This article was updated in November 2020.
There’s no doubt that Elon Musk, the enigmatic space entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO, has a knack for making a splash. (Consider his “Teslaquila”-branded tequila.) There’s also no denying the impact of his endeavors, which he often accomplishes without any paid advertising efforts. This is just one of the reasons why understanding more about Musk’s approach to ‘anti-advertising’ can be worth your time.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how Musk tackles advertising. We’ll outline some of his key approaches, and discuss how you might be able to apply some of those same principles to your marketing strategies. Let’s chat!
Understanding Musk’s Marketing Principles
The concept of ‘anti-advertising’ stems from Musk’s ‘no advertising, no dealership’ policy for his motor company. Tesla spends a reported $6 per car on advertising, compared to much larger numbers for other luxury cars.
The Tesla Model 3, however, continues to sell at three times the rate of its next best competitor, the BMW 3 Series.
Musk’s celebrity status makes it easier for him to get free advertising via media coverage. In addition, many of his endeavors aim to extend aid to people in dire situations. These displays of humanitarianism have the added benefit of acting as informal marketing, something we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Market Like Musk (4 Key Strategies)
It’s important to note that just because Musk doesn’t battle it out for the best Super Bowl ad placement doesn’t mean there’s not a strategy behind his approach to advertising. We’re going to outline four techniques he uses, which your own business might also benefit from.
1. Maximize Opportunities at Low to No Cost
Social media is one advertising platform Musk has masterfully maximized. There, word easily spreads about anything interesting going on at Tesla, or any of the other ventures Musk has his hands on.
If we look at the SpaceX launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018, we can see a perfect example of how this business owner makes the most of every opportunity. Musk’s decision to put his own Tesla Roadster on board as the rocket’s payload was definitely an interesting move, and it maximized a resource he already had on hand.
The launch delivered Musk’s message and vision loud and clear: “We’re heading into the future. You should come too—in a Tesla.”
Takeaway. It’s not likely that any of us can replicate the Roadster-on-a-Rocket event. We can, however, look at what it is that we want our products to say to people. Then we can attach those products to events or situations that unequivocally deliver that message to our audiences.
2. Endeavor to Solve Real Problems
While most of Musk’s projects do endeavor to solve a real problem, this is also one of the tenants that helps him gain fans. Where some may say he lacks social grace, he is undeniably honest in his desire to improve the general state of the world.
During the 2018 Camp Fire in California, for example, Musk offered free charging for Tesla cars. This might just seem like a simple and kind gesture to people in dire straits. Of course, it also sends another message if you know that the cars were equipped with hospital-grade HEPA filters:
Some people stranded in the fire zone were very vocal online about how the cars helped them breathe in smoky areas. What better advertisement could there be for Tesla’s products? In this scenario, we see an environmentally-friendly car that is actively helping people in a situation that was made worse by climate change.
Speaking to his followers
Another example is Musk’s desire to help rebuild the power infrastructure in Puerto Rico. This came about as part of the recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria. The plan included the use of a solar-based power grid made with Tesla’s Powerwall batteries.
There were complaints that the system did not work. Musk received just as much negative press as positive about this move. That did not deter him, however, and his work on the island continues.
Another power-related example is how Musk turned a Twitter bet into a humanitarian effort to solve Australia’s power crisis.
These are just a few of many humanitarian efforts attributed to Musk. Instead of paying a big-time advertising firm to make batteries look sexy, Musk was able to do the same thing by using his budget to help people with his existing products.
Takeaway. Musk brilliantly puts his products to use in real situations, and lets the media spread the word for him. Just about any business should be able to do a good thing with the resources it has.
Plus, if your reputation is one of authenticity, you’re more likely to build a loyal following. Fighting over airtime so you can broadcast your good deeds with catchy slogans doesn’t seem to be a popular selling point.
3. Go Open Source
Another concept Musk embraces is the open-source approach to innovation. Open source essentially means that the foundational knowledge or ‘recipe’ for a product (often a piece of software) is shared publicly. This is typically a way to encourage collaboration and innovation.
The WordPress Content Management System (CMS) is one of the most successful examples of how the open-source approach can work in practice.
Along similar lines, Musk shared Tesla’s emission-free car technology patents, and promised not to sue anyone who used them.
This was bold, but it shows that he’s not afraid of competition and truly wants everyone to use environmentally-friendly options.
Takeaway. Musk isn’t the only one who understands that collaboration typically leads to more innovation. Success is rarely achieved in a vacuum. Consequently, an open-source mindset can be beneficial in many enterprise settings.
4. Build Anticipation, and Don’t Be Afraid to Self-Promote
One thing Musk seems to have perfected is knowing his audience. He understands just what it takes to make people feel ‘in the know’ and special. Owning a Tesla makes you part of a community, in a way that not all car companies can achieve.
In fact, Tesla boasts the most loyal customers of all car brands. Consequently, Musk has harnessed this loyalty, and continues to master the art of building anticipation with social media. With 29 million followers, a vague poetic Tweet with a beautiful picture can have fans on fire for weeks.
Musk also seems to have mastered the art of self-promotion. While this might be easy if you have your own space program to boast about, there are some elements to his approach that anyone can replicate. For example, Musk tends to just lay out the facts without a lot of exposition.
This approach seems to be enough to win hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets. That’s money in the bank that he won’t have to spend on direct advertising.
Takeaway. Anyone can ramp up their self-promotion tactics at low or no cost. With Musk, the key is authenticity and honesty. That balance is something to strive for, as it truly matters with customers.
YouTube channels are a great, low-cost way to adopt this approach. Most of us don’t have access to big media to perform Musk-style interviews. However you can still publish similar content through channels like Medium, YouTube, podcasts, and social media platforms.
While not everyone can rise to the level of a ‘real-life Tony Stark’, the Elon Musk way of gaining followers and loyal customers is worth studying. Taking individuality and ingenuity to the extreme might not work for everyone, but a page out of the Musk marketing book can help you inject some new life into any campaigns that are running out of steam.
What anti-advertising strategies are most interesting to you? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!