“Tesla’s meteoric rise was achieved with a ubiquitous social media presence that enhanced its brand values, consolidating its position as the world-leading electric vehicle manufacturer,” according to Interbrand. “Its core purpose, ‘to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,’ clearly resonates with a growing, loyal consumer base and demonstrates how successful brands woo consumers with a clear, coherent vision.”
Of course, much of that social media presence can be tied to one person: Elon Musk, the mercurial Tesla CEO whose frequent and filterless tweeting brings hoards of attention to the automaker, both good and bad. His stint as guest host of “Saturday Night Live” in May brought the kind of attention to Tesla that money can’t buy. In a telling sign of Musk’s draw, rivals such as VW and Ford spent money on ads during the show. On Dec. 13, Time named Musk its Person of the Year, noting that "thanks in large part to Musk’s pace-setting, auto companies from VW to Nissan are jostling to invest billions in electric vehicles. Their about-face is driven less by altruism than by a dawning realization that Musk is eating their lunch."
When your CEO can command that kind of attention, you don’t need much fabricated PR. And indeed, Tesla dissolved its PR department last year. True to form, the automaker did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Musk’s distaste for traditional forms of marketing is best summed up in a 2010 interview with the Silicon Valley Business Journal. When asked if people buy brands, he replied, “No, you buy the product. The brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time. Sometimes it will be ahead, other times it will be behind. But brand is simply a collective impression some have about a product.”
Kimberly Whitler, a marketing expert and professor at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, in an email interview said: “Marketing is about value creation, and one of the best ways to create value is the way Tesla is doing it—through superior, awe-inspiring, imagination-capturing, pride-inducing products.”
She added: “While other companies are advertising their virtue or something other than the product they sell, Tesla has focused on, in a way, old-fashioned marketing. They simply built a spectacular widget, something that is completely different and captures the imagination of consumers. The result? The media talks about it (i.e., earned media) and consumers talk about it (word-of-mouth). ... How many companies are focusing all their energy and resources into building noticeably better, superior products that are worthy of earned, positive buzz?”
Amid all that positive buzz, Tesla had its share of negative headlines in 2021, the latest stemming from a lawsuit filed in November by a plant worker alleging that female workers face “rampant sexual harassment” at a Fremont, California factory. The automaker also frequently deals with questions about the safety of its self-driving features.
But Tesla, more often than not, maintains a Teflon-like quality. “Elon Musk has definitely made some missteps, but he is really unapologetic about all of it,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for Edmunds. “I don’t know if that is good or bad, but that certainly is his strategy, to really not get us to focus on any Tesla scandals.”
This year, Musk was even combative when responding to what was seemingly positive news: reports in late October that Hertz ordered 100,000 Teslas for its rental car fleet. Musk downplayed the deal on Twitter, suggesting the contract was not signed, while stressing that Tesla “has far more demand than production, therefore we will only sell cars to Hertz for the same margin as to consumers.”