Disrupted the Automotive Industry and Kicked Traditional Strategic Communications to the Curb 
Christmas Eve, 2008. Elon Musk, in the middle of a contentious divorce, three days away from bankruptcy and near the end of the road for his dreams for his electric car company Tesla, is sleepless, concerned and relying on the kindness of wealthy friends and even his most ardent employees to prop up the company and make payroll the following week. Musk, who had originally set out to send human beings to Mars and, along the way, took a detour to disrupt the world’s automotive industry, was on the verge of frying his nervous system with unimaginable anxiety and dread. 
If Tesla couldn’t clear this latest cash crunch, everything he’d invested—including a large portion of the $180 million he’d earned from his investment in PayPal—would be gone. Not to mention the five years of 100-hour work weeks and the “not fun” art of “staring into the abyss while eating glass,” words he’d later use to describe what it’s like to start a business as fraught with risk as an electric car company.
Musk rallied a group of investors and managed, by the skin of his teeth, to once again pull Tesla back from the brink. Remembering that sobering time years later on Twitter—a platform that would become a mainstay in his less-is-more approach to strategic communications, Musk wrote:
“That funding round completed 6 pm on Christmas Eve in 2008. Last hour of last day possible, as investors were leaving town that night & we were 3 days away from bankruptcy. I put in all money I had, didn’t own a house & had to borrow money from friends to pay rent. Difficult time.” 
—Elon Musk, November 3, 2020, on Twitter

How did Tesla—the scrappy rechargeable electric vehicle startup seemingly always on the thin edge of poverty—accelerate from 0 to $675 billion in market value from 2003 to 2021 without following the tried-and-true formula of traditional automotive advertising? Did the strategic communications world change—or did Tesla change the strategic communications world? What lessons can today’s business owners, managers and marketers learn from Tesla’s paradigm-shifting approach to sales promotion—and does Tesla’s lean-and-mean approach represent a new model for strategic communications in an age of disruption and continual change?

"Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you're doing, but nobody else does." 
—Stuart H. Britt
In 2020, General Motors spent more than $3 billion on advertising—or about 4% of the company’s $60 billion market value.
Ford spent more than $2 billion on advertising—or about 5% of its $35 billion market value.
That same year—and all the years before it, dating back to Tesla’s founding in 2003—this scrappy startup electric car company spent virtually nothing on advertising.
By the end of 2020, Tesla was worth an astounding $631 billion, placing it at #7 on the list of the world’s most valuable companies and placing Elon Musk a close second to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest man.
The world’s largest automakers spent a combined $550 billion on advertising in 2020—from TV, newspaper and magazine ads to radio, digital, social media and search—making automotive advertising the second largest category of ad spending on the planet.
So how did Tesla manage to not only compete, but exceed all expectations in a world of heavy-hitting ad spending with content and commercials produced by the best and brightest communicators in the world?
In his relentless pursuit to accelerate the world’s transition to renewable energy, Elon Musk disrupted the automotive world—scaring the daylights out of all the big American automakers, not to mention VW, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and countless others around the globe. Even more remarkably, Musk and his team pivoted away from advertising and engineered a novel and highly effective way to communicate—in the process, kicking traditional strategic communications to the curb. 

“Better to put the money into the product than sales and marketing.”
—Elon Musk, July 21, 2020, to @cleantechnica on Twitter

This is the story of why he did it, and how.
But first, a little bit of history.

The first rechargeable electric vehicle, carrying inventor Gustave Trouvé, appears on the streets of La Ville Lumière. Less than 20 years later, a rechargeable electric vehicle set the world land-speed record of 65.79 mph. By 1900, there were nearly 89,000 automobiles in the U.S. Of these, 35,623 were steam-driven (40%), 33,842 of them were electric (38%) and 19,593 were powered by gasoline (22%).
A decade later, electric vehicle sales reached their peak in America. Within a few years, however, they all but disappeared, mostly due to a lack of range and recharging infrastructure—two technological vulnerabilities that were easily exploited by the makers of fossil fuel-powered automobiles. These same two vulnerabilities would hold back widespread adoption of the rechargeable electric vehicle for more than 100 years.
For the better part of a century, the world ignored rechargeable electric vehicles, opting instead for the relative reliability of internal-combustion engine vehicles. 
By the final decade of the 20th century, however, automakers were experimenting once again with electric vehicles—most memorably General Motors’ billion-dollar flop, the EV1, which started strongly but ultimately fizzled out and was defunct by 2003.

As the 20th century drew to a close, two American businessmen—Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning—flush with $187 million from the sale of their e-reader company, NuvoMedia, and its Rocket e-book (a sort of early Kindle® reader), decided to take a stab at reducing America’s dependence on Middle East oil. The pair looked at hydrogen cars and at electric cars. Eberhard, an electrical engineer, and Tarpenning, a computer scientist, jointly decided that electric was by far the better bet. In fact, the two were surprised that no one else in Silicon Valley had jumped in to exploit what they viewed as a massive blue-sky opportunity for rechargeable electric vehicles designed and built in America. 
“Martin was one of those guys who has a real knack for recognizing products and technologies that could move markets,” Tesla’s first vp of marketing, Jessica Switzer, said. “He is a true product genius.”
But seeing opportunity is a far different prospect from actually making it pan out. Especially when the competition was so big, so entrenched and so well-resourced. Likening the whole scenario to David vs. Goliath is the understatement of our age. Then along came Elon Musk and his millions—and everything changed.

 “…he (Musk) refuses to advertise for Tesla, something most startup car companies wouldn’t think twice about, because he sees advertising as manipulative and dishonest.”
— Tim Urban, May 7, 2015, Wait But Why Blog
One of the oldest jokes in advertising is attributed to 19th century department store titan John Wanamaker, who said, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” 
This witticism invariably draws nervous laughter when account executives roll it out in board rooms. Ad people tell the joke to temper expectations and to remind business executives that advertising, like public relations, is a “best- effort business” where there are no guarantees. 
A 2006 study of $1 billion in ad spend across 30 corporations and one million customers found that, in fact, 63% of advertising spend was wasted. Even with the rise of “programmatic” digital advertising (banners and footers on iPhones or retracking ads from Zappos that follow you from site to site, reminding you of something you recently looked at), marketers face what’s called a digital marketing “tax” averaging 30%—simply because companies end up paying for accidental clicks or “impressions” that no high-intent buyers ever see on random websites around the globe. Accidental clicks on mobile device ads happen at an astounding rate—as high as 60%—simply because the interfaces are small, and our thumbs are large.
Always going against the grain, Tesla spent virtually nothing on traditional advertising for nearly two decades. In 2020, though, the company did manage to spend 14 cents per vehicle sold—or just $70,000 for 500,000 vehicles—on measured media, which can be defined as the segment of the media industry consisting of magazines, broadcast radio, broadcast television and newspapers. Nevertheless, this paltry spend is far less than a rounding error compared to any other major automakers’ annual promotions expenditures.

“Famously, Tesla doesn’t employ advertising, or at least traditional advertising. However, the automaker has been really good at producing marketing and promotional material.”
—Fred Lambert, November 6, 2020, on

In this piece, I will call all forms of marketing communications—advertising, marketing, public and media relations, sales support, promotions and events—by the term “strategic communications,” or strat comms for short. 

TIMELINE | EARTH, 2002 - 2004
Elon Musk actually didn’t set out to build electric cars.
He set out to go to Mars.
On May 6, 2002, Musk formed a new company, which he named SpaceX, to lower the cost of space travel as a step toward achieving his lifelong goal, which was to colonize the red planet. 
Along the way to Mars, Musk learns about an electric-vehicle startup looking for some venture capital, so he leads a $7.5 million investing round to help fund Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning’s quirky car company, Tesla. Since rechargeable electric vehicles had been a longtime passion for him (he actually began a Ph.D. program at Stanford to study high-density capacitors as a way to energize automobiles), Musk becomes the controlling investor, chairman, and de facto product manager. He is joined in funding the $40 million round by some of Silicon Valley's top venture capitalists, Google’s founders, and even banking giant J.P Morgan.

Looking earthward once again, the revolutionary forces that began reshaping strat comms in the first decade of the 21st century—the internet, technological innovation and globalization—are happening across all knowledge-intensive industries today on a massive scale. The term business-engineering experts use to describe these forces goes by the seemingly odd name of advanced manufacturing, an Obama-era government term defined as “the use of innovative technology to improve products or processes.” Advanced manufacturing affects not only manufacturing; it affects strat comms and the “manufacturers” (i.e., marketers and content creators) who develop media content as well. Advanced manufacturing, in whatever field it touches, leverages knowledge, data and technology with ever-increasing effectiveness to optimize profit and market share. I suspect Tesla and its strat comms team stumbled upon a goldmine as advanced manufacturing, the internet, social media and the Aristotelian first principles mode of thinking employed by Eberhard, Tarpenning, Musk and others all converged to create one of the most successful business phenomenons of our times.
The key to understanding how Tesla managed to achieve hockey-stick like market cap growth with virtually zero strat comms spend is to get inside the minds of the individuals responsible for making the marketing decisions in the company. 

