Social media and Musk’s vision continues to upend the automotive business model

There is a thin line between success and failure in the automotive business, which is especially the case when your company’s business model upends an entire industry. From the beginning, serial tech entrepreneur Elon Musk knew the power of social media and used it to introduce his vision for the future through Tesla and SpaceX, instead of through lavish, broadcast advertising.

Musk presents his vision in many mediums, such as participation in global causes and Q&A sessions with the public, but most importantly via social media. The guru of social marketing did it again recently when he responded to a girl’s suggestion to consider fan-submitted commercials for Tesla, now known as Project Loveday.

Project Loveday is brilliant marketing and shows Musk’s humanity. The tweet’s subject matter reminds me of the classic Coke commercial featuring Mean Joe Green and a kid receiving a jersey from the hobbled warrior.

For old-school Tesla freaks, Tesla’s CEO has been working the Twitter feed since the infamous “Tesla breakdown” back in 2012. This centered around a contributing writer at the New York Times and his test drive of the Model S for the publication. His name was John Broder and the main photo that ran with the article was a Model S on the back of tow truck. The car’s battery was dead. Broder ran out of juice.

However, the car logs showed the vehicle doing loops around the city instead of going directly to its destination in Connecticut. Musk shot back at the author and the story gained huge traction in social and traditional media.

Fast forward nine months later, I attend the first Supercharger unveiling in Illinois and meet a non-Tesla owner, in his late twenties, that came with other Tesla owners to have lunch. This fellow was a software engineer and told me how he became a reservation holder after the John Broder incident blew up on social media.

This millennial marketing style works because the message cuts through the daily noise and is very authentic. Why don’t more automakers take this cue?

Recently, electric car advocate Chelsea Sexton mentioned this in a recent Facebook post about how some European fans (or team?) created a Gigafactory 2 in the Minecraft platform. If you have a kid under 12, then you know about Minecraft and its 3-D virtual world, where you can build massive, visual environments via tablet or computer.

Sexton, who did time with General Motors some years ago, mentioned that “this is the umpteenth example of how much the EV industry and movement are missing out by not better leveraging the driver and enthusiast communities.” Sexton should know as she was there when GM killed their first electric car in the nineties.

Even crusty Bob “could have been a contender” Lutz feels CEO visibility is necessary for our fast-moving media landscape. “I do not see the media, or open media exposure, as a negative, says Lutz in his self-congratulatory book, ‘Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.’ “A frank, open, and candid approach, with lots of easy access to the CEO, is a winning strategy.”

The irony of crusty Bobby Lutz — paired with gruyere is fantastic — is that he once said that Tesla is “almost like a religious cult” due to the company’s promise of future growth and commanding presence across social media. I think of Apple and their burgeoning cult from the 1990s and early 2000s.

How did that turn out?

Lutz is envious; he never was the top guy at any of the big automakers. Barra at GM doesn’t get it and Marchione does to some degree, but he talks industry consolidation or the “chicken tax” during his media forays. And, dont’ get me wrong, industry consolidation is smart for big automakers but misses on some crucial points: lack of an exciting vision (future), the car consumer and any feeling.

My take is Musk won’t be denied and I’m worried about other U.S. carmakers as they realize how fast the game is changing and don’t have the culture to “think on their feet.”

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