How to Build an Iconic Brand: The Genius of Tesla’s Cybertruck
Tesla is on a roll. Yesterday, the iconic car manufacturer became the highest valued American car manufacturer in history. And today $TSLA gained another 4.92%, nearly reaching $500. Truly iconic.
It is worth a closer look at how Elon Musk built the iconic Tesla brand. Entrepreneurs and brand executives can learn a lot from his example, because becoming iconic is priceless. Iconic brands like Tesla receive an insane amount of attention — one that’s impossible to achieve through paid advertising alone.
Plus, iconic brands receive that attention completely for free.
What can brands do to become iconic?
To tackle this question, let’s deconstruct Tesla’s recent Cybertruck launch, which was a brilliant example of how to create something iconic.
Unless you were living under a rock, you doubtless heard about this bold new vehicle and its controversial rollout. Tesla’s Elon Musk stunned the world with a futuristic truck right out of Bladerunner; its launch included two broken windows; and the company announced a very compelling price point.
That in itself is remarkable. We all know about Tesla’s latest product launch. It’s actually very likely that you’ve read about Cybertruck multiple times and talked about it repeatedly. You might have been shocked by it like most people and nonetheless started to contemplate pre-ordering one just a little later. Or you are one of the 300k who ordered one in the first week after launch when you somehow felt the urge to get yourself on the waiting list.
The two things that you very likely haven’t been able to achieve are 1) not knowing about Cybertruck and 2) not having an opinion about it.
So let’s take a closer look at the techniques Elon Musk employed to pull this off.
I. Break expectations and push the limits
Elon Musk decided to push the limits and break expectations in a pretty bold way. For sure, it would have been easy for Tesla to build an electric drivetrain-powered truck that was impressive but conventional. (There are countless designs floating on the Internet.) It certainly would’ve been a safer bet: no controversy, no downgrading by Wall Street, no complicated path to production.
But that would have been boring, at least compared with Cybertruck. And the truck would have been significantly less recognizable, attention grabbing and entertaining. We would not have talked about it much. And it also would have been much easier for other manufacturers to copy the design.
Tesla has a history of pushing the limits of engineering design. And that is not by accident. Their first car, the original roadster, featured a conventional chassis from Lotus Elise but with an electric drivetrain in place of a combustion engine. The electric drivetrain was new and different enough to grab attention.
The Model S got a new chassis — sleek and recognizable though not futuristic from the outside — and initially featured a visual front that even looked like a grill, a kind of anachronisms for an electric car that got removed a few years later. Tesla likely wanted the Model S to look like a conventional car that happened to be electric, but a surprise was inside: the massive screen in the center console got people talking.
When Tesla launched the Model X, its falcon wing doors stood out as did its bio-hazard mode. Again, Musk generated tons of buzz (and later admitted the car was somewhat over-engineered.)
Model 3 brought another clear break of expectations. While the exterior was very much in line with expectations (a smaller Model S), the interior polarized. It was like nothing else on the market. Tesla decided to build a radically minimalistic cockpit. One big screen was all there was. Again, this decision was pretty polarizing at the time.
But when Ford launched their Mustang Mach-E in 2019 to compete, it’s cockpit design had many similarities with Tesla’s Model S. What had been extreme had become the norm.
That’s where Cybertruck comes in.
Cybertruck pushes the design limits at the very moment that the competition has accepted previously controversial ideas as the new norm. The Cybertruck is so bold, so extreme, so polarizing that no manufacturer would dare copy it. The risks for them, for now, are just too high.
So being polarizing can be a power move — if done right. Done right means it has to be authentic.
Pushing the limits as far as Tesla did with Cybertruck does qualify as positively insane and therefore authentic for Elon Musk, for conventional car manufacturers such a move would simply not be comprehensible. To their customers it would feel literally insane.
The goal is to break existing expectations in a meaningful way to clear a path to a better future. Because in a world of abundance, attention is scarce. Most products are boring. Nobody cares. But one way to break through is to be polarizing. It creates endless opportunities for engagement.
An example: When Twitter launched, people either loved it or found it ridiculous. It polarized. Those who loved it became evangelists. And those who hated it also amplified the conversation. It was impossible to be neutral.
Another example: US presidential campaigns. Bernie Sanders’ decision to describe himself as “democratic socialist” was polarizing but generated attention and energized his base. And Donald Trump’s ability to polarize enrages but also captures the attention of the world on a daily basis.
