Elon Musk Built An Epic Brand Without Advertising.

After Tesla shunned a dealer network and discarded advertising, the brand took off. Was it stubbornness or genius? Yes.

Jeff Cunningham
9 min readSep 28, 2017


Tesla chief executive, Elon Musk

“Ads are dead. The future is about things people want, not things they must endure.” — Lou Paskalis, Bank of America

The first rule of innovation: avoid crowds.

In 2003, two engineers and an angel investor reached back to 1888 to borrow Nikola Tesla’s name and copy his engine design. After that, they just invented stuff.

Elon Musk was Tesla Motors first angel investor and has run the company since the day he fired his co-founder in 2007. It was his third major startup after Zip2 and Paypal. As a graduate of Wharton and a Stanford Ph.D. candidate, he acts like an inventor and thinks like an investor. In Musk mythology, this is an essential but seldom recognized fact. (In full disclosure, after he departed and sold the company, I was named CEO of Zip2).

With the benefit of a dual personality, part dreamer, part financier, he now runs the most valuable American automobile company (not including his other pursuits, SolarCity and SpaceX). Musk knew it was pointless to try to compete with GM and Ford on the comfortable battlefield those giants know so well — prominent budget advertising and a vast dealer network. Spokeswoman Alexis Georgeson echoed Musk’s sentiments:

The stores are our advertising. Paid advertising may be something we’ll do — years down the road. But not now.”

Traditional marketers would say, “what the hell?”

Musk foresaw useful (to him) resistance to change in a 100-year-old industry like automotive. He knew that could give him the time he needed to expand and experiment right under their very noses. Even today, despite Tesla’s overwhelming market success, VW chief Matthias Muller revealed in a recent WSJ article, legacy thinking is hard-wired:

“Our own managers (still) remain skeptical of moves to downgrade the business of cars powered by fossil fuels. I don’t know if you can imagine how difficult it is to change their mind-set.”

The Musk story will have many brilliant chapters. But the one that taught the world how to launch iconic brands “on the cheap” is a more significant disruptor than many realize.

Tesla Model X

The Contrarian

If you want an insight into why Musk does things so contrary to accepted practice, you need to understand how a venture capitalist thinks.

The goal of a Silicon Valley startup chief executive is to choose the most potent way to spend money from the raise until the company runs out of cash. Then it raises a second round. Because the new investors are only interested in one thing, to quote Cuba Gooding, “show me the money,” by which VC’s mean a gain in value from the last round.

Madison Avenue advertising may sound glamorous, but it rarely shows tangible results in the short term. Smart founders like Musk forego promotion in favor of hiring talent and product innovation. The cash constraint on a startup lends an air of urgency and a focus on performance or what Samuel Johnson described when he said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

No one in automotive history ever even considered ‘marketing lite’ could apply to the car business. The people in Detroit don’t spend a lot of time wondering if big-budget television ad campaigns work. They rely on the logic used by Philadelphia retailer, John Wanamaker: “I know half of my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” So they continue to spend both halves.

“Put the vast majority of your energy, attention, and dollars into building a great product and a smaller amount into shouting about it.” — Jeff Bezos

The Risk Taker

To Elon Musk, the answer was obvious. This is wasteful. Just like his cars weren’t going to waste energy, he wasn’t going to throw cash away. Instead of advertising, Musk’s instincts led him to build a product that compelled customers to advertise for him. They would also do his research and spread the word contagiously, at no charge. His job was to build the product, open stores, and let the customers post the results on social media. In taking the path less traveled by, he changed automotive and marketing history.

As a blogger wrote, “Tesla does not spend millions of dollars in a traditional ad campaign. They let us discuss it, rave about it, hate on it, or rejoice in the spirit of going electric in a Tesla, be the catalyst to a viral and brilliant marketing campaign. At the end of the day, Tesla advertising is free.”

The result was that by 2015, Tesla’s was spending zero on marketing at a time GM was shelling out $5 billion, more than half their annual profit, according to Mediakix. More importantly, Telsa’s market cap was higher than GM’s. For old-line marketers, this should have been a signal.

Musk’s intel told him the way consumers fell in love with brands was shifting. Part of this is Google search that answers consumer questions more powerfully than a glossy ad. It led him to realize he could turn away from Madison Avenue without disturbing the business model and by doing so, create a novel one. Then he discovered what moved the consumer, what techies call the ‘user experience’ or UX.

