Say the word “Tesla,” and it conjures a lot of different things to different people. If you’re a business person, you might be aware that Interbrand ranked the company as most improved in their Best Global Brands 2021 report with a 184% leap in brand value for the year. If you’re a car enthusiast, you might be carefully following the progress (and controversy) of the autopilot software and regenerative braking feature, among other headline-grabbing stories. (For better and for worse.) And if you’re an Elon Musk fan or hater, you’re probably all over his Twitter feed for daily insight/amusement/outrage.
As a super tech nerd and performance enthusiast, I knew I had to have a Tesla, so I first ordered a Model S in 2017.
Beyond the thrill of driving a kick-ass car, there was another reason that I wanted a Tesla. In my opinion, Tesla is shorthand for a supersonic brand experience. The kind that is so far ahead and so fast, most humans can’t even comprehend all the nuances. So, as someone who’s forward obsessed, every time I step into my car, I am inspired by what I find.
I loved the Tesla experience from the get-go in 2017 when I leased my first Model S. That experience drove my decision to upgrade in 2020 to a performance Model S. I appreciate that I’m not just driving a vehicle; I’m helping support the disruption of the auto and transportation industries. To top it all off, I’ve got a front-seat view of the gold standard of today’s UX and UI (not just in the automotive space, but in general). So I have no plans to shift to another brand any time soon in the auto department.
In this article, I will reverse engineer what drives Tesla to the top of brand innovation. Hop in — it’s going to be a fun ride!
What Makes Tesla Electric
The shorthand way to talk about Tesla is to call it an electric car company. But that’s a massive oversimplification. It’s a technology company. It’s also an iconic, revolutionary brand specializing in making the customer and user experience sublimely frictionless.
This is why Tesla is one of the most electrifying brands there is. In many ways, Tesla today is like Ford in the era of Henry Ford. It’s a well-known fact that Ford innovated productivity by creating his “moving assembly line” in 1913. But his vision went far beyond that: Ford was largely responsible for inventing weekends. And while sure, there was a benevolent aspect of that (giving his workers two days off a week, even though the federal government didn’t mandate 40-hour workweeks until 1938), Ford knew his best customers would be the people who made them. A two-day weekend gave them a chance to enjoy the cars they bought from him.
Also, this led to another key innovation: the creation of highways. Drivers of the Model T Ford loved their cars, but they hated the muddy, bumpy roads. The pressure these drivers put on the federal government became a driving force developing our interstate highway system. Cut to today, when the White House just announced a $5 billion electric vehicle charging program. It’s very likely that Tesla’s proprietary network of supercharging stations, built to address charging anxiety for its car buyers (and, of course, create a significant competitive advantage), is now a blueprint for how to support putting more electric cars on the road.
This is the perfect example of “designing demand.”
Of course, at the heart of what makes Tesla an electrifying brand is the fusion of design and technology. Every feature in the car is off-the-charts and feels like it was designed for me. From the auto on and off features as I enter and leave the vehicle to the always-updating and evolving ICE (in-car entertainment). From the fun games and Netflix movies I can enjoy when I’m sitting in a Tesla Supercharger station or the built-in browser for pulling up websites on the giant touchscreen display, I love the fact that my “at-home” experience goes seamlessly on the road with me. I take these features for granted when driving my wife’s Cadillac truck or when I’m in a friend’s luxury car, like a Mercedes or BMW. These gas-powered machines (aka Tesla’s competition) are beautifully designed, but everything about their “tech” and product experience feels generic and dated. From the design of the instruments to the interfaces and subtle things like needing to remember to shut off the car upon exiting it harkens to the past.
Tech aside, what makes it such an exciting company to be a fan of (as I am) is its hyper-focus on customer needs, desires, and behaviors. As a DTC brand, they took the greatest pain out of the car-buying or leasing process: the hassle and the haggling. It often feels like the richer people are, the more leverage they have to drive down pricing. Not with Tesla: the price is the price for everyone. Showrooms are in malls. There’s no dealing with slimy sales reps — and thanks to a generous incentive program full of free stuff (like charging), the word-of-mouth network is robust, so we consumers are never hit with annoying ads for Teslas.
