We live in a world where the success of huge brands is pegged to high-functioning marketing campaigns, well-thought out slogans, and witty, heart-warming advertisements.
Where companies pump millions of dollars into worldwide marketing schemes, Elon Musk has built global brands not through clever marketing campaigns, but rather, strong public relations and unconventional methods. Today, every country in the world knows of Tesla. Every sci-fi nerd lives in the hope that SpaceX will succeed. Musk sits with the President of United States on its advisory council.
But he wasn’t always been the media’s golden child. The articles you see today hailing Musk as the ‘real life Iron Man’ and ‘changing the world’ are the results of years of Musk’s companies over-promising and failing, and ultimately, over-delivering and going above and beyond.
Musk has done this in two main ways:
A bold, unconventional use of social media
SpaceX made history by launching its first Falcon 9 rocket from historic launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida in February this year. But when it was set to take off, complications struck—an anomaly was discovered in the rocket's steering system.
Where other aerospace organisations would typically halt everything, investigate the issue, postpone the launch by a month or two, and distribute an official, carefully crafted press release, Musk let the world know with a series of tweets:
And that’s the way Musk handles communications. With no agenda, no frills, no beating around the bush.
Musk implements this strategy across most of his companies, including Tesla. When a Tesla owner complained about other Tesla owners hogging spots at charging stations and tweeted at Musk, Musk showed businesses how to effectively use social media.
Again, another organisation would probably have brought up the customer complaint internally, discussed it over weeks, formed a solution to the problem, and implemented it. Musk replied to the tweet within minutes, and promised to do something.
Six days later, Tesla announced a policy where Supercharger spots will start charging users a $0.40 idle fee for every additional minute a car remains connected to the Supercharger after it has been completely charged.
Musk has 8.14 million followers on Twitter. He managed to cut through the white noise, formed an idea and executed it within six days.
Analysts say that Tesla’s media approach—strategic tweets from Musk that build interest in upcoming corporate announcements, creating a steady dribble of information—is unconventional, but largely working.
Building and championing a vision
But what really makes Elon Musk Elon Musk are the multiple visions that he has advocated for years.
From the beginning, Musk has blazed through industries—space, automotive, solar energy, artificial intelligence—with a fiery passion and a one-track mind. Mediocrity and failure weren’t options, and money and gravity weren’t excuses. He once emailed an employee who missed an event saying, “We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.” A classic example of how he allows no one to stand in his way, whether they are top-dog Russian rocket owners, or staff who delivered shoddy work.
And Musk doesn’t ask questions like, 'How do I revolutionize the way people interact with each other on the Internet?' or 'How do I become the biggest search engine in the world?' He asks questions like, 'How do I reduce the risk of human extinction?' and 'How do I make energy sustainable for humanity on a long-term basis?'
He champions a vision so strong, and with so much vigor, that people can’t help but feel excited about it. We are all in the gutter, but Musk gives us the stars to look forward to.
Musk has the audacity and an almost blinded positivity to pose these questions to the world, and to invest millions of dollars into startups that will answer these questions. His company missions include working towards humanity becoming a true space-faring civilization.
People know this, and thousands have subscribed to his visions. Musk has sparked a fierce loyalty within his customers and his followers alike, so that even when the media turns against him, his followers won’t.
For instance, there was a lot of bad press in 2007 surrounding Tesla, regarding delays in production, resulting in customers not being able to get their cars at the promised date. While the customers complained about the delays, they sensed a passion from Musk and shared his enthusiasm for the product, and stuck with Tesla instead of jumping ship.
With single-mindedness, unapologetic determination and great breakthroughs, Musk has managed to captivate the world and the media—without spending a single dollar on advertising.
There is much to learn from Musk, from building a global brand with unconventionality and personality, to being open-minded enough to implement a 10-year-old’s marketing idea. What companies need to do is to re-evaluate their strategies—to anthropomorphise their brand, and give it a strong, relatable voice through platforms like social media; to champion a vision with a thirst and be true to it, whether it’s about sustainable energy, digital transformation or revolutionising travel.
When your brand voice and vision are aligned, unabashed and bold, your communications strategy will have clear direction. It doesn’t matter if you’re attempting to make humanity an interplanetary civilization or simply selling a product. Brands tend to become afraid of bad press, of a reputation going sour, and so they slam filter after filter on every press release, every public statement, every Facebook post.
Be like Elon. Be intrepid, be genuine, be audacious.
Laura Ng is account coordinator at The Hoffman Agency in Singapore