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The Psychology Behind Elon Musk’s $0 Tesla Marketing Strategy

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There are few brands as groundbreaking and industry making as Tesla. Lots of companies have tried — and failed — to create an electric car that was widely adopted, but Tesla not only made electric cars mainstream, it made them sexy. In the process, Tesla became one of the biggest companies on the planet and made CEO Elon Musk one of the richest people in the world. But why have Tesla succeeded where others have failed? And the most mind boggling thing — how have they managed to do it with zero dollar Tesla marketing budget?

That’s right — Elon Musk hates advertising and refuses to pay for it.

On the surface, it might seem like this hatred of advertising is a recipe for disaster, but Tesla does have some secret weapons that have helped them succeed. Today we’re going to talk about three psychological tactics that have helped Tesla grow so big, so fast. All with (supposedly) spending zero dollars on marketing. 

1. Tesla’s Cult Psychology

Not since Steve Jobs has the world seen a CEO quite like Elon Musk — he’s a modern folk hero, with the following to match.

The Muskateers, as they’re called, helped propel Tesla into the spotlight from its earliest days. They grabbed onto the media narrative about Elon’s life and his vision for Tesla.

That story paints him as a self-made man — equal parts engineer, leader of men, futurist, and let’s not forget — meme lord supreme.You might not know that Musk didn’t found Tesla. He was involved from their earliest round of funding and the website credits him as co-founder, but he’s actually the company’s fourth CEO.

Part of what makes Tesla popular is Elon’s reputation. He has a lot in common with the type of folks who were early Tesla drivers — educated, rich tech bros. These guys wanted a sports car that said something about who they were as people.

Not that they cared about the environment so much as they wanted to look cool and be admired for their smarts, all while driving a futuristic spaceship down the highway. That’s a different strategy than a lot of electric car companies that came before them (the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight were about as unsexy as you could make a car).

But Elon knew if he created a vision and a community around Tesla, that the Muskateers and techbros would clamor to become a part of it. The psychology behind this strategy is a principle called Unity.

What is Unity?

Coined by professor Robert Cialdini, the Unity Principle says that we’re influenced by people we think are connected to us. That might mean a religion, political party, family ties, or going to the same school. According to Cialdini,

“A key characteristic of these categories is that their members tend to feel [merged with] the others.
They are the categories in which the conduct of one member influences the self-esteem of other members.”

Tesla’s brand and Elon’s story created a feeling of unity with Tesla mega fans. They’re all smart, innovative, and interested in emerging tech. Those early customers created the momentum Tesla needed to go from niche automaker to mainstream success.

(And if you want to learn more about Cialdini's principles of influence, check out my articles on Reciprocity and Social Proof.)

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2. Elon Musk’s Charisma is the Tesla Marketing Strategy

You can’t talk about a cult without talking about its charismatic leader. In this case it’s Technoking — yes, that’s his official title — Elon Musk.

He has a Twitter following north of 59 million people. He wants to go to Mars. He dates celebrities, is one of the world’s richest people, and his hobbies include building flamethrowers and feuding with Jeff Bezos.

In short, he’s charismatic. And people are incredibly attracted to charisma.

But what’s the psychology behind charisma? What is it, and why do we love it so much?

What’s the Psychology Behind Charisma?

Charisma is a type of charm that can inspire loyalty, love, and enthusiasm in other people. Researchers have found that in uncertain times, and potentially in newly defined markets like electric cars, charisma seems to be even more powerful. Potentially because people are searching for leaders who seem to know all the answers, in times when most people are less sure about what the future holds.

But what makes someone charismatic? According to studies, the biggest predictor of charisma is a trait called mental speed. Basically, are you a quick thinker? Do you always have a witty answer ready to go immediately after someone asks a question? If so, you’re probably pretty charismatic.

And Musk is the definition of a quick thinker.

Like Jeff Bezos and Amazon, or Bill Gates and Microsoft, Elon Musk is a walking advertisement for Tesla. The difference is, Elon uses his personal brand power better than all of them combined.

Elon Musk has built himself into the planet’s most recognizable CEO. And he’s a living, breathing piece of Tesla marketing. So he might not spend a penny on advertising, but Musk himself — along with his stock options — is the world’s most expensive advertisement.

3. Tesla Made Electric a Status Symbol

Tesla has always been a product focused brand. That doesn’t make them much different from other car brands, who also realize that a great product is the world’s best marketing plan.

But Tesla did something different. When they launched the Roadster, they created something that was innovative and stylish. Like the iPhone, style paired with performance can get people really excited about your product.

You can see that same combination of style and substance in its recent Cybertruck launch. This thing looks crazy, but it also looks kind of cool. Unlike the Prius.

Tesla Cybertruck

Source: Adobe Stock

The Psychology Behind Status

This combination of fashion and innovation also helped make electric a status symbol. And psychologists know that trying to attain status is a powerful driver of human behavior. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga put it this way,

“When you get up in the morning…you think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers.”

When buying a product represents having a higher social status, people start to crave that item. It satisfies a psychological need to achieve status, not only for your own self-image, but to project to the world that this is who you are and what you’re about.

The Bottom Line

Driving a car is an emotional experience. And if you’re a young company that has to decide where every dollar goes, it makes sense to throw everything at making the best product possible. And once you get a potential owner excited and having an amazing experience in your car, the sale is just a matter of money in the bank. As Elon Musk himself put it,

“Great companies are built on great products.”

So while there may not be a Tesla marketing budget, that money is being used in two very important places: leveraging Elon Musk's self-promotional abilities, and creating the best product possible.

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About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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