At the top of the marketing heap, from the early days to the present, is Elon Musk himself. As if banking, fintech, search advertising, rocketry and electric-vehicle manufacturing weren’t enough to occupy Musk’s agile mind, he also managed to develop a highly-attuned fascination with business-to-consumer marketing. 
Adeo Rossi, a college friend of Elon’s from his University of Pennsylvania days, said in an interview with biographer Ashlee Vance, “when Elon gets into something, he develops … a different level of interest than other people.” This amazing feat of cognition—this “growth mindset,” as Carol Dweck would call it—is a hallmark of Elon Musk’s persona. He truly believes that he can learn deeply about anything—and quickly. Musk shares this trait with other visionaries, including Bill Gates of Microsoft and the late Steve Jobs of Apple. The result of this, Vance wrote, can be summed up by former PayPal communications chief Vince Sollito, who noted that “(Musk) exhibited … deep insight into human nature … and pulled off exceptional marketing … feats.”
If necessity is the mother of invention, then economic pressure is its father. By early 2009, Musk had invested $55 million of his considerable fortune in Tesla. He took over as CEO. He was forced to cut a quarter of Tesla’s workforce, sell a 10% stake to Germany’s Daimler and secure a $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. On top of that, he had to recall three-quarters of the Roadsters Tesla had produced for quality and safety issues. Clearly, though, Musk was in it to win it. As he told Vance, “My mentality is that of a Samurai … I would rather commit seppeku than fail.”
Musk’s powers of perception around human behavior and strat comms were informed by advances in disciplines largely unnoticed by most business leaders. These advances include Lauterborn’s 4Cs (a modern rethinking of McCarthy’s 4Ps of marketing); an inspiring and unassailable mission for Tesla; publishing a bold and visionary “secret plan” that detailed how the company planned to attack the challenge of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable transport; and scientific thinking using the first principles method. First principles involves breaking big problems down to their essential elements, then reassembling those elements in creative and innovative ways to find a new—and sometimes unexpected—solution.
Like nearly everything else they touched, Musk and his team were able to leverage these four modes to blow apart the old model of strat comms and—just as they did in developing the Tesla automotive platform—invent and refine a new model that got the job done better, quicker, cheaper and in more exciting ways than did their competition.

For the past 50 years, the majority of marketers worldwide have subscribed to the “4Ps of Marketing,” the teachings of legendary Michigan State and Notre Dame marketing professor E. Jerome McCarthy. In the 1960s, Professor McCarthy introduced the world to 1) product, 2) price, 3) place and 4) promotion—a construct that was taught in marketing courses for decades and religiously adhered to by business owners and marketers to the present day. The 4Ps became something every trained marketer of the past five decades can repeat from memory, and its staying power—even in the face of new evidence—is a tribute to McCarthy’s influence in the field.
Observers have argued, however, that the 4Ps were only maximally useful as a marketing tool for that moment in post-WWII America where pent-up demand, a consumerist ethos, full employment and ample purchasing power made trips to the shopping mall a form of entertainment. In this environment, the 4Ps worked well enough for most businesses. Then along came the economic malaise of the 1970s, the recessionary dips of the early 1980s and 1990s and the rise of the internet, which leveled the playing field considerably, though not as equitably as its inventors had hoped. The world was changing. Consumer wants and needs were changing. And strat comms would need to change with it.
In 1990, Advertising Age magazine published an article that signaled the end of the 4Ps. Written by Bob Lauterborn, former director of marketing at International Paper Corporation, “New Marketing Litany: 4Ps Passé; C Words Take Over” signaled that the marketing world had changed and that the new paradigm was what the author modestly dubbed “Lauterborn’s 4Cs”: 1) consumer wants and needs, 2) consumer’s cost to satisfy those needs, 3) consumer’s convenience to buy and, perhaps most importantly, 4) communication—information and data delivered on the consumer’s terms. While many Tesla insiders did put together marketing plans around McCarthy’s traditional 4Ps model, closer analysis reveals that what Tesla’s marketing chiefs actually acted on over their 18-year history mirrors Lauterborn’s 4Cs approach to strat comms.
It’s hard to imagine the then-19-year-old Elon Musk reading Ad Age and picking up these sage words of strat comms wisdom, but by analyzing how Musk mastered marketing in the age of disruption, it looks like he onboarded Lauterborn’s way of thinking either intuitively, through his educational training, or perhaps as an outgrowth of his first principles mindset.
“Things marketers would assume as a given were not accepted as a given by Martin Eberhard or by Elon Musk. It wasn’t enough to say ‘you need to trust me on this, it’s my expertise’; you had to actually make the case regardless. In that respect, there was a first principles approach to everything we were doing,” former vp of marketing Darryl Siry said. “If you have no money to spend, you become really resourceful. You question everything.” 
In this latter case, we can imagine Musk thinking, I want to put 100% of our resources into building a better product and I think advertising is disingenuous. I wonder if we can generate enough sales to be successful strictly by building a better mousetrap, throwing in a dash of showmanship and leveraging word-of-mouth through the network effects of blogs and social media?
As novel as Lauterborn’s insights must have appeared to readers in 1990, a closer look reveals they simply echo the words of the greatest management guru in American history, Peter Drucker, who in 1973 wrote:

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

When Elon Musk met J.B. Straubel in the fall of 2003, the two really hit it off. Straubel, an electric-vehicle aficionado since his early years, famously rehabilitated an abandoned golf cart he came across at the local dump in Wisconsin at age 14. Not long after their initial meeting, Straubel, young, smart, determined and armed with a Stanford master’s degree in energy systems and engineering, became Tesla’s chief technology officer. On July 19, 2006, the Tesla Roadster—a high-performance, flashy EV based on a modified Lotus Elise chassis—was unveiled in an airport hangar in Santa Monica, CA. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was there, as were 350 celebrities and media luminaries. On display were two Roadsters—one red, one black—boasting 0-60 times of 4 seconds and a 250-mile range. The event lit up the blogosphere and garnered articles in Wired, Fortune and the New York Times, setting the stage for future Apple-like product launches designed to create excitement, reduce stigma and fire up the base of fans of these electrifying machines. It also set the stage for Musk’s next PR stunt, bringing the disruptive Roadster to that bastion of internal combustion automobiles, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
—Tesla Website, 2021
“The heart and the power of advertising,” wrote copywriting legend Jim Jordan, “is … a few words so skillfully targeted, so clear in their positioning, so vivid in their articulation, and so memorable in their identification with a given brand … that they become people’s principal reason for buying the brand.” 
In fact, it took some years for Tesla to be able to clearly and consistently articulate who it wanted to be when it grew up. Early writings on the company’s initially thin website only hinted at what the company was trying to do. By 2007, Tesla’s “mission” on its website read—unremarkably—like any other performance automaker’s sales copy:
Our Mission: Tesla Motors designs and sells high-performance, highly efficient electric sports cars—with no compromises. Tesla Motors cars combine style, acceleration, and handling with advanced technologies that make them among the quickest and the most energy-efficient cars on the road.
It took several years for the company to rethink and refine their mission statement to become: “Tesla’s mission is to hasten the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Apparently, the word “hasten” was not as compelling, widely understood or as impactful as “accelerate,” so the company modified their mission statement one more time in 2016.
An essential element of any strat comms plan is to spell out—in the most direct language possible—the mission of the enterprise and the key benefit for those who choose to buy from or do business with that enterprise. Like Musk himself, Tesla’s mission is big, bold and unapologetic. It heralds a clear, unassailable position for the company that taps into the zeitgeist and promises a solution for a global concern. 
Telegraphing the company’s mission in pithy, visceral language was one of the most powerful strat comms moves Tesla ever made. It set the stage for events to come by tapping into what Harvard Business School’s Lou Shipley called “the predominant market trend of the day—going green to reduce global warming.” 
These few words, so precisely and skillfully chosen, build on Tesla’s long-term vision to “create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.”

