Tesla has a proud anti-advertising strategy and was instead built on the fame of its founder. But with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter threatening to alienate his core (left-wing) customer base, Daniel Binns, chief executive of Interbrand New York, says it’s time Tesla bosses started to properly manage the Mark.
Many technology companies have built their brands around the cult of personality that emanates from their leader. Where would the Apple brand be without Steve Jobs, or Microsoft without Bill Gates? But just as many have seen their brands tarnished by the behaviors of their founders – I’m sure Uber and WeWorks shareholders don’t thank Travis Kallanick and Adam Neumann for their personal and professional indiscretions that have had such an impact. massive on the companies they founded.
So where on this spectrum do Elon Musk and the Tesla brand fit? Undoubtedly, Musk’s drive for groundbreaking innovation, maniacal attention to detail and a flair for provocative marketing stunts (Space Oddity playing on repeat on the stereo of the Tesla roadster launched into space since the first Space launch X, or the S 3 XY names of the first four Tesla models, for example) are inherently part of the Tesla brand. Its meteoric rise in our ranking of the best global brands (+158% last year alone) demonstrates how well it has managed to leverage its founder as an asset, given that it has spent almost nothing on marketing since. the creation of the company in 2003.
But Musk has not been without controversy — his Tweets about Tesla’s stock performance landed him in hot water with the SEC, and his false Covid claims have been hugely controversial. To date, none of this has affected the Tesla brand – perhaps just added to the allure of the mad, slightly unpredictable genius inventor at the helm.
But these were peripheral, a side-show to Tesla’s incredible success, its legions of rabid fans and its technology that reframed the entire auto industry. With its acquisition of Twitter, the stakes are much higher and the visibility of its decisions much greater. It risks alienating the hearts of its clientele, who are largely left-wing progressives who care passionately about the environment and whose vehicle choice reflects those values.
If he were to take the reins of Twitter and allow a much more libertarian perspective to emerge, with free speech as an underlying tenant, it won’t sit well with many in that audience. If that resulted in Donald Trump returning to the platform, that would be the proverbial icing on the cake, and it would be hard for Musk not to be directly associated with that decision. Given what a polarizing figure the former president is, this would have a significant impact on Musk – and by association the Tesla brand.
I believe there would be an immediate backlash if that happened. A vocal minority might call for a boycott of Tesla, but that would soon diminish. What I fear is a slower corrosion of Teslarati’s passion for the brand. A shift from Tesla as a powerful badge of defiance against traditional ICE automotive brands and a statement of belief in a better way by its owner – from an emotive brand with deep empathetic values - to that of a simply great car.
With the EV war escalating, Tesla cannot afford to lose the brand love it has garnered. While it was once a pioneer leading the electric vehicle revolution, it now has a healthy but not dominant 14% of the global electric vehicle market, having shipped just under a million cars in 2021. VW is close behind with a 12% share, and is climbing fast.
What should Tesla do to protect its brand essence and resist the potential tsunami of bad blood that could come from the Twitter fallout? If we look at Interbrand’s analysis of the best global brands and the 10 areas of brand strength that Tesla should be concerned with, it boils down to empathy, involvement and affinity. What do I mean by that?
Empathy is the extent to which a brand understands and reflects the needs of its customers. This will be called into question if Musk makes decisions that go against the core values of his clientele. Engagement is the degree to which people want to engage with the brand beyond its use and transactions. Will people be such passionate advocates for the brand and want to connect with it more deeply if a slight tinge of shame is associated with it? And will that lead to a lack of affinity, the emotional resonance that has been at the heart of Tesla?
To mitigate that, I would say now is the time to actively manage the Tesla brand. It allowed the brand to bask in the fumes emitted by its founder Tesla’s products, services, overall experience and actions. A small b-brand in a big b-world. That may need to change, and he should now be thinking about creating and managing the brand outside of Musk, spending more openly on marketing to shape the perceptions and opinions of current buyers. and future, to bottle and codify the essence of why people love Tesla, and communicate that more effectively to the market.
Amazon experienced a similar turnaround when its brand began to have negative associations. Simply offering an amazing product and experience wasn’t enough, he realized, and he quietly became the biggest advertiser in the world. Now it’s Tesla’s turn to consider this leap.