And then there’s the sustainability angle, which clearly is a selling point, but a debatable one to me. While there is the hope that electric cars will help the world mitigate climate change, the truth is the scientific data is conflicting. Many argue that “green” cars like Teslas have a higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cars. (Worth a fact check for both sides). However, part of how Tesla has revolutionized the auto industry is to create a smarter manufacturing method, minimizing inventory carrying costs and manufacturing waste. That’s a more sustainable and earth-friendly process (and it has the added bonus of building anticipation, buzz, and — you guessed it — demand for their cars).
The Polarizing Power of Personal Brands
The bottom line for Tesla’s success in lighting up their customers and blowing up the car industry as we once knew it isn’t driven by big splashy things (including its founder’s out-sized personality). Ultimately, it’s the little things that make all the difference. Love him or hate him, Musk’s larger-than-life personality and obsession with entrepreneurship and innovation are as much of a draw as it is a deterrent for those getting involved with the brand.
I believe in Musk’s vision. He’s been transparent and open about it since first publishing it on their company blog and following up as it was achieved and evolved.
His track record as the ultimate creative mixologist in disrupting and transforming businesses, from automotive and transportation to financial, aerospace, energy, AI, telecommunications, infrastructure, and healthcare, has brought me in.
I own stock in all of Musk’s companies. Although I have an iPad and iPad pencil, I still like to take physical notes in an unlined Moleskine notebook (another masterclass in great brand experiences) with a Tesla-branded pen that I received when I purchased my first Tesla in 2017 — a nice subtle touch. I follow his Tweets, most of which make me smile, and some of which make me cringe. And when he launched an EDM song, I gave it a listen and laughed. Plus, his SNL appearance was pretty good, and this past year he was especially philanthropic (to the tune of $5.7 billion), which I appreciate.
When designing demand for a brand or industry, the people behind the brand and products matter. Tim Cook is a brilliant and talented steward of the Apple brand. But he is not Steve Jobs. And a little piece of Steve (founder) is still present in the products he helped create and release to the world.
The Secrets of the Tesla Fob: Another Key to Unlocking Amazing Brand Experiences
If you don’t know much about Teslas, there are two ways that come with the vehicle to operate it: the app or key card.
Here are the kinds of things you can do without the use of an old-fashioned key:
- Locate your car with directions or track its movement
- Check the charging progress in real-time and start or stop charging
- Heat or cool your car before driving (even if it’s in a garage)
- Lock or unlock from afar
- Send an address from your favorite apps to start navigation in your car
- Allow your passengers to control media quickly
- Flash lights or honk the horn to find your vehicle when parked
- Vent or close the panoramic roof
- Update your vehicle’s software for the latest upgrades
- Summon your car from the garage or a tight parking space (an Autopilot feature)
All small touches that solve common pain points (i.e., not being able to find your car in a crowded lot, having a warm car to get into when it’s freezing outside). Now, there’s a third way to operate your vehicle, which not every driver has or even knows about, and that’s the fob. It’s a premium, upgraded item, and it’s well worth it to me as it holds clues to Tesla’s secret sauce. Again, it’s the little things that show the hyperfocus the company pays to its consumer base.
First off, it’s a key that looks like your car. And, smartly enough, every part of it corresponds with the part of the car it operates. For example:
- Passive entry is a snap — the fob automatically locks/unlocks your car as you get closer or further away. (Works for the trunk, too.)
- You can also use a manual entry process of pressing on the top of the device that works like a typical fob.
- Push down for five seconds on the “trunk” of the fob, and the charging port opens.
- If you want to open the trunk or frunk [front trunk], you just tap that part of the fob.
- Changing the battery is easy, and if for any reason the battery dies (unusual as it has a five-year lifespan), you can still operate the car.
