The Elon Musk Leadership Model: 3 Key Steps To Building Radical Brand Evangelism

Simon Mainwaring

Last week, Elon Musk unveiled the much-anticipated Tesla Model 3, which is set for release in 2017 at a starting price of $35,000. Much has been written about the car itself, encompassing everything from its affordable price point to its standard autopilot feature. Yet perhaps the most impressive feature of the launch is not the car, but its future drivers.

After only five days, Tesla has racked up over 275,000 pre-orders – a staggering number outright when you consider the audacity of launching a car that is yet to be built or driven by potential buyers. Yet the reputation of the brand and its driver-friendly marketing strategies — including a $1,000 refundable deposit — has ushered in a new generation of drivers inspired to revolutionize the auto industry at the side of Elon Musk.


Tesla Model 3

Launch Gallery

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The Model 3’s success began with the introduction of the Tesla brand itself over 10 years ago. Rather than merely launch a revolutionary auto brand, Musk was very clear that the mission of Tesla was “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport.” In fact, he (not so secretly) shared his “Master Plan” in a blog post on August 2, 2006:

1. Build sports car

2. Use that money to build an affordable car

3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car

4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

5. Don’t tell anyone

This “Master Plan” has unfolded before our eyes, but not without course corrections along the way. Initially, Musk intended to protect Tesla’s valuable battery technology IP, as you would expect any automaker to do. But on reflection in the context of his stated mission, Musk wrote: “Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

Musk changed his mind in response to undeniable facts that would increasingly affect all of humanity. As Musk stated, ‘“I don’t think people quite appreciate the gravity of what is going on [with regard to global warming] or just how much inertia the climate has. We really need to do something. It would be shortsighted if we try to hold these things close to our vest.”

With that decision, Musk demonstrated that Tesla is a mission with a company, not a company with a mission. And in doing so, he set the standard for next-gen marketing that leverages social technologies to build an effective movement, rather than launch a brand or product.

Let’s examine the three keys steps he took to achieve this:

1. Inspire a movement: By defining the brand around a higher purpose and the socially conscious values that it shares with a growing number of drivers, Musk ensured from the outset that his marketing would cut through the clutter of typical auto industry advertising. This allowed Musk to make counter-intuitive decisions such as his infinity mile warranty, partnerships with other auto brands, and opening his intellectual property, to ignite both consumer loyalty and earned media. It also allowed him to accelerate growth without utilizing more traditional avenues, such as national advertising campaigns or chief marketing officers, by educating drivers and fans about the role they can play as brand ambassadors in the movement. This strategy was used to powerful effect when the company announced its referral program, in which existing drivers are rewarded for inspiring purchases by their friends.

2. Elevate the brand: The Tesla Model S did more than just make the concept of a performance electric vehicle a reality—it inspired Tesla to make electric vehicles as desirable as the most high-performance incumbents, and elevated the brand in the process. This not only sent competitors scrambling to justify their respective merits on both performance and efficiency terms, but it pigeonholed them as old-tech gas guzzlers in the growing debate around the need for alternative fuel vehicles. In doing this, Musk drew a stark line between the past and the future, between fear and hope, between powerlessness and power of consumers to make a difference through their purchases, especially one as important as what car to drive. By launching the brand with a model that married higher purpose with both performance and safety excellence, Musk turned the existing industry on its head by claiming the aspirational high ground of tomorrow’s driver.

3. Democratize the impact: Out of this earlier disruption comes an even more seismic opportunity with the Model 3 launch. Affordable enough to make mass sustainable transportation possible, Musk’s latest car can radically disrupt the entrenched automotive industry. In short, Musk has enlisted a legion of future drivers – many of whom waited patiently for hours in unprecedented lines to hand over their Model 3 deposits – in the service of the Tesla mission. As competitors now rush to bring electric vehicles to market, they will need to compete with this first mover advantage and profound personal commitment to rewriting our shared future.

With all this in mind, we can see that Elon Musk did far more than launch the Model 3 last week; he executed another critical stage of his “Master Plan” and movement to both lead and make sustainable mass transportation possible. And it all began with a clear articulation of, and commitment to, his original purpose and mission. Tesla’s socially conscious philosophy has proven vital to both its growth as a brand, and the explosive success of the Model 3. It’s also why “Step 5” in his plan is only half meant in jest – why would Musk need to tell anyone about what he is doing when his legion of drivers will do it for him?

For more insight on what makes visionary companies, see Investor Tip: Look For Purpose-Driven Companies.

This article originally appeared in Forbes and is part of a series of articles that support the vision and purpose of SAP.

Simon Mainwaring

About Simon Mainwaring

Simon Mainwaring is the founder and CEO of We First, the leading brand consultancy that provides purpose-driven strategy, content, and training that accelerates growth through purpose. His book, We First: How brands and consumers use social media to build a better world (Palgrave Macmillan) is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Amazon bestseller and strategy+business named it the Best Business Marketing Book of the Year. He is a member of Sustainable Brands, the Business Alliance for the Future and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, and Huffington Post. Simon was included in the United Nation Foundation’s ‘Global Influencers to Follow’ in 2016; YPO’s Real Leaders, ‘100 Visionary Leaders’ for 2015; GlobalCEO’s Top CSR Leaders for 2014; The Guardian’s, ‘Twitter List: The 30 Most Influential Sustainability Voices in America’ for 2013; and Trust Across America’s, ‘Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior for 2012.’ He’s been featured in TIME, The Guardian, Advertising Age, Adweek, Inc., AMA, Fast Company, GOOD Magazine, Mashable and the cover of the National Speaker’s Magazine, as well as appearing on the BBC World News, Business News Network, CBS, CBC, and BNet. Prior to starting We First Simon was an award-winning advertising writer at many of the world’s top creative advertising agencies receiving over 60 international awards including the Cannes Lions, One Show, Clio’s, Kelly Awards, and D&AD.