TESLA Motors: How to Contain the Fires?

Elon Musk has been called an entrepreneur, an engineer, an investor. But none of these labels reveal the true nature of the man who gave us Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX Technologies or the billions he has accumulated while doing so.

Elon Musk is a culture designer.

Culture designers are different from entrepreneurs because they recognize that they must alter standard practices and challenge entrenched social norms in order to realize their vision of a better world.  Entrepreneurs seek to innovate with new business models, product lines, and ground-breaking technologies.  But not all entrepreneurs are able to make ideas go viral, ride the waves of disruption that come with new innovations, or demonstrate a practical competence in the evolutionary process of cultural change.

At the age of 12, Elon Musk sold his first video game.  It was his first noteworthy attempt to liberate humanity from the bounds of Earth and look skyward to the frontiers of space.  His game was about space invaders and the $500 he received for creating it was his first taste of success.

In the two decades that followed, he has kept his sights high above the horizon.  Elon Musk recognized the power of technology to sweep through a culture and transform its daily practices.  When his partners set out to build the first platform for using credit cards on the internet, he knew that the greatest hindrance to e-commerce was the ability to protect personal financial information.  This “barrier to entry” kept hundreds of millions of people from making purchases online.  So he thoughtfully built out the platform we know today as Paypal with great sensitivity to the fears of the day.

But it is perhaps most telling to observe how he transformed the conversation around electric cars.

It was never the technology itself that kept people from jumping on board.  All cars on the market without an internal combustion engine just weren’t appealing.  So Musk took the unorthodox stand by making a really expensive car that would sell because it was… sexy!  While Toyota was busy making something affordable that competed with other vehicles in its class, Telsa Motors claimed the elite niche of luxury sports cars and catapulted ahead with an entirely new game.

Why was this a culture design?  Because it built on the fact that human beings are wired to know our place in society.  We covet positions of status and power.  And we all want to be part of the cool crowd.  So he engineered a car for rich people who care about being seen as sexy.  His car was a hundred thousand dollars more expensive than anything out there.  And it sold like hotcakes as each new model rolled off the assembly line.  Musk knew that status and sex appeal are more powerful motivators than affordability and cost-savings tradeoffs.

By naming his car company “Tesla” he entered the insider crowd of science geeks who all know the great Nikola Tesla  — whose pioneering work on electricity is still revered to this day.  By paying tribute to the great inventor, Musk was able to cast himself in the role of radical scientist with ideas beyond his time.  Thus is the power of cultural evolution to take an idea that is already fit for deep attachment and add novelty that helps it spread.  Telsa Motors is both a celebration of the late 19th Century attempts to build electric cars and a “hat nod” to those who remember that Nikola wanted to give energy production away to the masses — the very thing Musk is seeking to do with his SolarCity company.

And he knows how to ride the waves of resistance too.  By staking his claim on the side of those who believe the auto industry “killed the electric car” he has been well positioned to go on the offensive when PR smear campaigns get unleashed to undermine his business.  In early 2013 a writer for the New York Times by the name of John Broder test drove a Telsa car and made false witness against it.  Not to be slighted, Musk made public the data files captured while Broder was in the driver’s seat and showed that the article was based on blatant lies.  This nullified the attack and elevated Musk in the eyes of his fans.

But right now he needs to understand that he has to tackle this problem as a culture designer, not as an angry/passionate entrepreneur. He needs to do a lot more than convince his fans. He needs to win a culture war against internal combustion cars, the oil industry that profits from them, and the vast media apparatus set up to promote them. 

(Just to put this into perspective: TESLA’s media budget is $0—they don’t do any marketing. The auto industry spends more than $10,000,000,000 a year to buy media in the United States alone.)

Engineering the evolutionary path to this kind of cultural change will require just as much ingenuity as the design of advanced carbon fibers and zero waste manufacturing.  It is an advanced science in its own right – and one that will be essential for making the transition away from the Petroleum Age amidst the power structures that hold so much sway over public opinion today.