“If you can explain the WHY of things, that makes a huge difference to people’s motivation … they understand the purpose.” 
—Elon Musk, April 17, 2013

Not to be missed is the emotional power of Tesla’s mission statement, which resonates deeply with millions around the globe who want to take action and be a part of the solution to the climate crisis. As an homage to my hero David Ogilvy, these words have the emotional power to drive people to action, or, as he wrote it in Ogilvy on Advertising,
“When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ 
But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’” 

Most of Tesla’s strat comms veterans appeared reluctant—due to fear of potential blowback from a mercurial Musk—or outright unable—due to NDAs (non-disclosure agreements)—to talk about the inner workings of Tesla’s strat comms process. 
The Tesla veterans I was able to talk to, however, were quick to point out the “hiding-in-plain-sight” nature of the company’s strat comms approach.
Chris Reilly, longtime director of recruiting and workforce development for Tesla, laid it out for me. 
“The marketing strategy was set by Elon Musk and it was a full focus on product development and engineering to create products people love.” Reilly said. 
“He actually spelled it out for everyone in The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,” which is published on the company’s website to this day.” Reilly added.
In Musk’s now-classic 1,400-word treatise, he opens the books to tell us that he runs SpaceX and that he is Tesla’s “primary funding source from when the company was just three people and a business plan.”
His ultimate “why,” Musk writes, is to “expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar-electric economy,” which he views as one of the few sustainable options left.
Musk explains the fact that his first car, the Roadster, will be expensive ($89,000 to start, later bumped up to $109,000) but that expense is necessary to establish the company and give it the resources to develop lower-cost vehicles down the line. 
The story he’s telling us, of course, is Wright’s Law, which projects that the cost of a product declines with the more copies of the product you produce. An article of faith for anyone in Silicon Valley, Wright’s Law actually states that for every cumulative doubling of units produced, costs will fall by a constant percentage.
What Elon Musk is really doing, though, is signposting to his wealthy and innovative followers that they’ll need to put up the funds now for the right to own exclusive, higher-priced exotic cars so Tesla can survive and build more affordable mass-market vehicles in the future—saving the world along the way.
In addition to giving the faithful the “why” of what he’s setting out to do, Musk also sums up the “how” of Tesla’s plan of attack, writing, 
“So, in short, the master plan is:
- Build sports car
- Use that money to build an affordable car
- Use that money to build an even more affordable car
- While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options.
… Don’t tell anyone.” Musk wrote.

Ever the physicist (Musk studied physics and economics in college), he lays out the scientific argument for electric vehicles that shows the Tesla Roadster is twice as energy-efficient as the globally popular Toyota Prius hybrid, which has sold an estimated 15 million units since it was introduced in 1997. Clearly, Musk is signaling that he believes Tesla can be successful because, in the face of the plodding efficiency advances that have been made by legacy automakers, the specter of climate change only increases the odds that a growing number of consumers are ready to buy a rechargeable electric vehicle.

“You want to embark on something where success is at least one of the possibilities.”
—Elon Musk, April 17, 2013
Musk goes on to debunk the “long tail-pipe theory”—the idea that electric cars are essentially fossil-fuel-powered vehicles—because much of the world’s electricity is produced by burning coal. In the early two-thousands, this position was often bandied about by scientists and Silicon Valley notables including venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who propagated the notion when he said in The Atlantic, “Electric cars are coal-powered cars. Their carbon emissions can be worse than gasoline-powered cars.”
Musk dismantles that argument by illustrating that a Tesla is still responsible for only one-third of the CO2 emissions as a Toyota Prius, as demonstrated in Musk’s chart from the Secret Master Plan. A close reading of his own chart, however, shows that he bases the Tesla numbers on the assumption that it is powered by natural gas rather than coal. Still, he makes his point, and today much of the Tesla Supercharger network is powered or augmented by solar and wind-generated electricity.
Car                   Fuel                         CO2              Efficiency     Emissions
Honda CNG     Natural Gas            14.4 g/MJ      0.32 km/MJ    45.0 g/km
Honda FCX      Nat Gas-Fuel Cell   14.4 g/MJ     0.35 km/MJ    41.1 g/km
Toyota Prius    Oil                            19.9 g/MJ     0.56 km/MJ    35.8 g/km
Tesla Roadster  Nat Gas-Electric   14.4 g/MJ    1.14 km/MJ    12.6 g/km

To understand why Elon Musk built a luxury-performance electric car company while casting aside traditional strat comms, it helps to remember that he is, down to his DNA, a scientist, an economist and an uber-geek whose mind works like that of an efficiency engineer. Key to explaining this phenomenon is Musk’s attachment to first principles thinking. First principles thinking opens the mind to consider, “OK, what can I do with these basic elements?” Often, innovative solutions come by reassembling the problem’s elemental materials in creative new ways.
Musk learned early on to reason “from principles rather than by analogy.” When he first set out to disrupt commercial space flight with SpaceX, he quickly learned that rockets cost far more than he could afford, so he resorted to first principles thinking. He researched what went into building a rocket, and what the raw materials cost in bulk. It turns out that the raw materials amount to only about two percent of the cost of a new rocket. When Musk realized he could build a rocket far cheaper than buying a new one or even buying an outdated model from, say, the former Soviet Union, SpaceX was born. This glimpse into Musk’s way of thinking about efficiencies sheds some light on his penchant for squeezing every last drop of value out of whatever he sets his sights on. 
According to Jessica Switzer, Tesla’s first vp of marketing, this posed both challenges and opportunities for all who would take on strat comms for Tesla. 
“(In the beginning), we had a very limited budget. I liken it to being like an organism that finds a way to thrive in a world deprived of nutrients, like those deep-sea creatures who live near thermal vents on the sea floor.” Switzer said.
Adding to the scientific mindset of breaking challenges down to first principles, it helps to have a high tolerance for pain and uncertainty, which Musk has in spades. As someone who takes an efficiency-engineering mindset toward almost everything, Musk is very comfortable doing more with less: Less money, less time, less nutrition (when he and his brother Kimball started up Zip2, their first internet company, the brothers subsisted on Jack in the Box “four meals a day,” seven days a week, according to biographer Vance) and even less sleep. 
Elon’s sleep deprivation problem spawned more than a few media headlines and actually drew an admonition from Huffington Post founder Ariana Huffington—a vocal proponent of adequate rest. Having Huffington and others rally to Musk’s aid was a vivid indicator of how much the business and media elite were paying attention to his crusade for cleaner car technology. Nevertheless, Musk has often remarked about the benefits of working 100 hours a week, claiming that by doing so, he can get done in four months what anyone else could accomplish in a year.
Equipped with these key attributes—an unassailable, resonant mission that taps into a global desire to combat the climate crisis, a relentless, customer-centric approach; a “secret plan” describing how Musk views the challenges of sustainable transport while dismantling naysayers’ arguments and mapping a road for success; and taking a first principles approach to every facet, including strat comms—Musk set the stage for Tesla’s team to maximize its messaging as it set out to disrupt the automotive world.

As a former advertising agency principal who witnessed the entire category go up in smoke over the past three decades (of the world’s 100 largest ad agencies that dominated the industry when I began in 1987, only 18 of them were still in business by 2017), I have been keen to understand how strat comms has changed in the age of disruption and what novel strategies have helped brands thrive in a staggeringly fragmented strat comms environment today. The decline of the traditional strat comms agency model accelerated during the Great Recession (U.S. ad agencies shed 65,000 jobs from 2008–2010) and my own eponymous ad agency was caught up in that decline, leading me to shutter it in 2011. In my graduate studies in journalism, I learned how journalism has been decimated by Google and Craigslist and others—and all the while I have had this gnawing feeling that I’d seen this movie before. 

