Tesla Master Class: Untap your Brand’s PR-potential

Tesla Master Class: Untap your Brand’s PR-potential

May 23, 2023

Many start-ups kill their full PR- and brand potential by making the mistake of buying paid promotion and advertising too early on. Why so? They do not exploit the full PR-potential that is contained in a brand. The master class example of how to squeeze the most out of your brand’s PR potential, is how Elon Musk has been promoting the Tesla brand in order to gain world wide fame and market share and by positioning it in the global mind as a truly successful global brand.

The most valuable global electric car brand in the world 

Tesla has, with a brand value of USD $48 billion (Interbrand, Oct. 2022), not only become the most valuable electric car brand in the world, but the third most valuable car brand overall. Only Toyota with USD $59.8 billion and Mercedes-Benz $56.1 billion in brand value are valued higher than Tesla. In addition to this, Tesla is the only western brand that has established itself in the top 10 sales lists of Electric Vehicle brands in Europe, in the U.S. and in China. In Europe and the U.S. Tesla is the category leader and in China it is the only top 10 non-chinese Brand, occupying the number two spot behind the Chinese brand BYD. This makes Tesla one of the few brands that has managed to truly establish itself as a global brand with a global positioning in the global mind.  

While most “old” global car brands (Top 10 car companies average age: 85.6 years) struggle to come near of what “young” Tesla (Age: 20 years) has achieved in its short life, there is a fact that is mostly overlooked: Elon Musk has not spent any money on advertising or promotion to reach this global position. He has only been relying on word-of-mouth and PR to build the Tesla brand.

The other day, Musk managed again to squeeze out even more PR of the fact of not having spent any money on publicity so far: At Tesla’s shareholder meeting in Austin, Texas on May 16, 2023 he announced that: “We’re going to do a little advertising and see how it goes…”.

Interestingly, he explained to American broadcaster CNBC after the shareholders’ meeting that “I have only just agreed to that, there is no full strategy yet.” In contrast to what the “old automotive gang” would have done, Musk did not have a first hyper-creative global advertising campaign to present. Rather the opposite, we believe the announcement of “a little advertising” is another of Musk’s brilliant stunts to generate another disproportionately large wave of media interest, PR and speculative word-of-mouth without having to spend anything substantial in terms of paid promotion right now. And what’s even better for Musk: He still has the PR potential left of announcing the “real firsts global campaign” at a later stage if he chooses to.

The three success factors of exploiting PR to the max

Elon Musk is not the only one using the principle of maximizing the PR potential for his brand (both as a person and for his companies). The rule to use “first PR then advertising” has built numerous successful brands like: Amazon, Dyson, Ebay, Facebook, iPhone, Netflix, Spotify, TikTok or Ryanair.

The reason these brands have successfully been able to make full use of PR to build their brands has not just been to rely on a random procedure. These brands have built their brands with PR based on three important factors:

  1. New Category: Today it is not enough to launch a new product or service in the market. To establish your brand you first need to establish a category to place yourself in. This category, or mental frame, needs to relate to, and make sense with, what is already in the minds of the prospects that are being introduced to the new product or service you are launching. A new invention as such, is not enough to get into the prospect’s mind: Amazon established the first leading “online shopping” platform as a distinct alternative category to “brick-and-mortar shopping” in the mind of the consumer. Facebook introduced the idea of the first “digital social network” to place “your entire real life social network” in. Spotify set up “streaming music on demand” as a category in the mind to replace your physical record collection with access to the entire “world’s record collection” as an online service.  Ryanair as the first European “Low price – no frills” airline introduced a new category of cheaper, scaled-down simple air travel as an alternative to all the other traditional airlines selling expensive complex tickets with unnecessary costly services included. Or TikTok who went for setting up a category of “short videos” as an alternative “faster video consumption” category against Youtube’s traditional online video platform.
  2. Controversy: The media love controversy. Above all, they love if players appear that dare to challenge and question the Status quo of an entire industry. Elon Musk has used controversy in a perfect way to build the Tesla brand. When Tesla entered the market, experts tried to bad-mouth, ridicule or even talk down Tesla as a controversial idea. However like Tesla and Elon Musk, one should never be afraid of being attacked or see this as a problem. Instead it can be used to raise the bar by creating more tension and fuel and lay the basis for numerous additional waves of PR and word-of-mouth. A perfect example of how this has been used, was when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone in his legendary 2007 presentation. He showed four ordinary Smartphones with keyboards and then the iPhone as the new alternative smartphone without keyboard explaining that it had been replaced with a touchscreen.
  3. Spokesperson: You can neither interview products nor services. So it’s excellent to have a spokesperson to do the job of representing the brand and the entire category. Ideally that person should not be afraid of acting in a polarizing way to create a constructive public debate for the brand’s positioning idea and the role of the category. No one has summarized the role of a spokesperson better than the CEO of Ryanair Michael O’Leary who once said: “When I resign, I am sure our marketing budget will increase in size as we would get a lot less attention without my public statements. Then again, we would probably save on legal costs when fewer people get the chance to sue us for my statements”. Even though it probably was meant as another ironic statement by O’Leary, he hit the nail right on the head.

First word-of-mouth and PR, then paid promotion and advertising 

To summarize: “First analogue and digital word-of-mouth and PR, then paid promotion and advertising” might at a first glance look like a simple methodology and formula to follow. Only, the simplicity required for the formula to work, is the hardest to achieve. This, as the formula requires for you to first think through your entire brand strategy and find your category and positioning in the mind of your customers. Secondly, it demands of you to develop your category and positioning thinking beginning from a PR and word-of-mouth-perspective.

As a final give-away tip (if you want to begin to think how you could make use of this Tesla Master Class to untap your full PR-potential): Start thinking about how you could set up a product- or service category that can be positioned against the status quo in your industry! And remember not to give yourself  a marketing budget. Good luck!

by Michael Brandtner and Jens Hansen, Lead Partners RIES Global