Tesla Uncoiled

How one car rewrote the rules on marketing in a high-failure industry

Rich Berman, CEO VerbFactory

It’s hard to believe it’s only been seven years since the documentary film Who Killed The Electric Car posited a bleak future dominated by oil and car companies who would do anything to bury fossil fuel-free technologies. Today, the Tesla S is the #2 selling luxury car in California, and the waiting list to spend over $80,000 on one of these all-electric sedans is months long. How did this happen, and what does it tell us about consumer adoption patterns?

Every so often a product comes along that completely changes the rules on how products are marketed by succeeding where others have failed. Handheld computing devices had existed for a while but never really gained traction until the Palm Pilot struck gold in 1997. Why did Palm become iconic, while Apple’s Newton (no need to go into Copland here) was a fiasco? Part of the answer lies in technical advances, but that’s not the whole picture. After all, the earliest Palm devices weren’t much better than the Newton.

For Tesla, what happened was that they made electric cars cool. The early battery-only vehicles, like GM’s EV1, looked like they were made for kooks to drive to their MENSA meetings while wearing tinfoil hats. That’s because they were designed by engineers who wanted their cars to look like the future, but ended up  creating a prop from the Jetsons. Tesla took a different approach, building its original two-seater roadster with an elegant Lotus Elise body.

But looks aren’t everything, and the main reason why Tesla gained traction was that it was able to overcome most of the concerns that had plagued earlier electric cars, including the idea that a driver could be stranded miles from home if a battery ran down. Less than a decade ago that was the bogeyman preventing people from even considering a non-fuel vehicle, but today it’s such a non-issue that when a New York Times reporter wrote a story that included running out of juice on his test drive, he was blasted by Tesla (and many readers) for taking extraordinary measures to intentionally kill the power. In other words, the disaster that everyone knew would happen in 2003 faded into the hazy realm of remote possibility in 10 years.

That’s the genius of Tesla’s marketing. They’ve fundamentally changed the dialogue about electric cars, and it’s no longer about the potential downsides (strange design, unreliable power), but about the positives (zero greenhouse gases, awesome performance and killer styling). For companies hoping to become the Next Big Thing, that’s a pretty big lesson.

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