For me, the way to understand what helped Tesla thrive as a cash-strapped startup in a changing strat comms world begins with the professionals Eberhard and Musk tapped to make things happen, no matter what. The first three marketing vps for Tesla were Jessica Switzer, Darryl Siry and Ricardo Reyes, and all three were highly skilled at figuring things out on the fly and doing whatever it took to advance Musk’s mission of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
During the very earliest days of Eberhard and Tarpenning’s formation of Tesla Motors, they tapped strat comms pro Jessica Switzer—an up-and-coming partner in a successful San Francisco PR firm—to oversee Tesla’s initial branding, marketing and media relations efforts. During her year at Tesla Motors, Switzer engaged in consumer research, shepherded the design and content for the company’s first website and put together strategies and budgets for marketing, sales promotion and public relations for the startup.
Switzer met Martin Eberhard in the late 1990s when he hired her San Francisco firm, Switzer Communications, to handle new product and company launches for the many businesses he was starting.
“Our firm was really focused on startups in the consumer-electronics niche. When Martin and Marc Tarpenning started NuvoMedia and introduced their innovative e-reader, I was the lead on that account. We only had a $200,000 budget to work with. The problem was, they had this e-reader, but they hadn’t thought ahead to secure the digital rights to the authors’ works, so that’s where things didn’t pan out.” Nevertheless, Eberhard and Tarpenning ended up selling NuvoMedia and the Rocket e-book to Henry C. Yuen of Gemstar Media for $187 million.
“Not long after Martin and Marc started Tesla, I got a phone call from Martin. He said, ‘Come down here to San Carlos. I want to show you something.’ I drove down there from Marin County and I got into this sports car that looked like a Lotus Elise. Martin hit the accelerator and it was like “Wooo-hoooo!” ‘Reach for the dashboard, reach for the dashboard,’ Martin kept saying, but I couldn’t reach it. It was amazing, zero to 60 in like four seconds. I was so taken with this car and his whole mission, I took the job on the spot, even though it was only 30 hours per week at first. And even though I came from PR, I was hired as vp of marketing, because I’d done a lot of full-spectrum marketing work in my past roles,” Switzer added.
Strategically, Switzer set out to differentiate the Tesla not as merely a green solution, but as an amazing sports car that happened to be electric.
“Martin was only interested in solving very large problems,” Switzer said. “The environmental/greenhouse gases/global warming thing was not spoken of, but it was always the backdrop. What Martin was interested in was ‘let’s start an industry … an electronic car industry.’ I made the conscious marketing decision that we weren’t going to bring up the climate change message because we wanted the car to stand on its own merits. That’s why I positioned the car as the ‘poor man’s Ferrari’: the only difference was that you had to plug it in at night.”
Positioning notwithstanding, the key to the company’s survival in those early days was actually producing something the company could sell.
“Martin was obsessive about getting the car built. He had these six algorithms he’d developed as we were trying to get the car produced, which he’d analyze all the time. There were only six of us in the company leadership at that time and we all worked in the same room, so we’d see and hear everything. It was a very odd setup.” Switzer said. “Martin is absolutely ruthless in his ability to focus.” Almost every time I brought an idea to him, he’d tell me to ‘fuck off.’ If it wasn’t focused on getting the car built, he didn’t want to hear about it.”
This single-minded approach didn’t hold Switzer back from tapping into consumer sentiment to use as a guide in both manufacturing and promoting the “poor man’s Ferrari.”
“The first thing I did was, I set out to do focus groups,” Switzer said. “When I pitched that to Martin, he said, ‘Fuck off.’ So, I organized what I called “Customer Chats” in Los Angeles, Vegas and the Bay Area, to get insights from consumers in three car-obsessed markets. From there, I developed our early messaging, interviewed PR firms, contacted some firms in the Detroit area to develop automotive performance reviews for the original Roadster. Elon really didn’t like that idea. There was this arrogance, this idea that we were on a holy mission from God to launch a new car—and reaching out to the legacy auto world was just seen as disloyal and unnecessary.”
Despite these headwinds, Switzer stayed focused on the task in front of her.
“To gain more consumer insights into likely buyers, I researched state and national automobile registration records. I was looking for early adopters of advanced efficiency vehicles, people who owned Toyota Priuses, because they were signaling that they cared about fuel efficiency and global warming. I found three key markets—San Francisco, Los Angeles and Langley, Virginia (where a different subset—neoconservatives) were driving Priuses as a statement about independence from Saudi oil. I also researched Ferrari and Lamborghini owners, but they were motivated differently. They turned over their cars every few years because they were increasing in value, so they saw their performance vehicles as an investment, rather than as a statement or a daily driver.” Switzer said.
“As far as a launch plan (for the original Roadster), I had a PR agency lined up who had pitched the business with a well-thought-out plan. Martin approved it, but then I had to pitch it to Elon. In the plan, one of the things I proposed was a line-item for a telephone support line because of concerns I was hearing about the long lead times between when people paid their deposits for their $100K car and when they’d take delivery. The idea was to keep the lines of communication open. Elon bristled at that idea. “Why don’t you take all the phone calls?” he asked. “There was this arrogance, this assumption that Tesla’s customers would be people who would have a high tolerance for inconveniences with a new technology like this. When I stood my ground, Elon asked me if I was really committed to Tesla’s overall mission, as if I’d been disloyal by even suggesting the phone support line.” Switzer said. “Elon Musk was an early investor and was on the board of directors, but he was a lot more involved than I thought was appropriate for a board member. Everything had to be run by him. Elon’s a horrible manager. If you even push back a little bit against him, it’s off with your head.”
“The next morning, I walked over to Martin’s desk and I said, ‘Well, that didn’t go over as well as I’d hoped.’” And Martin said, ‘No, it didn’t, and that’s why I have to let you go today.’ I was devastated. Even our HR gal at the time was crying as she brought me over a cardboard box and helped me carry my stuff out to my car.”
Heartbroken and professionally adrift, Switzer “cast about” for nearly a year as she networked to find her next redemptive opportunity in tech and sustainability. She would later hire on with Elon Musk’s cousins, who were starting a company called Solar City. 
“What I learned from this whole experience is, you have to focus on who your real audience is.” Switzer said. “It’s not who you guess it is, or who you think it is. At the end of the day, you really have to do the work to connect with the people who will purchase and promote your product.”

Tesla goes public with an initial public offering (IPO) on July 29, 2010, which was one more do-or-die moment for the automaker. Musk faces his biggest challenge ever. Essentially homeless and relying on the kindness of friends, couch-surfing Musk makes a last-minute deal to sell Tesla to Larry Page of Google if the IPO doesn’t raise enough cash to sustain the company. The IPO works, raising $226 million, with TSLA soaring 41% from its opening price.
The cash infusion enables Tesla to survive.

