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Rebecca Chaplin: How Musk is winning the marketing war for millennials’ hearts and minds

Time 3 years ago

HOW do you compete with a car brand led by a celebrity?

It would be like trying to market your headphones better than Dr Dre’s Beats or your music service better than Jay Z’s ‘Tidal’ brand (well, maybe not the latter).

There’s something admirable about a business owner who is happy to completely rip up the rule book and do things their own way, but then there is Tesla owner Elon Musk who is taking things to extremes.

I started writing this column in early May, when things were looking bad for Tesla. If you were watching rolling news broadcasts on the day, you would have seen that his conference call with analysts was the talk of the town. There has always been the cult of personality surrounding Elon Musk but now it seems as though he is becoming almost a caricature of himself.

I do a lot of early-morning phone calls with dealer bosses, as some of you will know, when their quarterly, half-yearly or full-year results come out. Never, ever has a dealer or manufacturer boss turned around to me and said my questions were ‘boneheaded’ or ‘dry’. Maybe they’ve thought it, but they’ve never been rude enough to actually point it out.

So, Musk decided to dismiss questions during his phone call, shares began to drop, but as he said at the time, it’s not his job to make you buy stock.

He then moved on to questions from a YouTuber for a full 20 minutes.

The response to the embarrassing Tesla phone call with analysts was not good, despite diehard fans of the brand continuing to praise Musk and his empire.

He used his preferred form of communication, Twitter, to set the agenda again though.

He started with: ‘Please ignore this thread unless you’re interested in a tedious discussion about Tesla stock’ and then justified the rude responses he had given to his questioners.

I don’t want to change tack completely and start talking about the freedom of the press, but it’s our job to ask annoying questions that we deem to be ‘in the public interest’ and try to coax replies from people.

Those reading this who are trained to handle media inquiries will know there is a fine art to answering with a smile but not actually supplying the information we might be looking for!

Even though Musk’s tweets were just as short and sharp as his responses were during the phone interview, he received high praise nonetheless. He added that the reason a particular question about Model 3 demand was absurd is that Tesla has roughly half a million reservations, despite having done no advertising and having no cars in showrooms. Even after reaching a production level of 5,000 cars week, it would take two years just to satisfy existing demand even if there were no fresh reservations.

I’m sure many out there would be jealous, whether you run a small site or a multi-national company.

Imagine the luxury of being like Elon, saying you don’t care what investors think, writing online that talking about your company’s finances is tedious and then that you won’t be able to deliver cars ordered for at least two years.

I’m sure enough of you have been faced with a three-month lead time on cars ordered and know the rage that can bring out in customers, even if they were warned at the time.

But regardless of the foibles surrounding Tesla, people still love Musk and still seem to buy his cars. When the conference call storm erupted, I thought Musk was done for. I’ll admit, I was totally drawn in by the tech entrepreneur in the early days, but even I have found that his new Kanye West attitude in the press and on social media is getting a bit wearing.

I know, how many musicians can I mention in one column aimed at the motor trade? Actually, one more, because Musk recently turned up at the Met Gala with musician Grimes on his arm. It’s not often we see a car manufacturer boss photographed on the red carpet of this prestigious charity event – in fact, I can’t recall it happening before.

That must have been the biggest news to come from the Musk camp that week though, surely? Well, no, he also tweeted that he would be ‘starting a candy company and it’s going to be amazing’ and that generated a huge amount of interest too.

A lot of people love Tesla cars, having never even got behind the wheel of one, while others love the man because they think they know him through that weird window which is social media – so how on Earth would you compete?

It’s one of those things that seems far away and intangible, and I know we talk about it all the time, but millennials and those generation Z-ers are his fans. They engage with his brand because it appeals to them far more strongly than any maker of conventional combustion-engined cars.

A lot of them might not be able to drive yet but they’re dreaming of living a life like Elon, and rather than those sports cars you had on your wall, they’ve got a mid-sized electric saloon on their iPhone home screen.

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Rebecca Chaplin's avatar

Rebecca has been a motoring and business journalist since 2014, previously writing and presenting for titles such as the Press Association, Auto Express and Car Buyer. She has worked in many roles for Car Dealer Magazine’s publisher Blackball Media including head of editorial.

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