Believe it or not, electric transportation dates back to the 1830s. And even then, it was founded on the idea that its customers would consider it more practical than other types of energy. Thomas Davenport led this movement with the first-ever electric motor, meant to operate trains and trolleys that were otherwise steam-powered and horse-drawn, respectively. But business was none too promising: The only batteries available for his motor to run on were, at the time, not powerful enough to support a locomotive.
Thomas Edison later worked on the same motor so it could generate electricity through more sustainable resources, championing the system of transit Davenport first sought to achieve.
There’s nothing wrong with a product that challenges current standards of efficiency as long as it can encourage people to recognize improvement down the line. But an enterprise that exceeds its generation’s capabilities (or confidence) needs to express itself under that constraint, or its brand won’t make any sense. That’s where you, the creative, come in.
Founded in 2003, Tesla Motors was a ghost as recently as four years ago. Last week, I tried to figure out why it wasn’t as familiar as other electric vehicle manufacturers such as Nissan, Chevrolet, and Toyota.
In 2008, the company released the Roadster—a full-electric sports car that, as far as I’m concerned, didn’t make the splash it should have (these babies get over 200 miles on a full charge). So why wasn’t its gasoline-free motor at least as popular as Prius’s hybrid?
Unlike Toyota, Tesla had built no reputation or brand integrity prior to its first electric car; it was as new as the industry itself. And although launching a product in a barely present market allows you to “steer” that market, Tesla’s still facing Davenport’s old situation: The product appeals to a demographic that doesn’t officially exist yet. So the brand has nobody by whom to define itself.
Nonetheless, what Tesla has done since then is make its vehicles some of the best-selling luxury cars in the country. But it took a road less traveled to get there and forwent many traditional marketing avenues.
There are two parts to this Silicon Valley giant’s newfound potential, and the first is something you’ve probably realized—or rather, walked past—several times already.
Tesla has practically no commercial property. You’ll never drive by it on “dealership row.” Instead, it has opened outlets in shopping malls across the country, offering one floor model and a handful of employees per showroom to anyone simply looking for more information. Why? Because it’s convenient. Even though these outlets may not offer test drives or immediate purchases, they get thousands of eyes on their merchandise every day from passing customers—more than your hometown Honda would be lucky to get in a week.
Last summer the company made another move—open source—and it is the second reason I’m telling you this story. You can’t expect people to “get” what your company has done unless you allow the rest of the industry to do it too, and that’s exactly what CEO Elon Musk said when he took all the patents off his firm’s technology. “I don’t think people quite appreciate the gravity of what is going on [with regard to global warming] or just how much inertia the climate has,” he told Businessweek. And because an electric car yields nearly half as much carbon dioxide as its gas-powered counterpart, “it would be shortsighted to hold these things close to the vest.”
In two fell swoops, Tesla did something that sets the table for a content strategy: It tested the pace of the community so it could create an identity around it. Showing up in malls allows it to turn browsers into early adopters. By sharing its patents, it establishes brand integrity and shows said adopters it cares about progressing the industry over itself. It just so happens that organizations with similar relevance are now hiring you to do the exact same thing. For AutoTrader to sell a driver’s used car, it needs to be the smartest one on the road. For IBM to sell cloud software to one SMB, it needs to be a security adviser to all of them. For STACK to sell an athlete on its fitness programs, it should be a trainer for the entire gym (more on that later).
Previously, I suggested that start-ups can use ideas to justify who they are. With respect to its creatives, this is step one. Tesla may no longer be a small fish, but it has proven that the more transformative an idea, the more you need to explain it. For your sake, getting “more eyes” on merchandise can just as easily take the form of page views, and going “open source” is the same as publishing those ideas for everyone to read.
Did I mention Tesla has a blog?