"The top communications job is vital to Tesla because, unlike other automakers, the electric car maker doesn’t spend millions of dollars on traditional advertising. The company instead relies on media coverage by courting automotive and technology press and has also gotten attention thanks to the savvy Twitter activity of Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, who has 3.6 million followers on the site."
—Bloomberg, March 16, 2016
Elon Musk has always been suspicious of so-called “experts,” and in recent years, he has given jobseekers cogent advice to showcase, as quickly as possible, examples of what he calls “demonstrable excellence” as a way to stand out on the job hunt. When interviewing candidates, Musk and his team ask applicants to describe the most difficult work challenges they’ve tackled and to describe exactly how they solved the problem—as a way to weed out those who are just winging it.
Musk is particularly suspicious of MBAs. In the 2020 Wall Street Journal CEO Summit, Musk said, “I think that there might be too many MBAs running companies,” citing a too-intense focus on the numbers and less on the mission, which Musk says is “to create awesome products or services.”
So when it came time to hire the next strat comms chief for Tesla, Musk tapped Darryl Siry, an economics graduate from Brown University who moved to Tesla after a 9-1/2 year stint at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. At Fireman’s Fund, Siry had started out as a consultant developing market research, worked his way up to head marketing and communications and was later named chief marketing officer—all by the age of 32.
“I really like Darryl Siry,” Jessica Switzer said. “He’s a really smart marketer and a great storyteller,” she added. “He contacted me after I left Tesla because he really wanted to make the jump to Tesla. After getting to know him, I felt like he’d be a great addition to the company—and because he was male, he’d probably fit in better with the Silicon Valley car startup culture than I did.” Switzer said.
“Back then, Tesla wasn’t a household name.” Siry said. “When I first interviewed with Elon down at SpaceX, though, you opened your eyes to the art of the possible. You walk in and there’s a rocket ship lying on its side, so it doesn’t seem so hard to make an electric car.” Siry said.
“I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing in insurance. What I was most passionate about was automobiles. I wanted to work for a car company and I didn’t want to move to Detroit.” Siry said. “Tesla was attractive because it was this combination of technology and automotive and it was in Silicon Valley. The clean tech part of it grew on me because I’d just had a daughter. You start to think more about your future and your legacy.” Siry said.
Interestingly, Siry’s path to marketing foreshadowed what a decade later would become de rigeur in the marketing world—elevating chief marketing officers who had a strong understanding of big data, market research and consumer-centric strategy. Siry was tapped to lead Tesla’s brand marketing efforts—including corporate communications and sales—during the tumultuous early days when the company was working to launch the original Tesla Roadster. 
“I was excited about the car, but the angle I took toward marketing while at Fireman’s Fund was analytics, data warehousing and research. The metrics (around traditional marketing) didn’t make sense to me. There was a lot of money being spent without a clear line to value. Things were changing with the internet and I didn’t feel like agencies—at least the ones we were working with—understood that.” Siry said.
First on the list of priorities for Siry was to develop a customer engagement strategy and manage customer loyalty and engagement for Tesla’s reservation holders as the young company fought production headwinds for the new Roadster. The constantly-evolving Roadster was turning out to be much more difficult to manufacture at a profit than Musk had envisioned. 
Siry faced not just one, but multiple daunting tasks: he had to create—from scratch—a strategy to drive sales, engage the Tesla community’s earliest adopters—wealthy innovators—and develop the fledgling company’s brand, all on a what he called “a shoestring budget.”
With the benefit of hindsight, though, “Lack of resources makes you a better marketer.” Siry said.
In the beginning of his run at Tesla Motors, “Martin (Eberhard) was attracted to me because of my writing—not just the content, but also the style. He placed a high value on people who could write well, because he correlated that with intelligence and creativity.” Siry said. “The notion of the power of the written word became the foundation. We had a corporate blog for customer and community engagement, but we could write things that were newsworthy—not just newsworthy, but interesting topics. There was this group of blogs that was following clean tech—Autoblog Green with Samabuel Samid, the Cleantech Blog, Mike Millikin’s Green Car Congress and so forth. “We’d write things, have a lot of engagement and have a lot of people point to us in the blogosphere.” Siry said.
Siry tapped in and listened closely to the vocal and supportive Tesla community and realized that Tesla Motors could take advantage of its “unique position at the intersection of social, political and technology trends.”
“Early on, we were innovating on press releases, because press releases were so stupid.” Siry said. “A traditional CEO would be like, ‘No, it should look like everyone else’s press release! (Siry switches to a stentorian voice) This happened. Quote from the CEO. Quote from this other person’ ... whatever. They’re so formulaic. But with Elon and Martin, I was able to say like, “you know, I think what journalists want (and I would talk to journalists), and it’s just, ‘tell me the news! What do you have to say that’s relevant for me? Then give me quotes.’ These early (Tesla) press releases … were highly experimental: (Switches again to a stentorian voice) ‘We are releasing news. This is the news. This is the supporting stuff, and you can do what you want with it.’ We were challenging the original thinking with that.”
Taking an innovative approach to something as fundamental as their press releases paid off big-time for the Tesla team.
“We built a steady drumbeat of news about clean tech and Tesla and our technology. We were the thought-leaders in this space, in a way GM could never do because they were so traditional PR-driven.” Siry said.
Tapping into his economics, market research and business-to-consumer street smarts, Siry used design thinking—empathetic listening to consumers—to tap into the zeitgeist. After all, the world was hungry for something new, something green, something performance-oriented and something exciting in the automotive space.
“My first big media hit was with Business Week’s David Welch. He literally calls me and he’s like, ‘Look. My boss tells me I have to talk to you. I think you guys (Tesla Motors) are kind of bullshit.’ Welch, he’s a Detroit guy, and he’s like, ‘My boss keeps seeing Tesla popping up everywhere and he says, ‘why aren’t we on this?’”
“We forced the big media brands to notice us because we were all over the blogosphere.” Siry said. “It all started with a foundation of small hits and grew from there.”
“Before long, we were becoming iconic. There was so much interest, we spent a lot of time saying no—because we simply didn’t have the cars to give out to the press to test-drive. They were still being engineered.” Siry said.
One of Siry’s many roles was to actively solicit and surface “customer and community input,” through which Musk and Tesla Motor’s design and engineering team could learn about product modifications and options that Tesla’s growing legion of fans were asking for. The business problem was that the Roadster, based on the Lotus Elise chassis, was supposed to be a vastly simplified, electrified version of the Lotus sports car that would be more economical to make. As fate would have it, Musk and Tesla’s fans began thinking of hundreds of ways to make the early prototypes even better—with the downside that these improvements would entail more custom part-making and added expense. Within a very short time, the projected economies of scale began to evaporate, forcing Musk to raise the asking price from $89,000 per vehicle to $109,000.
“We had a really passionate base of customers and the truth was they gave us a lot of their money and it wasn’t immediately clear that we were ever going to make it to the finish line and ship the car.” Siry said. “We were using that money—these deposits were funding the company.”
It’s interesting to note that the kind of thinking that led Musk to innovate almost led to the company’s undoing. Cost and time overruns, supply-chain management issues and a strat comms gaffe of overpromising and underdelivering quickly plagued Tesla, to the point that pundits began tracking the “burn rate,” or expenditures of the company’s available cash and credit, coining the term “Tesla Death Watch” as the company struggled to keep all four wheels on the asphalt. 
“It was very anxiety-producing because of the near-death kind of experiences,” Siry said. “We almost failed three times while I was there. Elon has an almost infinite capacity for risk. The risks he was taking on for the business were creating a lot of anxiety within the company.” Siry said.
Tesla’s disruption ethos touched every aspect of the car-buying experience, from how customers learned about the vehicles to how they were able to view and test-drive them.
“The way you sell cars is by putting people in the car and letting them drive it. We had to be very careful—because who is a legitimate potential buyer? Everyone wants to drive in the car. It was illegal to let people drive it. But we were kind of like: “we have to let people drive it—because otherwise nobody’s going to give us a check for a hundred grand. But it was also dangerous, because these cars are still being engineered and sometimes these are shitty drivers. We’d have these spirited debates. We needed to sell these cars or we weren’t going to survive.” Siry said.
Siry was tasked with overseeing the design and build-out of Tesla’s first retail showroom in Santa Monica, CA. Inspired by the clean, minimalist aesthetic of Apple stores, the Santa Monica Place location at the edge of Santa Monica’s Dogtown neighborhood allowed would-be buyers to inspect Roadsters in a no-pressure, commission-free environment—a showroom tactic first offered, incidentally, by Saturn (“A Different Kind of Car Company”) in the early 1990s. As innovative as Saturn’s approaches to manufacturing and sales were, however, the company ended up yet another casualty of a fickle American car-buying public by late 2010.

A key component of Tesla’s success was the implementation and communication of its now-legendary Customer Referral Program, which picked up on a successful scheme Musk had developed to promote his first internet company,, where he paid customers $20 to sign up and rewarded them with an additional $10 for each customer they referred to his new business-search platform. Musk used this same sales promotion formula at PayPal and later at Tesla, where he offered handsome incentives for Tesla buyers to use their referral codes to encourage people in their social networks to buy a Tesla, too. 
The genius behind the customer referral program is the diffusion of innovations theory, which explains how new ideas, movements, products or services spread and gain popularity or acceptance among their target audiences. Author Les Robinson defined innovation as ideas, behaviors or objects that are perceived as new by their audiences. His writings explored 1) what makes innovations spread; 2) the role of peer-to-peer conversations and networks in helping them spread; and 3) the need to understand different user segments—from innovators to early adopters to the early majority, late majority and laggards—and the specific strategies to use to leverage each segment’s unique needs, feedback and values to drive adoption. Robinson calls this process reinvention—which I like to think of as evolution or kaizen (a process of continual improvement)—and it leverages the insights and feedback of die-hard consumers in the development and refinement of a product over the course of its lifecycle. 
One key to the diffusion of innovations theory is the importance of peer-to-peer networks to drive adoption—what Elon Musk often refers to as “network effects.” The data shows that one-to-one, personal conversations spread adoption more effectively because a recommendation or endorsement from a trusted friend or key influencer mitigates risk and uncertainty—the two factors that quench the fires of adoption the most. 
Tesla’s original customer referral program was legendary in its scope and appeal: Refer enough future Tesla buyers and you could win a dazzling new Roadster yourself, plus other benefits along the way.

“Word of mouth has always been a major part of how Tesla sales have grown. When I meet Tesla owners, one of the first things they often tell me is how they have convinced many others to buy the car.”
 —Elon Musk, email to Model S customers, 2015

Early on, Musk and his team had created enough excitement about Tesla that customers were using word-of-mouth before any formal program existed. When the customer referral program was first introduced, referring a friend to buy a Tesla would earn you a $1,000 credit with Tesla and your friend would also get $1,000 off on his or her new Tesla Model S. This “double-sided” rewards scheme was shown to yield a 40x return on investment for the company.
If you racked up 10 successful referrals, you would be first in line to buy a “Founder’s Series” Model X that Musk himself would check out before you ever got behind the wheel.
Those who made five referrals got invited to an exclusive grand opening celebration at the Gigafactory. For the next iteration of the program, Musk raised the stakes, offering $1,000 in Tesla credit for new customers while also creating a competition, offering the person with the most referrals a free Tesla P90S sedan replete with home charging station and an invite to the Gigafactory party. The winner of this particular competition actually racked up 188 referrals—or $16 million in sales—delivering a 119x return on investment. 
The third iteration of the customer referral program gave referring owners $1,200 in Tesla credit and entered them in a raffle to visit SpaceX in Hawthorne, CA.
As the customer referral program became more popular (it’s now at version 9), it also became unsustainable. Tesla had to reconfigure it to keep it going without breaking the bank.
Andy Slye—a 30-something YouTube™ vlogger who wasn’t in a position to afford a Model 3 until 2018—parlayed his engaging Tesla videos on YouTube™ as a way to become the world’s leading Tesla referrer, with more than 1,200 referrals to date. This achievement won Andy two Next Generation Founders’ Series Roadsters—retailing at $250,000 each—plus an almost endless supply of “lesser” prizes, including Supercharging, invites to exclusive Tesla unveilings, sets of custom Tesla rims, apparel and invitations and perks unavailable to the general public.
Today, referral perks give the referrer and the referred customer 1,000 miles of Supercharging (worth about $112), plus an entry into a drawing to win a “Model Y monthly or a Roadster supercar quarterly,” according to Tesla’s website.

By the end of 2008, Darryl Siry was through with marketing Tesla, citing “strategic differences,” and he left the company to found a media startup called NewBasis, “an online service for PR professionals and journalists which aimed to provide a low-cost platform for small businesses to engage in PR in a cost-effective manner.” Whether his departure was related to the “difficult time” Musk and Tesla Motors were going through at the time may never be known, but the strat comms insights Siry learned during his tenure at Tesla clearly resonated with business owners during the Great Recession, as Siry’s NewBasis company raised $685,000 in venture capital and grew to serve an installed base of 10,000 clients by 2011.