- If you want to leave the fob in the vehicle, there’s a “dead zone” inside the car (floor of the cargo area), where it won’t communicate with the Tesla. This is a trick service people often use when they want to leave the key in the car, allow the vehicle to lock, and then the owner can retrieve their car after hours.
As I mentioned, the fob is just another feature — one you pay extra for. But in that little fob, there are some crucial marketing lessons:
- Incredible design and magnificent details: Much like Apple revolutionized how tech brands are designed, Tesla has taken it to the next level with its reinvention of how keys look, feel, and work. And the packaging it comes in looks like a jewelry box like you’re giving yourself a luxurious gift.
- The power of surprise and delight: The fob automatically locks/unlocks your doors. But using it to open the trunk and frunk, for example, are “easter eggs.”
- Ongoing improvement and integration: Like the rest of the car, the fob has undergone several updates over the years to be even more desirable (i.e., size has changed). I’m noticing the fob is out of stock now, which makes me wonder if that means a new version is coming soon.
- The “cool” factor: Tesla is always finding ways to update their cars and the accessories that get people talking. When was the last time a traditional car’s key got tons of online reviews? Google “Tesla key fob review,” and you’ll get pages of articles and videos. Because it’s cool!
Small but mighty, the Tesla fob alone could be a class in masterful marketing — one that I did pay $175 (the fob’s price point) to attend.
The Future of Car Design Must Be Powered by People
In my opinion, many of the ways that Tesla handles their modularity and upgradability via OTA (over-the-air software updates) is a sign of what future companies should deliver for their customers.
As a forward-obsessed early adopter, I subscribe to Tesla’s “beta software feature,” so I get the latest updates before the public releases (they typically launch every few months). I’ve watched subtle but powerful updates to Tesla’s UI text size, interaction states in the menu, and other things that quickly get pushed out. I’m here for the iteration; their process is so fascinating and instructive that I am happy to live with the beta versions that are updated and improved multiple times before the wide release.
Building cars with future-forward hardware and focusing on incremental software updates as technology improves creates a bespoke experience for the customer. And the ever-evolving data, both qualitative and quantitative, that’s collected with every push of a button or interaction/action the car and its owner have with the road is a treasure trove of information — a wealth of aggregated data that can be used to inspire future interactions.
Some predict that with the rise in ridesharing — predicted to surpass $220 billion by 2025, with an almost 20% growth rate — along with the talk about autonomous vehicles, future generations won’t even own cars. In a self-driving and metaverse-enabled world, it also seems likely that the very definition of what a car is will change. Whether autos become more like modern stagecoaches that we ride in or look more like the cockpit of an aircraft or a sci-fi spaceship, one thing is for sure: consumers will continue to expect and demand more from every feature and interaction.
Positioning a car like a customizable extension of the customer is a powerful way for car brands to connect with their buyers.
Apple, for example, known for its single-minded focus on the customer, is the perfect brand to enter this space. And I’m not just speculating on that; the prospect of the brand interrupting the automotive industry has been in the news for years now.
It’s not just Apple who might be leading us forward into an even bolder version of “cars” — loads of manufacturers are taking cues from Tesla and racing towards a more audience-driven version of what’s possible.
It’s also proven another critical factor in the race for brand loyalty: novelty is essential. Just like a website loses its traffic when the content becomes outdated, cars lose their cache without new iterations. And I don’t just mean new models of the same old car — I mean updates that happen with the car you drive. The feeling of novelty that Tesla owners get with every new update keeps things fresh. When my phone lights up and says there’s an update available for your Tesla, I feel like a kid the night before Christmas waiting for Santa to show up and drop off new gifts in the night. Novelty rewards us; studies show you get a dopamine download, and your brain’s “novelty center” is activated. That neuroscience-driven response is certainly something Musk knows to employ, and he’s done it to great success. Also, he’s a hustler (in the best sense of the word), which helps move things forward in incredible ways.Ultimately, that’s why Tesla isn’t just an electric car company but an electrifying brand. Regardless of your industry, you’ll drive business if you try their tactics.