UX is more than the product. For Tesla, it includes putting stores in high-end malls where people could shop for cars as quickly as sunglasses. Salespeople weren’t the usual “gray-suited with dandruff flakes” hawking a 4-wheel drive, shiny toy for a 2% commission. Tesla’s missionaries were customer service gurus. They didn’t care how many times you came to look at the vehicle or wanted to talk about it. Musk turned product passion into a core selling feature. Then he made a test drive easy even if you live in Arizona or Texas where by law, cars can are only sold through dealers. These experience factors are part of the marketing value.

Jeff Bezos, no stranger to contrarian thinking or digital marketing, articulated the transformation. He underscored the shift in advertising to stealth marketing when he wrote, “The balance of power is shifting toward consumers and away from companies. The right way to respond to is to put the vast majority of your energy, attention, and dollars into building a great product and a smaller amount into shouting about it.”

“User-generated media is more efficient and more effective than any medium P&G worked with in the past.”

While P&G Was Watching

While Tesla was moving ahead of the competition without spending a dime, a Midwestern giant marketing machine was watching closely. They recognized this was a game-changer that would influence everything they did going forward. Only it wasn’t a competitor in Detroit.

These guys were in Cincinnati.

In 2014, Proctor and Gamble announced they needed to become a more agile company, and the strategy they chose was to drop over half their brands. But another way to interpret that is they dropped half the spending.

When they announced the shift, Chief Executive A.G. Lafley said: “P&G will shed as many as 100 brands.” He added, “I’m not interested in size. I’m interested in the preferred choice of shoppers.”

P&G’ strategy for building brands hadn’t changed much since they launched Ivory Soap in 1874. They were the first to discover the consumer could be targeted based on the brand values, with what adman Rosser Reeves called USP or “unique selling proposition.”

The USP of Ivory Soap was that it floated. Other soaps sank to the bottom. Why this was essential rests on a fact most may not realize, people in the 1800’s took baths in rivers and streams. If your soap floats to the top while scrubbing in a stream, that’s a big deal.

But the only way to get the word out was to advertise, first in print and later on national television. This continued to exist until the digital era when our media and information habits changed so significantly. That was when marketers first began to think the old ways weren’t working. Then they saw Tesla skip advertising altogether.

It was time to change.

“We will never master all these technologies. As long as we try, we will forever be on our heels.”

Leap Forward, Don’t Look Back

Today, a thoughtful consumer doesn’t read Consumer Reports or a review in the local newspaper for the latest product information. They turn to Yelp or Amazon for a world of brand switching encouragement or confirmation. Digital rankings have the power and distributed via social media and the internet; the average consumer is practically a consumer goods genius.

P&G’s Chief Brand Officer, Marc Pritchard

Even P&G’s Chief Brand Officer, Marc S. Pritchard, is a believer:

“The potential to create business value is significant — with precision targeting, automated buying, selling and distribution, user-generated communication, and amplification of earned media. It is both more efficient and more effective than any medium P&G worked with in the past.”

Whether anyone outside of Silicon Valley can be adept at these fast-moving technologies is another question. These are not only new but because they are algorithmically based and AI informed. They are also intuitive, adaptive, and profoundly transformative. Even the best brand minds like P&G’s Pritchard aren’t sure where this is headed:

We’ve all been understandably racing to master the new technologies in this ever-changing machine. I have a little secret for you: we will never master all these technologies. As long as we try, we will forever be on our heels. I try to simplify by taking the mystery out of the new world and telling our people to look beyond the obsession of technology and turn our attention to what matters — the consumer experience.”

His comment on the ‘consumer experience’ sounds suspiciously like something Elon Musk would say. One result of the change in focus to digital and analytical marketing is the death knell of anything ‘traditional.’

P&G recently announced it was cutting the number of ad agencies on its roster by 50% to increase efficiencies around promotional spending. The mantra they are chanting is, “We are on a mission to become “simpler and more focused. Three years ago, we spent nearly $8bn in advertising, including more than $2bn in agency fees and the cost to produce advertising and marketing related material.”

What we used to call marketing has changed fundamentally and forever.

Super Bowl type advertising will always be a factor in creating a mega brand, and the consumer has abandoned the playing field in other ways. They have just stopped caring about ads in the same way they seem to have stopped caring about network news, and old reruns. Journalism is already in decline, and this could push it over the cliff. Will Facebook and Twitter step in to fill the gap? They are trying to with numerous quality and anti-trolling projects to their credit. But the media landscape will change because viewership by the consumer is the venture capitalist of entertainment and news.

For someone like Tesla’s Musk, that is a good thing. He knows how to manipulate new media. He knows how to build brands without spending a cent, which is why he may well be P&G’s marketing guru.

The need for humility in the face of monumental change helps guide us down the right path. As P&G’s Pritchard said, “we will never master these technologies, we will be forever on our heels.” At least we can take some comfort the best branding minds in the world are as confused as the rest of us.