Musk announces the original Roadster will be shelved. The company begins work on two vehicles built entirely from scratch, based on the innovations the company had learned on its way to becoming a car company. On the drawing board? The Model S and Model X.
Not long after Siry’s departure, Musk brought on Ricardo Reyes—a communications and policy veteran of the George W. Bush White House—as Tesla’s vp of global communications and strategic marketing. Reyes joined Tesla after serving as director of communications and public affairs for Google’s YouTube™, so he was well-versed in crisis, litigation and policy communications as well as understanding the titans of Silicon Valley technology companies.
In the months following the dark days of 2008 and less-than-stellar consumer sentiment surrounding Tesla, Reyes was tasked to rebuild the company’s communications team and regain the trust of journalists and consumers amidst skyrocketing sales and increasing scrutiny of Tesla and its communications practices. Reyes led the company’s strat comms efforts through Tesla’s initial public offering in 2010 and he is credited with selling out of all the original Tesla Roadsters without investing a dime in traditional automotive advertising. Reyes went on to oversee the successful launches of Tesla’s flagship Model S and the falcon-winged Model X as well.

Musk’s stable of strat comms pros—as brilliant and capable as they all are—had the undeniable advantage of having a Tony Stark/Ironman-like figure, Elon Musk, who could always be counted on to do interesting things that grabbed the world’s imagination. Like Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson—nicknamed “the undisputed king of PR stunts” by the British press—before him, Musk delighted in leveraging his growing celebrity and his other companies to fuel the media-hype machine. Where adventurous Branson was the fastest to fly a hot air balloon—the Virgin Atlantic Flyer—across the Atlantic, Musk launched his own Tesla Roadster—including a space-suited mannequin called “Rocketman”—into space aboard an early SpaceX rocket. When the launch was live-streamed, 2.3 million fans tuned in to watch the spectacle. Where Branson bungee-jumped off the Palms Resort Casino in Las Vegas and drove across the English Channel in an amphibious car to promote his Virgin enterprises, Musk’s stunts tended to be equally press-worthy but much more purpose-driven. When Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, Musk donated hundreds of Tesla Powerwall battery backs and photovoltaic solar arrays to Puerto Rico to provide electricity until its power grid could be restored. The same year, when a power crisis in South Australia threatened residents and businesses there, Musk bet that he could install the world’s largest lithium-ion battery pack in 100 days—or he would eat the $50 million cost. (Not surprisingly, he won the bet.) These and dozens of other interesting actions made Elon Musk and Tesla “the darling of Silicon Valley bloggers,” from Charged to Electrek, CleanTechnica and Teslarati, to name a few, according to Musk biographer Ashlee Vance. This positive coverage helped further cement the relationship between Tesla and its worldwide fans. Musk enthused, “It sold them an image, a feeling, they were tapping into the future, a relationship.”

It’s not just that Tesla spent $0 on advertising over the past 18 years; they also spent $0 on boosted or promoted social media posts, unlike legacy automakers around the world, whose social media boosting budgets approached 50% of their TV budgets by 2019, collectively adding up in the billions of dollars. Like with so many other aspects of its strat comms, Musk and his team found a way to get in front of millions of eyeballs for free.

Social Media
Without a doubt, the rise of social media and its inherent network effects has been a gamechanger for Tesla’s media-zero marketing strategy. To millions of global Tesla fans, social media quickly surpassed car magazines, blogs and zines in popularity.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, “Tesla sells a fraction of the cars of other automakers, but has the largest combined following on social media channels like YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.” 
Once again, the central figure in Tesla’s domination of social media is Elon Musk, whose now 50 million followers on Twitter look forward to his frequent and sometimes enigmatic tweets. As of April 2021, Musk has tweeted nearly 14,000 times and generated millions of retweets through the network effects of his massive base. By way of contrast, Tesla’s official Twitter account currently has 8.8 million followers, or about 18% of that of Musk.

User-Generated Content 
Thanks to Tesla’s generous and enticing customer referral program, it was a no-brainer for clever content creators to begin producing videos, vlogs, memes and other user-generated content that effectively replaced huge advertising spends for the automaker. Among automakers, this activity was peculiar to Tesla and coincided with the emergence of what scholar Henry Jenkins called “convergence culture, where old and new media collide.” 
“We were doing things differently because the environment allowed and required that kind of creativity. It was born out of necessity in a point of time when there was a sort of convergence. You could do things differently, because there was no risk in doing things differently.” Siry said.
The structural changes throughout the media landscape around the time of the Great Recession brought to life this idea of convergence—or the ability for fans and followers to quickly and easily capture, amend, modify and share texts or images— and this convergence vastly broadened the audience and reach of messages, further monetizing attention for Tesla. 
Consider the case of user-generated “Tesla commercials” on YouTube™: The top five amateur-made Tesla “commercials” have nearly 1 million views—arguably to high-intent viewers (why else would they watch if they weren’t already favorable to Tesla or EVs in general?)—all without Tesla needing to spend a single dime, either for production or distribution. These commercials received hundreds of thousands of likes and shares and, in some cases, helped to launch or appreciably add to the careers and portfolios of their creators. As Jenkins wrote, “audiences … are demanding the right to participate within the culture. Producers who fail to make their peace with … participatory culture will face … diminished revenues.”
At the end of the day, however, what’s good for creators is ultimately good for Tesla, as the creators kept creating—and reaping the rewards.
Self-taught YouTube™ creator and Tesla referral king Andy Slye’s top three Tesla videos have garnered more than 5 million views, earning him between $20,000 and $85,000 in ad revenues. Slye’s real-world profession? He’s a wedding videographer from Louisville, KY.
Popular YouTube™ tech reviewer Marques Brownlee’s top three Tesla videos have 19 million views. Brownlee, a self-taught top tech vlogger and Tesla fan, has 12 million subscribers on YouTube™ and a net worth of $5 million from his popular vlog and podcast, called MKBHD.
To add to the user-generated content mix, the top three user-generated videos showing the reactions of unsuspecting passengers to Tesla’s “insane mode” and “ludicrous mode” and drag races between Teslas and supercars have garnered nearly 22 million views on YouTube™.

Social Sharing
Tesla fans, owners’ groups and aftermarket product merchandisers on Twitter amplify Musk’s tweets and Tesla news faster and farther than any traditional media channel can touch. Perhaps the most engaging Tesla tactic of all is the simplest: when proud new Tesla owners post photos of themselves and their families standing next to their shiny new vehicles—often with gleeful messages raving about how cool the car is or how wonderful the purchasing and delivery service was—these tweets invariably generate huge numbers of “likes” and retweets from Tesla owners’ groups, fans and from Elon Musk himself. This last bit is one of the most vital, as it illustrates that, from the head office on down, listening and responding to customers and critics—engaging in true dialogue, as today’s marketing and PR folks like to phrase it—has become a hallmark of Tesla’s brand.

The Tesla Motors Club
Not all of the strat comms magic around the Tesla brand came from within the company. One of the brand’s most popular and long-standing organic channels is the Tesla Motors Club, established in 2006 to “facilitate communication, sharing of information and exchanges.” Today, the Tesla Motors Club continues to inform, inspire and share the Tesla brand with an installed base of 143,000 members, 205,000 active daily conversations and nearly 5.5 million messages shared over its long history. Founded by psychologist and clean tech enthusiast Daniel Sacks, the Tesla Motors Club calls itself “the first independent online Tesla community,” and claims it is “the largest and most dynamic international community of Tesla owners and enthusiasts.” 

I find it fascinating that Elon Musk, the uber-geeky kid from South Africa whose original pickup line to his first wife, Justine, was, “I spend a lot of time thinking about electric cars. Do you think about electric cars?” learned, over time, to become what author Tim Wu would call an attention merchant—meaning that if you can capture people’s attention and keep them coming back for more, you can monetize it. Attention merchantry reached its zenith in the early 21st century by the rise of social media influencers like the Kardashians and what Wu called “the riveting spectacle of Trump.” 
“Elon is an extraordinary asset for media,” Siry said. “Everyone wanted to talk to him. Vanity Fair had him on the cover. We shut down the frickin’ highway in L.A. just to take pictures of Elon and the car.”
Whether by happenstance or by design, Musk quickly learned how to become a master of attention merchantry—and his growing celebrity and controversial statements only added to Tesla’s exposure. Books will be written about Musk’s very public tangles with negative car reviewers, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and his epic Twitter wars with Tesla “shorts,” or stock traders who bet millions that Tesla’s stock would fall and the company would ultimately go bankrupt. But, as Bill Gates famously said, “Underestimating Elon is not a good idea.” Musk loathed these short-sellers and reveled in proving them wrong (and rubbing their noses in it), to the point where he had thousands of pairs of red satin “short shorts” made, which debuted on the Tesla website in July 2020 and which sold out in minutes, nearly taking down the site. In a moment of gleeful gloating, Musk tweeted, “I am become meme, Destroyer of shorts”. (sic) 
Like Sir Richard Branson before him, Musk was able to leverage the art of attention merchantry to benefit Tesla and his own personal brand—capitalizing on the captivation of an American (and increasingly, global) society trained for more than 100 years to trade its attention for entertainment, sensationalism, pageantry or a combination of all three. 

