Tesla’s Marketing Strategy: Don’t just make electric cars, sell a slice of the future.
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
That’s an example of masterful positioning, which is one of the core fundamentals of marketing.
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.
“BMW has a marketing department called engineering.” – Seth Godin
Despite all this, Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla Motors, aka Iron Man) conveys 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.
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. 
Let’s dig into some examples of great Tesla PR / ‘free marketing’ in action:
1. A CEO who understands the power of showmanship (tonnes of interviews, cameos and media appearances)
“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).
And if you ever Google “Elon Musk says” (with quotes), you’ll find a long list of very showy things that he’s said:
- Elon Musk says we’re probably living in a computer simulation
- Elon Musk says Advanced AI could take down the Internet: “Only a matter of time.”
- Elon Musk says humanity is currently running ‘the dumbest experiment in history’
- Elon Musk says he plans to send rocket to Mars by 2018, manned mission to planet by 2024.
- Elon Musk says people should receive a universal income once robots take their jobs
- Elon Musk says nuking Mars is the quickest way to make it livable
- Elon Musk Says Tesla Vehicles Will Drive Themselves in Two Years
- Elon Musk says that Apple only hires Tesla’s worst engineers
- Elon Musk says he won’t go into genetic engineering because of “The Hitler Problem”
In a way, Elon Musk and Donald Trump have a lot in common – they both understand the power of saying something crazy.
The Hyperloop, which Elon Musk isn’t planning to make, but is great PR for him as a tech visionary. This is something much like Walt Disney, PT Barnum.
There’s now an actual Hyperloop contest going on.
2. Good Guy Tesla gives away its patents for free
3. Good Guy Tesla makes sure that dying man can have his Model S
Bump dying man up production queue so he can have his Model S. It makes for a great ‘Connection’ story.
4. CEO does Reddit AMA, has sense of humor
Reddit AMA where Elon answered “What daily habit do you believe has the largest positive impact on your life?” with “Showering”.
He also shared this video of a cat on a Roomba.
5. New charger prototype is released, instantly gets parodied
New charger prototype – it’s kind of weird, like something out of a creepy sci-fi movie.
Somebody reposted the video with Marvin Gaye music, instantly turning it into something with a ton of innuendo.
The original submission to /r/videos on Reddit got over 15.5k upvotes.
Incidentally, the label “Ad?” is a perfect description of Tesla’s marketing tactics – so much of it is peripheral and focused on getting maximum word-of-mouth without literally being conventional advertising.
6. Tesla drivers make ‘Autopilot impressions’ videos
Autopilot impressions – when Tesla fans make videos of themselves using the Autopilot function. 33,800+ upvotes in the above instance.
7. “So safe, it broke the safety testing equipment”
8. Superlative Gigafactory – the biggest, cleanest factory ever
9. Winning over comic artists
10. Mastery of the power of names
Elon Musk has been calling regular cars “gasoline cars” for years. The phrase is a retronym, much like “acoustic guitar”, “analog camera” and “pocket watch”.
The introduction of retronyms normalizes the new, and emphasizes the primitiveness of the status quo.
For the time being, the supercharger stations still look like traditional gas stations. But this will likely change in time.
11. Getting free ads from fans and supporters
In 2014, A couple of college grads named James Khabushani and RJ Collins founded something called Everdream Pictures, and they made an ad for Tesla Motors which cost them $1,500. The ad was conceptualized and directed by their partners Joe Sill and Andreas Attai.
The ad was tweeted by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who also suggested that Tesla might be interested in working with them.
What can a retailer learn from Tesla?
First, 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 relatively 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.
Then, 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:
 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.