We applaud Tesla Motors for “going viral” without a marketing department.  And yet the experience we have in culture design tells us that the most difficult battles are still to come.  They are going to need the full suite of tools for strategic action that are now available to them.  Much has been learned from the PR tricks of Phillip Morris to undermine public health research about the impacts of cigarettes.  Billions are spent each year in idea warfare—as we saw earlier this year with the exposé of NSA surveillance by the clandestine company Edward Snowden worked for, Booz Allen Hamilton.

To overcome the immense power base of the fossil fuel industry, Tesla Motors will need to map out idea landscapes and chart a course of action that evolves along with public sentiment.  They can do this by revealing the psychological drivers of resistance and adoption, engaging in social analytics research to identify how the networks of people and organizations adapt to build their campaigns of resistance, and learning from case studies about prior idea propagations that culminated in deep paradigm shifts at the societal scale.  Culture design is the convergence of practices like these in creative thinking, strategic action, and sociological research.

Elon Musk strives to redefine the energy and transportation sectors.  This will require that he deploy the full suite of culture design tools to out-compete these extremely powerful interests.

Memes generated by:

B. Laszlo Karafiath                    Joe Brewer
Producer                                          Research Director


Coming soon in this series…

  • Malala Yousafzai — The girl who challenged the Taliban

  • Russell Brand — An unexpected revolutionary


Image Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam


  1. Technoshaman

    > status and sex appeal are more powerful motivators than affordability and cost-savings tradeoffs

    for the moneyed class that is 1% of the population
    how about the 99%?

    • Joe Brewer

      Actually it’s the more powerful motivation for the vast majority of humans, not the top income earners alone. Human beings are a tribal species with strong social signals for status and position in society. Also, we are influenced deeply by sexual selection pressures and find great appeal in things that are attractive to us. This is why sex sells in advertising.

      The theory of “rational choice” that presumes people make decisions to maximize financial return (or minimize costs) to get the best deal simply does not explain real-world economic behavior.

  2. Hey, I loved reading this!

    “a practical competence in the evolutionary process of cultural change” is such a wonderful line, I’m totally going to steal that.

    Some minor factual nitpicks:

    1: Musk didn’t build PayPal’s platform, he built X.com and acquired Confinity, which was building what became PayPal.

    2: Similarly, he acquired Tesla, he didn’t build it from scratch. So he can’t take credit for naming it, either.

    3: While the culture element of building a sexy car makes lots of sense, it’s also largely a production constraint- Tesla didn’t have the resources to produce cheap cars at scale even if they wanted to, so the first cars they made were going to be expensive no matter what. I think the two overlap quite naturally.

    That said, none of these nitpicks detract from your central argument, or Musk’s foresight and amazing talent/work ethic/everything. I love how, for instance, Musk talks about “gasoline cars” to refer to regular cars, making us realize how archaic and sooty they are. Truly, cultural design in action.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • Joe Brewer

      Hi Visakan,

      Thank you for bringing this deeper and more detailed perspective on Elon Musk. We are aware of them as well and preferred to cast the narrative in a more understandable form to help others get the key points. As X.com acquired Confinity and the platform emerged for eCommerce, it was the focus on assuaging fears that proved critical for adoption. This ability to read the zeitgeist of culture and address key psychological factors as central to the technology deployment process was what we hoped to draw attention to.

      Regarding the essential role of making the more expensive Tesla car sexy, again it was the ability to see how to shift the game that lead to ultimate success. By building out an adoption framework based on design principles that take in anthropological research on human behavior, Musk and his collaborators were able to move beyond the shallow frame of “economic self-interest” that was presumed to drive behavior (the “cost effectiveness” argument taken to create value distinction by Toyota Prius). They could then redefine the space with a robust launching point from the growth of a deep core identity relationship between Tesla buyers and the company itself. Thus they formed an elite in group that others would want to join.

      It was essential to their success at deploying a more expensive model earlier while attracting attention from investors that enabled them to continue prototyping their advanced fabrication tools until they were able to deploy a mid-priced vehicle for the larger market — launched successfully into a ready-made customer base that had arisen around their original core high-status early adopters.

      Very good strategy for changing culture first, then building a new market sector around it.



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