As marketers continue to question their work and ask, “What is innovation today?” we can turn to Musk’s story for some answers. Perhaps the key to differentiating your brand today lies in your founder’s ability to tell and sell a great legacy story.
Not all of us will be fortunate or smart enough to be part of a team that founds multibillion dollar tech corporations like PayPal, but every brand looking to innovate its narrative should start at the beginning. Elon Musk created his cachet by participating in one of the first famous zero-to-hero stories in Silicon Valley—just 17 years after Musk sold his first company (Zip2) for millions, he’s now a billionaire, NASA-contracted tech mogul who speaks unironically about retiring on Mars.
Every brand that’s looking to elevate its reputation to the next level through storytelling has experienced a pivotal moment that it can lean on as a defining element in its history. Whether you perfected the mattress or disrupted the entire digital payment industry, much of your future success depends on how you frame your past.
Most private sector businesspeople have no business taking on storied government programs with billions of dollars of funding. But Elon Musk knew that his path to story-worthy success was not like that of most private sector businesspeople. And the more he differentiated his story from that of others, the better it worked.
Musk crafted a narrative that said he wasn’t just another eccentric tech guy with more dollars than sense—he started his moonshot passion projects before he received any major payday from selling PayPal—which gave him substantially more credibility with investors and customers. There were plenty of setbacks and potentially disastrous moments with SpaceX and Tesla alike, but Musk buoyed his brands by doubling down his confidence with cash and cachet. He knew he had great products that had the potential to change the world, and he made sure that nobody forgot that or gave up a day too soon. NASA ended up contracting SpaceX for several rocket launches worth $1.6 billion, and major auto conglomerate Daimler invested in fledgling automaker Tesla even as the global economy was in a nosedive.
Musk’s most famous consumer-facing brand is the Silicon Valley status-symbol, auto industry-disrupting Tesla. His entire story culminates in the ridiculously successful launch of the brand’s third model, aptly named the Model 3, which shattered records for presales. And this presale wasn’t for a five hundred dollar phone or game console; it was thousand-dollar deposits for a car that starts at $35,000. Cars are the second largest purchase most people ever make, so making an earnest money deposit for a full year (or more) before it arrives in driveways is not typically a move for the masses. But that’s exactly why the launch was so successful. Musk has cultivated a not-for-the-masses brand persona that has mass appeal.
Like Apple before it, Tesla has a man behind the brand that makes any purchase seem somehow enlightened and participatory.
Even though Tesla cars are fundamentally different from most cars because they’re electric, their success is staggering—even compared to mainstream rivals from Chevrolet, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda. Those competitors cannot be taken lightly, but none of them has ever pre-sold over a third of a million cars. When a brand’s story is powerful enough, a purchase takes on a different light. It’s less reasoned and methodical and more personal and emotional. You can’t test drive or compare a car that doesn’t exist yet, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of people from deciding that they want one and putting their money where their mouths are.
When brand storytelling is truly successful, a brand can (pre)sell individual products without individual product marketing. More than Hyperloops or rocket ships or battery factories, that may be what Musk understands best.
The most valuable thing to glean from the jaw-dropping presale numbers after the Model 3 launch last month is that having a positive reputation is the most valuable asset a business can possess. Even though the models shown onstage and in press photos were pre-production prototypes, the tech and auto worlds lost their collective minds. For a brand that’s built its reputation as the live-updating, hyper-disruptive automaker, people still buy into the excessive hype hook, line, and sinker. Everyone wants to be a part of the Tesla (and, by association, Musk) brand and brain trust, not because of any one particular product feature, but because of what buying a Tesla stands for. If you can create a story that sells products before they even hit shelves, then your product and marketing teams have both answered the question “what is innovation?” well.
And if you’re still trying to find the best narrative arc for your brand, study the most famous moments in the public history of Elon Musk. You don’t have to want to die on Mars to convince people that your brand is something special. Understanding how to pitch your pivotal moments in unique ways is enough to elevate your product from purchase to participatory.