Switzer, Siry and Reyes each kept a firm hand on the wheel in creating content for Tesla’s foundational strat comms channels, from the Tesla website to weekly email blasts to curating and managing a robust Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram presence. Despite wearing dozens of hats, Switzer, Siry and Reyes all moved mountains to re-engineer Tesla’s “owned media” channels into best practices for modern strat comms.

Since its inception, the Tesla website has been strictly business: Focused, clean and transactional. Not a word or a click is wasted. The navigation is straightforward and designed to drive the viewer to purchase. Only Amazon’s 1-Click ordering system makes purchasing a product easier—and Tesla is undoubtedly working on that. This mastery of online car-buying obviates the need for a massive network of Tesla showrooms in every city and town and is ultimately much more profitable for the company, with more dollars returning directly to Tesla’s bottom line rather than subsidizing showrooms, commissioned salespeople or supporting cooperative advertising. Tesla’s site is so efficiently engineered, you can purchase a vehicle that you design in as few as four or five clicks of the mouse. 
If you’re in the mood to learn more about the broader Tesla ecosystem, you can also check out the Tesla Semi, Powerwall, Solar Roof, Commercial Solar, schedule a test drive of a new Tesla, or order logo apparel, Tesla Tequila or branded accessories.

Email Marketing 
Tesla’s marketing team has mastered the art of “just enough” email communications, limiting this form of messaging to no more than once a week to those who have opted in. Like all things Tesla, the design is minimalist, the writing spare and the messaging varied, relevant and interesting, from vehicle model availability updates to solar roofing offers to Powerwall facts and stats for homeowners. The subtle, minimalist approach keeps the brand in front of the customer but never feels salesy or overbearing to the point where the recipient would want to opt-out of the subscription.

A New, Proprietary Engagement Platform
As part of its tireless efforts to connect, listen and dialogue with current and prospective customers, Tesla launched its own proprietary strat comms platform—the Tesla Engagement Hub—at, in early 2021. According to the site, 
“Engage Tesla is a new platform for both Tesla's public policy team and Tesla Owner's Clubs. Its goal is to create a digital home base … (and) make it easier for Tesla community members to learn what's top of mind for us, take meaningful action, and stay in the loop.” 
This new Tesla Engagement Hub is actually the successor to the venerable Tesla Forums section—hosted for many years on the main Tesla website—where owners and prospects could share information and learn more about the nuances of electric-vehicle ownership. While the old Tesla Forums contained a fair amount of snarky comments, prospects are good that the new, more curated Tesla Engagement Hub will spare readers from untoward remarks by EV snobs, promising a more satisfying user experience.

Tesla launches the worlds’ first high-performance luxury sedan—the Model S—which is named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 2013 in the publication’s first-ever unanimous vote. It receives a 99/100 score from Consumer Reports (the highest score ever awarded) and receives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 5-star rating for safety—the highest safety rating awarded in the history of the NHTSA. 
In 2012, Ricardo Reyes moved over to Square, the payment processing service founded by Jack Dorsey of Twitter fame. Two years later, Reyes was lured back as Tesla’s vice president for global communications, where he headed up all aspects of strat comms for the company, including oversight of the company’s website, email, social, press and media relations, auto shows and customer events. Then, in late 2016, Reyes abruptly left, moving on to do strat comms for vacuum and hand-dryer innovator Dyson in the UK.

One unsung—and unexpected—hero of Tesla marketing is none other than Franz Von Holzhausen, the gifted automotive designer whose pencils and pens sketched the shapes and interiors of the Model S, X, 3, Y and the new Roadster. In keeping with Lauterborn’s 4Cs, Von Holzhausen stepped in in 2012 to conduct priceless consumer research to discover the wants of a particular group of consumers—women—when the data showed that 86.7% of the buyers of Tesla vehicles were men.
In spite of the mythology circulating that Elon Musk’s keen intellect and Einsteinian insights drove all advances at Tesla, the truth is a little more pedestrian. In 2012, when it became clear that Tesla was only appealing to about half of the car-buyers in America, the company set out to do deliberate market research to attract women—the other half of the U.S. car-buying market—to the company’s innovative and luxurious electric cars, to help the company hit its aggressive sales target of a half-million vehicles annually. Understanding what women really wanted in a vehicle would only help Tesla achieve its goals.
In 2012, von Holzhausen brought in a dozen women to the company’s Palo Alto headquarters and asked them what they were looking for most in a vehicle. These “soccer moms” tended to be minivan or SUV drivers who spent a fair amount of time hauling kids and grandparents to events and appointments around town. The women reported they were concerned about 1) safety, 2) a third row of seats and 3) getting kids into car seats and elderly parents in and out of the vehicle easily. This and other research revealed that women prefer an elevated seating position found in SUVs and minivans, because it conveys a sense of command of the road and safety. While women buy only 40% of the total automobiles in the U.S., they buy 53% of small SUVs and slightly less than half of small premium SUVs, according to J.D Power & Associates, data which likely helped make the business case for the sleek, falcon-winged Model X SUV. According to (2017), for the first nine months of Model X sales, 29.5% of buyers were women. During the same time frame, only 14% of Model S sedan buyers were women.
Despite the myth and mystery around much of Tesla’s innerworkings, the company has always been rigorous about practicing design thinking and leveraging unique consumer insights to build a better product. Nevertheless, quixotic Elon Musk seems to delight in making public appearances and saying controversial things to keep the media and the masses guessing. For example, when Musk boasted that Tesla did “zero market research” on the new Cybertruck design, that’s simply not the case, as in this verified tweet from the summer of 2019:
What would you love to see in a Tesla pickup truck? I have a few things in mind, but what do you think are small, but important nuances & what would be seriously next level?
And this follow-up a few months later, thanking Twitter followers for not holding back on new product ideas for the Cybertruck:
Huge thanks to everyone who contributed ideas to Cybertruck. It's better because of you! <3<3<3

Musk bets big once again by announcing plans for the world’s first “Gigafactory” to scale the production of lithium-ion batteries so they can become affordable enough to produce affordable, mass-market electric vehicles. After furious tax-incentive competition from a number of U.S. states, Gigafactory 1 is awarded to a site in northern Nevada, near Reno. When completed, the 5.7 million sq. ft. facility will have the largest footprint of any structure in the world.
Back at Tesla headquarters, a series of negative stories about product defects, delivery delays and “production hell” began to impact consumer confidence. Reservation holders became increasingly hesitant to take delivery, so Musk orders 500 employees to get on the phone and talk to hesitant buyers so they will follow through with their purchases. As the crisis continues, Musk makes a handshake deal with Larry Page of Google to buy Tesla for $6 billion, with a clause stating Musk would remain for eight years to get Model 3 launched. Musk’s “dialing for dollars” strategy works. Tesla shows a modest profit of $11 million on $562 sales and its stock skyrockets from $30 to $130 a share. Musk is able to pay off his $465 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy and consumer confidence increases once again. 
Worldwide, 2014 is a big year for the company, as Tesla opens up its intellectual property for other automakers to access for free, another step in the mission of accelerating the world’s transition to renewable energy. The global supply of Superchargers grows to 221, with 119 of those in the U.S. alone. The company also releases Autopilot, a technology that aids drivers with semi-autonomous driving and parking.
In 2015, the Model X debuts after long and expensive delays producing the SUV’s signature “falcon wing” rear passenger doors. The doors were more than cosmetic; early consumer research found that parents were frustrated at how difficult it was to access child seats and children from the back seats of traditional sliding- or opening-door minivans and SUVs. The sensor-rich falcon doors were designed to detect adjacent vehicles, walls or ceilings and avoid collisions with them upon opening.
A bit later in 2015, Musk teases the idea of an affordable car for the masses—the Model 3, a smaller four door sedan with 5.6-second 0-60 acceleration, 220 miles of range and a price tag starting at $35,000 after rebates. Half a million consumers pre-order the Model 3, but supply-chain and production problems drag on the number of Model 3s delivered for the first several years of production.

