Tesla’s Clever Brand+Product Strategy

Will Oremus published a column in Slate about the Tesla S luxury sedan. The column was part tech review of the car and part cultural commentary on what it felt like to him to be driving a luxury forefront-of-technology vehicle. He spent the lede and much of the article discussing his emotional reaction to experiencing the Tesla brand promise:

I prefer not to think of myself as the sort of person who would harbor feelings of superiority on the basis of a material possession. But it is extremely hard, as drivers in their BMWs and Lexuses crane for a glimpse of my ninja-quiet ride, to keep from thinking one thing: suckers.

Such is the insidious appeal of Tesla’s new all-electric luxury sedan, built from the ground up in the nation’s smugness capital, the San Francisco Bay Area. I don’t even own the damn thing. I was merely offered a 15-minute test drive. But in that short time I experienced a level of self-satisfaction that would make a Prius owner blush.

Finally, he concludes

The main obstacle, for those not blessed with great wealth in addition to taste and an environmental conscience, is the price tag. As I’ve pointed out, the widely touted base price of $49,900 will not get you the standout performance and battery life that set the car apart.

America has a car culture. Our suburbs are shrines to the automobile; our highways are monuments; our economy relies heavily on the internal combustion engine and its fuel. We know this is bad for the environment (smog, CO2 emissions) and expensive (not only do we invest a huge amount of resources into car-having and car-driving, we also have to pay the political costs of having to secure oil from the Middle East).

And yet over the past couple of decades, just as we were learning about climate change and as gas started getting more expensive, Detroit switched to brand campaigns that capitalized on Americans’ need to be tough and rugged. Small fuel-efficient cars are effete, European, girly, weak; gas-guzzling light trucks are tough. Rather than Detroit trying to make fuel-efficient cool, they made it, at best, a political statement of liberal hippies.

What Tesla’s doing is making fuel-efficiency elite. They’re creating a material object that is only accessible (right now) to the very wealthy, and through their design and performance / technical decisions, they’re creating a vehicle to compete with other luxury vehicles. The electricity is almost a brand afterthought. They’re not appealing directly to the green aspect — they’re appealing to the macho sex “I can afford to drop $100k on this depreciating asset” keep-up-with-the-Joneses aspect of our collective psyche.

We’re all monkeys, and our brains always look for markers of status and group affiliation, full stop. Tesla is making electric cars sexy, powerful, and rich. They’re removing the status tradeoff between going green versus ostentatiously displaying your wealth. Not only do you get people to gawk and think “that guy is rich” (women seem to prefer displaying wealth via other objects), you also get to feel smug that you’re not burning petroleum as you cruise.

Smart, Tesla. Very smart.