There’s a catch for brands, though. If it isn’t authentic, it will backfire. The polarizing aspect needs to be driven by a genuine sense that what’s different is better. In business, it doesn’t work to just be provocative. There must be a link to value. The provocation has to fit the core of the brand.
III. Take things to the extreme
Musk’s concept for the Cybertruck was extreme: build a truck stronger than an F-150 and faster than a Porsche 911. In a sense, he was attacking two iconic products at once.
Nobody really needed a truck with such specs, but by capturing attention it created desire. Cybertruck wasn’t designed to blend in, it was designed to break from the norm by being extreme.
The visual appearance of the car follows the same logic. It is the extreme of planar design. Nothing is round and no edge is smooth.
The genius here is that there are actually benefits the design affords. The exoskeleton — made from stainless steel plates developed for SpaceX rockets — enables massive cost savings, like obviating need for a paint job and significant structural benefits.
Musk’s extreme pricing strategy was achievable only because of its extreme design.
IV. Leverage pop culture
Elon Musk knows the power of pop culture. Dials in his cars go to 11, a reference to the movie Spinal Tap. His drone ships have names like “Of Course I Still Love You,” honoring science fiction author Iain M. Banks. And the acceleration modes of Tesla cars are named “insane”, “ludicrous” and “plaid,” straight from Spaceballs.
Cybertruck takes this to a new level. The vehicle looks like something from Blade Runner. And, in fact, the post-apocalyptic vibe of the movie inspired the car design and the launch event.
Countless memes evolve around Cybertruck and Elon Musk stokes the fire with a tweet or two here and there. The unique visual language of Tesla’s Cybertruck make the perfect canvas for user-generated content.
In an interview, Musk shared that his team ask themselves what the most fun and entertaining way of doing things is? (This is how the company decided to put a Tesla Roadster in space.) So, in that regard, Tesla is an entertainment company first with Musk its main entertainer.
All these pop culture references and unconventional moves are fodder for existing and future fans to talk and laugh about.
It’s an important lesson in business: Be anything but boring.
V. Create a mystery in the open
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Cybertruck launch was that Elon Musk had teased exactly the extreme product he launched for quite some time. Interestingly, nobody believed him when he had said that the truck will look like straight out of Bladerunner. Everyone expected something much less controversial.
It’s a powerful move say exactly what you plan to do and then do it. It’s especially powerful now because consumers are conditioned to discount much of the things brands say. Many product launches feature descriptions like “radical”, “unique”, “all new”, “disruptive” or “one of its kind”. But in reality most of these products don’t live up to these promises, not even close.
As a result, when Elon Musk teased the Cybertruck specs, everybody discounted his descriptions as well. And that became the mystery: What will Elon Musk really do? Because it can’t be what he has told us. That would be “insane”.
So, when he did exactly what he’d promised, people were shocked. It’s iconic to deliver.
Elon Musk has done a similar thing in 2006 when he published “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan” on his blog many years before masterly executing the plan.
VI. Master mistakes
This actually happened: A steel ball shattered the Cybertruck armored car window right on stage in the middle of the launch, but Musk kept his cool with the quip “Ok, it needs some improvement.” He defused the misstep with wit and humility.
It’s hard to imagine Musk wanted the window to break, but the fact is, it had a net positive impact because of the massive attention it captured. Photos of the Cybertruck with the broken windows went viral.
But a day later, Musk tweeted a short video of the window withstanding the impact of the steel ball right before the event. So he achieved his goal in the end: generating buzz and lots of it.
VII. Give people an easy way to count themselves in
The unveiling of Cybertruck produced extreme reactions: bewilderment, intrigue, amazement, disdain. But those who loved it had a way to engage right away: pre-order a Cybertruck for $100, fully refundable. Enthusiasts could demonstrate they were different — they were pioneers, embracing the future.
Which they did in troves, with 250,000 pre-orders flooding in the first week, despite naysayers predicting a quick death of the “ugly design.” Elon Musk tweeted these figures out, creating intense FOMO (fear of missing out) and driving orders higher.
And speaking of higher, Tesla’s stock price afterwards caught fire and reached $420 per share the day before Christmas. Of course, Musk didn’t let that opportunity slip by, tweeting out a reference to his own infamous pot-smoking incident: “Whoa…the stock is so high lol”.
And it didn’t stop there. Yesterday, the Tesla stock price reached $470.
Who said being iconic can’t be fun?
If you want to read more about the underlying reasons for Tesla’s rise — and why German car manufacturers might be up for a rude awakening — you might like my post from October 2018: Tesla’s Iconic Brand is Kryptonite for German Luxury Cars