In 2015, Musk announced the car everyone had been waiting for—the $35,000 Model 3—the model that heralded the company’s entry into the lucrative mass market. This announcement marked Musk’s ultimate do-or-die, chasm-crossing bet on the company achieving its goal of sustainability. 
Back in 1991, Silicon Valley author Geoffrey A. Moore wrote a book called “Crossing the Chasm,” which posited that, in any industry, there are five distinct audiences for your products or services. These audiences are 1) the innovators, 2) the early adopters,2) the early majority, 4) the late majority and 5) the laggards. In Moore’s view, there is a great gulf—which he calls “The Chasm”—between early adopters and the next audience, the early majority—and there’s only one way to bridge that chasm: a “bet the company,” lean, mean and exquisitely market-oriented approach to finding out exactly what the customer’s needs are and filling those needs.
Enter the Tesla Model 3—the chasm-crossing Tesla for the rest of us.
In any industry, “crossing the chasm” requires intense focus, immense effort and the ability to shift gears in strat comms style. It’s three-dimensional chess, but for a company like Tesla, it’s just another high-risk day at the office.
When the Model 3 was revealed in March of 2016, 455,000 potential car buyers plunked down $1,000 each as a deposit on the new Tesla—long envisioned as the solution to help the company cross the chasm from the innovators (Roadster) to the early adopters (Model S and Model X) to the early majority, where Tesla would achieve the broad market presence it had long sought. If this strategy succeeded, Tesla would become stable and profitable—a fact on which Elon Musk’s future and salary entirely depended. For more than a year, Wall Street analysts had bemoaned Tesla’s Model 3 production woes, its “burn rate” (the amount of cash the company went through in an effort to become profitable) and the very competence of Elon Musk himself.
Drawing on the wisdom of Moore’s lecture to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs about ways to eliminate the startup chasm altogether, there are four adoption strategies a company can take to make the transition. The key insight Moore reveals is that you have to know about the innovators/early adopters/early majority/late majority/laggards model and you have to know that the strategy that made you successful winning over innovators will not work winning over the next cohort, the early adopters and so forth. In effect, a company and its strat comms pros need to execute four or five different adoption strategies as they move from cohort to cohort in the product-adoption lifecycle. 
To cross the chasm, Moore advised companies to bite off more than they can chew and find a way to get it done. This is what Elon Musk did with his ambitious 5,000-unit production goal for the Model 3, despite the fact that ramping up production, in Musk’s own words, was “hell.” 
Moore also advised focusing on a specific use, as the key to crossing the chasm is a laser-like focus on the express or felt need of the mass market. For Model 3, it was the need for everyday people to do something they could afford to do to address the climate crisis. Because the U.S. gave up its leadership role on climate by pulling out of the Paris Agreement between 2016-2020, Elon Musk wisely turned to China for additional manufacturing capacity, because China views the warming climate as a real crisis. With Joe Biden in the White House, chances are good that the U.S. will once again take up the mantle of climate leadership and reinstate federal tax incentives for EV buyers—a move that will be good for the planet—and good for Tesla.
Moore also recommended that companies “catch a wave while it is peaking,” because the window for success is a narrow one. His maxim to “deliver on the MVP (minimum viable product)” and convince people you can do what you promised to do” is a classic Musk move repeated time and again, although that approach has also brought criticism for Musk's habit of “overpromising” throughout his career—although he inevitably manages to deliver. 
Finally, Moore emphasized the idea—much like Lauterborn—of cultivating a relationship and feedback loop. In Moore’s view, the customer group known as “innovators” are a company’s “beta testers”; the group known as “early adopters” are needy and full of ideas (some of which a company has to ignore to stay focused); and the group known as the “early majority” are primed to provide a real sounding board for current and future builds. 
Crossing the chasm is a breathtaking leap requiring a “bet-the-company” attitude and the ability to shift gears in strat comms style. With the Model 3, Tesla was finally able to cross the chasm to profitability and record market capitalization.

2017. Tesla wins accolades from Consumer Reports magazine as the nation’s top automotive brand. Always the showman, Musk stuns the automotive press by announcing a gorgeous and fast new Roadster, boasting a 0-60 mph time of 1.9 seconds, a 620-mile range and a top speed of 250 mph. Musk set his sights on the unobtanium supercars of the world, saying the new Roadster was “a hardcore smackdown to gasoline cars.” Scheduled to begin production in 2020, the new Roadster’s price tag is as flashy as its performance: $200,000+ a copy.
2018. Tesla announces the Model Y, the company’s first compact SUV, built on the Model 3 platform. The company also announces a “game-changing” new pickup truck designed to compete with Ford’s wildly popular F-150, as well as a cheaper Tesla economy model built to compete for the millions of buyers in the massive lower end of the automotive market.
2019. In perhaps the most viral new product announcement of all time, Musk unveils the “polarizing” Cybertruck in Hawthorne, CA on November 21, 2019. The six-seater “low-poly” design by Franz Von Holzhausen creates a worldwide stir for its unusual aesthetics that harken back to the primitive vehicles from early video games. To date, nearly 715,000 buyers have put down $100 deposits for the Cybertruck, which features muscular performance, a bulletproof ultra-hard 30X cold-rolled stainless-steel structural skin and (reportedly) bulletproof glass to protect the vehicle’s occupants. 
 2020. The global pandemic strikes the U.S. and Tesla’s factories are severely impacted by shutdown orders from California Governor Gavin Newsom. By years’ end, however, Tesla reaches a milestone of 500,000 vehicles manufactured in a single year, a gain of more than 33% from the company’s previous-year record. As a result, Tesla’s market valuation touches $675 billion in February of 2021.

On the road to disrupting the global automotive industry, Tesla paved the way for a ludicrously effective new model of strat comms—one that has largely left its competitors in the dust. After all, if you can effectively market your products globally without spending billions on advertising like your competitors do, those resources can enhance the bottom line, be plowed back into making products that delight customers, change the world or fund extravagant stretch goals like, say, colonizing Mars.
The company founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning was visionary to begin with, picking up on an innovation that started in the late 19th century but had to wait until technologies caught up with its original promise more than 100 years later. What was truly remarkably, in my view, was that Tesla Motors as originally envisioned would probably have ended up going the way of the Edsel if Elon Musk hadn’t come along, equipped with his unique way of looking at large-scale problems—and how to effectively communicate about them—and using that mindset to literally engineer opportunities that led to success. 

“Tesla & Ford are the only American carmakers not to have gone bankrupt out of 1000’s of car startups. Prototypes are easy, production is hard & being cash flow positive is excruciating.” 
—Elon Musk on Twitter, March 4, 2021

Whether intentionally or even peripherally aware that advanced manufacturing—the use of innovative technology to improve products or processes—could be leveraged to win the hearts and minds of consumers worldwide, Musk grasped the opportunities before him and directed the strat comms that would fuel one of the greatest surges in market capitalization of any company in history.
With his unique, intuitive insights into consumer behavior—Musk is as likely to say “the public responds to precedents and superlatives” as he is to say, “get out there on the goddamn front line and show them that you care, and that you’re not just in some plush office somewhere”—he nevertheless adhered to a highly disciplined work ethic in building cars and promoting them. What’s more, Musk has always made efforts to be transparent—often bracingly so—to his fans.
He had a plan to succeed, which he clearly articulated in his Secret Master Plan.
He was a man on a mission that was clear, unassailable, tapped into the zeitgeist and addressed a global concern.
He listened to customers and amplified their voices, gathered their feedback and promised to fix their problems with future product or software updates on Twitter, in interviews and across all of Tesla’s strat comms channels.
Throughout Tesla’s lifecycle, though, Musk been particularly hard on strat comms professionals. As biographer Vance noted, “Musk has burned through PR staffers with comical efficiency. He tends to take on a lot of the comms himself,” but later noted, “Musk is less artful with marketing and PR strategy … (he) does not rehearse his presentations or polish speeches. He wings most of the announcements for Tesla or SpaceX. Elon himself acknowledged this shortcoming, saying, “I’ve got to give impromptu talks, and the results may vary,” Vance wrote.
Switzer, Siry and Reyes all left Tesla after relatively short stays, amid “strategic differences” or perhaps worse. Nevertheless, the Musk mystique continues and Tesla has gone on to gain market share, fans and followers around the globe.

The final nail in Tesla’s traditional strat comms coffin came in the fall of 2020 when Musk dissolved the company’s in-house public relations department—long a vital link in the way Tesla communicated with its army of automotive journalists, business publications, influencers, bloggers, YouTubers, fan sites and social media followers—an unprecedented development in the 135-year history of the automotive industry.
Musk and his now smaller team may have engineered a way to do strat comms that works for Tesla—for now. In an age of disruption, though, there will inevitably be paradigm shifts ahead. I have no doubt Musk and the brilliant people around him will find a way to turn those shifts to Tesla’s advantage, because that’s what they do. Breaking things down and re-engineering them is simply a part of Tesla’s DNA.
As Leon C. Megginson wrote, in interpreting Charles Darwin’s’ The Origin of Species, “it is not the most intellectual (and) not the strongest that survives; but the species … that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” 
Perhaps, like Switzer’s deep-sea creatures that find a way to thrive, Tesla has managed to harness the technologies and process improvements of the day to engineer its own bespoke, highly effective and optimizable strat comms ecosystem that, like Tesla itself, has set a new standard of excellence for the world.

"This business is not about selling stuff. It’s about creating strong provocative relationships between good companies and their customers. Those relationships will feed the business, but you have to create them first.”
—Dan Wieden, Chairman, Wieden + Kennedy