanied by the iconic song “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. This associates the brand with incredible technical ability and harkens back to the awe, nostalgia and pride of NASA’s space missions.
6 Rituals — Creating habits
Brand rituals occur through a regular, repeating interaction with the brand. Once these habits are formed, thinking about and experiencing the brand takes less mental effort. The brand is recalled quicker and switching to a competitor becomes subconsciously more stressful. On the downside, brand rituals limit a company’s options as change can cause stress and dissatisfaction.
Rituals have been formed through the use of social media. Elon regularly post updates and opinions on current affairs. Tesla posts development updates and event announcements like the CyberTruck launch. People invested in the company enjoy these because of that investment and entertainment and surprise that often during them. Regular communication and events keep the brand in mind and following its development helps build a relationship.
Tesla’s other rituals involve its customers; its charging stations demonstrate its capabilities and lead over competitors; its app contains information and settings for the customer’s car, providing a sense of control and peace of mind. These interactions help customers to feel better, and these feelings are then associated with their overall perception of the brand.
7 Community — Tribes and Language
People form communities around a brand when they identify with its beliefs. These communities grow when members feel a sense of belonging, through personal investments, and knowing what is accepted. Tesla’s brand story, beliefs and mission provide these. Additionally, Tesla’s recent arrival and fast development can cause its members to feel they are at the forefront of a revolution. Like a typical revolution, this results in extreme investment.
As the community develops so does its terminology. And as the use of this terminology increases, it becomes a requirement to join. This increases the overall sense of community; it amplifies what makes a community strong while increasing exclusivity.
Someone’s overall opinion about a brand is based on everything they have seen and heard about it. Including its appearance, its capabilities and the seven attributes discussed above (origin, creed, ambassadors, transparency, delight, rituals, community). Changing any one of these affects the trust that developed from it. And like a relationship, if a trust is broken so is the relationship. This means brands put a set of promises out into the world and must consistently meet the expectations those promises create.
So, how did a company with no advertising, get someone who can’t afford their product to sit around waiting for its announcement?
Obviously I believe its Tesla’s brand that made me want to watch the CyberTruck event, precisely the cumulative effect of the seven attributes talked about above. And that the event has had an impact that I and others will continue to follow what the brand is doing.
I would like to conclude with a thought that highlights the brand strategy at Tesla. The shocking new look of the CyberTruck is an extreme change from what people expected of Tesla. I believe Tesla has done this to adapt its promise from delivering luxury electric cars to delivering the future. If so, it’s a masterclass in how to distinguish yourself from competitors, and it is only possible because of all the thought and work that has previously gone into Tesla’s brand and capabilities.
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