The most interesting thing about Tesla — the niche luxury electric car maker — is the role of marketing in selling electric cars that cost $100,000 or more. Many people have tried to change the auto industry over the last 40 years and none have succeeded. The process of buying a car is essentially the same as it was a generation ago. And the process has remained unpopular for decades: the typical car dealer receives just 2 or 3 stars on Yelp.
Tesla is creatively using marketing to upend the auto industry business model:
- There are no Tesla dealers
- There are no commissioned sales people
- Tesla cars are marketed and not aggressively sold
- Tesla transactions are conducted online
- The price is the price: no negotiation
- There is no inventory: the Tesla Model S is built to order
- You can’t test drive a Tesla unless you put down a $5,000 deposit
- In many parts of the country, you can’t see or drive the car before you buy even if you place a deposit
- You have to wait in line for months or years to get a car
And the marketing challenges are incredibly difficult:
- They are building a new luxury brand from scratch
- They are evangelizing a new type of vehicle: an electric car
- They are selling a $60,000 – $100,000+ car that can’t go on a road trip
- They must sell an entirely new model of buying and owning a car
While Tesla is starting with expensive vehicles, they clearly have mainstream ambitions. They are investing to build a big car company. How hard is it to build and sell cars in the USA? Look at it this way: Tesla is the second oldest publicly traded auto company in the United States behind Ford. GM went bankrupt and went public four months after Tesla. Chrysler remains private following its own reorganization.
While Tesla has a long way to go to be profitable, producing cars in volume, and moving towards the mainstream, their first home-built product — the Model S — is a success. They have 10,000 – 20,000 orders and have swept the auto industry awards, winning the most recent round of Motor Trend, Automobile, and Yahoo Autos awards for car of the year. Tesla is the first startup car company, and the Model S is the first electric car, to win these awards.
So what can we learn from Tesla marketing?
(1) Start with a great product – Tesla would be dead today if they didn’t build the best car available today. There are too many obstacles — range, lack of road trips, and buyer confusion to name a few. Tesla used electric technology to build a car that can’t be reproduced with a combustion engine. It’s as fast as a Porsche and gets the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. It has very few moving parts. It is the most aerodynamic car made and has the most cargo space of any car in its class. It’s a sports car that seats seven.
(2) Start high and work your way down — It’s a lot easier to build a lust-inducing $100,000 car than a cheaper model. Tesla started with the $100K plus roadster built on a modified Lotus platform. With the Model S, they started with production of $100K vehicles and are working their way towards the $60K entry-luxury models. By starting high, Tesla is letting early adopters fund technology development. As volume increases, prices are coming down. The early super cars are media darlings endlessly discussed in waves of free Tesla publicity.
(3) Turn auto industry strengths into weaknesses — Historically, luxury cars have been sold and justified based on the quality of their engineering. Most luxury automobile companies tout “performance through engineering” as the one thing that makes them special and desirable. Tesla marketing focuses on performance through technology while touting the simplicity of the platform. The Tesla Model S pitch reframes the auto industry strength as a weakness. Through the highly-effective Tesla marketing lens, traditional gas cars are dirty, complex, unreliable, and difficult to maintain. In a bold marketing move, Tesla service centers are designed with white floors to reinforce that electric cars don’t have oil and other dirty fluids that leak on the floor.
(4) Create a new multi-channel model: Tesla decided not to build a traditional car dealer network. Nobody likes car dealers: even buying and servicing a high-end car like a Porsche is a dreadful experience. Tesla looked at the car buying process and optimized its sales model to fit the way people buy cars today. Since people start online, Tesla designed their process around online information, commerce, and community. Their site is unusually clear, clean, and effective. For people who want to see the car, they are building kiosk stores in malls with Tesla experts who can’t sell cars and who aren’t commissioned. When a buyer is ready, they place a refundable deposit online. If they want to drive a car, they can arrange a test drive after they’ve placed a deposit. Essentially, Tesla is selling cars the same way Apple sells the iPhone.
(5) Build the community & focus on the experience: From the beginning, Tesla has made user forums and user community a key part of the online experience. Tesla marketing highlights the unique Tesla buying and ownership experience and encourages owners to interact with the company and each other in full public view on the Tesla site. This provides a rich base of content — and owner passion — on view for prospective buyers.
(6) Leverage the media and traditional press: While much is new about the Tesla Model S and the accompanying sales and marketing model, one thing is not: the dependence on traditional media. Tesla has been a master at driving press coverage, reviews, and awards for its cars. It’s clear that the company has worked hard to position the brand with the media and to make sure the right messages come through. The company’s #1 message is that they are trying to build the best car ever made and not just the best electric car. This message is frequently repeated by the press.
Tesla Marketing: Likely more lessons to come
While it’s early and many many risks remain, Tesla is the first company to have the potential to become the Apple computer of the car industry. Like Apple, they are selling a product that is very different than what has come before. Both companies focus on great products and innovation. They are both building their own ecosystem (Tesla’s super charger network is akin to Apple’s build-out of iTunes and the Apple Store) and both are challenging traditional sales models with their own direct distribution system. In fact, Tesla hired Apple’s previous retail chief to build out the new distribution model.
Whatever does happen with Tesla, the marketing lessons to come are certain to fascinate.