Tesla Motors doesn’t just makes electric cars, it sells a slice of the future.
The cars are so good that they’re winning all the awards that gasoline cars used to win. The Model S was given 5.4 out of 5 safety rating from the National Highway Safety Administration.
They’re literally a better kind of car, according to both experts and regular drivers. As William Gibson would say, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Tesla Motors has no advertising, no ad agency, no CMO, no dealer network. And that’s no problem. – AdvertisingAge
If you drop by the Tesla forums, you’ll see a community of passionate fans discussing how to market Tesla better. There are over 55,000 people subscribed to the /r/teslamotors subreddit. The brand has clearly struck a chord with its fans.
Tesla fans are crazy advocates. They attach deep emotional significance to the car. They’re not just paying for a mode of transportation, they’re paying for a slice of the future.
@DHH pointed out that by publishing Tesla’s ‘Secret Master Plan‘, Elon Musk successfully turned buying a luxury car into a charitable purchase:
— DHH (@dhh) August 23, 2016
How genius is that?
At the time of writing, Tesla has more orders than they can build – that in itself is great marketing.
By eschewing a flashy marketing campaign, Elon Musk communicates that Tesla is super-focused on groundbreaking technology. Every element of the Model S – from the recharging technology to the drag coefficient of the car – is the pinnacle of research and engineering.
“BMW has a marketing department called engineering.” – Seth Godin
Despite all this, Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla Motors, aka Iron Man) gives the impression that he isn’t too worried about marketing. Give Tesla an advertising budget, and they’d likely pour it into refining their production. The end result? An even more incredible car that everybody’s going to be talking about.
I know a lot of very wealthy people. Most of them made their money in technology. I don’t think Bentley or Rolls-Royce is anywhere near the top of very many of these people’s idea of an impressive car. A Tesla is more like it. – Jimmy Wales, on Quora
This sort of advertising is earned, not bought.
You earn this sort of attention by making something truly newsworthy.
Speaking of newsworthy, Elon Musk does a lot of interviews. They’re all over YouTube. You have to ask – why are people interested in interviewing him? It’s because he’s working on cool, interesting projects. That’s all the marketing he needs. Do something truly cool and the media will beat a path to your door. 
Examples of great Tesla PR / ‘free marketing’ in action:
“The public tends to be, as they should, interested in things that are precedent and superlatives.” – Elon Musk [source]
The above quote, I think, captures a lot of the essence of Elon Musk’s attitude towards marketing. He understands the utility of showmanship, of having a larger-than-life persona (hence doing things like movie cameos).
- Give away patents for free – positioned themselves as the “good guy brand” with a cheekily titled blogpost All Our Patent Are Belong To You (a nod to a meme from the 80s).
- Bump dying man up production queue so he can have his model S. It makes for a great story.
- Reddit AMA where Elon answered “What daily habit do you believe has the largest positive impact on your life?” with “Showering”.
- New charger prototype – it’s kind of weird, like something out of a creepy sci-fi movie.
- Autopilot impressions
- “So safe, it broke the safety testing equipment”
- The Gigafactory, which is epic – again goes back to the “precedents and superlatives” playbook.
- WaitButWhy articles and Oatmeal comics – winning over major influencers and their respective fanbases.
- The Hyperloop, which Elon Musk isn’t planning to make, but is great PR for him as a tech visionary.
- “Cover the world with Internet from space”
What can a retailer learn from Tesla?
1: Build something that matters to people.
This is the hardest thing to do, and it’s also at the deepest core of marketing. The best way to communicate value is to start by make something incredibly valuable to a significant market. The communication bit is trivial if the value is self-evident.
In Elon Musk’s eyes, the “significant market” is humanity itself – electric cars are valuable because they’re the future of sustainable transportation. They’re also incredibly difficult to work on.
2: Tell a story that resonates with people.
Lots of people like to make comparisons between Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs was a master storyteller and he had a legendary flair for the dramatic. In comparison, Elon sometimes stumbles over his words awkwardly, but he has the measured confidence of a person who truly knows his stuff inside out.
You can’t fake that. A great story doesn’t necessarily need a polished storyteller – sometimes the story is best told haltingly, from the trenches.
But the point is, neither of them would be worth our attention if they were selling stuff that wasn’t valuable. iPhones (your music and the internet in your pocket!) are a great story. Electric cars are a great story. The greatest stories are aspirational, representing the triumph of passion, conviction, persistence and diligence.
Is there a flipside?
Anything successful and valuable has its fair share of haters. Cynics might say a Tesla is simply a glorified toy for rich technocrats to show off with. (Similar things have been said about Apple products.) That’s an entirely valid assessment of the situation, and a very happy problem to have if you’re a creator.
But humans are inescapably social creatures, and we’re pretty much always going to be obsessed with status symbols. We might as well make it something that genuinely puts our species on the path to sustainable transportation.
Our impulses and desires don’t change very much – but we can change the way we express them by changing the stories we tell ourselves.
More about Tesla:
- Tesla’s Marketing Genius – Why Elon Musk Uses The Term “Gasoline Cars”
- Questions to ask about Everdream’s ‘Modern Spaceship’ ad for Tesla Motors
- Referral Program Examples: Tesla Motors Gives $1,000 To Advocates AND Referred Friends
 This is an oversimplification, of course, but it’s a starting point often overlooked by people looking to get a “quick break”. Paul Graham writes eloquently about the limitations of this perspective with Do Things That Don’t Scale.