3 Executive-Branding Lessons We Can Learn From Elon Musk
“I hate the whole idea of brands and branding.” Elon Musk once tweeted this statement in response to a follower’s suggestion that the Tesla Motors brand was too luxe to consider producing an electric truck. Yet despite the high-profile blunders that have contributed to Tesla’s reputation as a volatile stock option, Musk has maintained his position as an indisputable tech visionary.
Dubbed the world’s first “Influencer CEO,” Musk has embraced strategic branding tactics and the irreverent culture of social media to share his personal philosophies and transformational leadership style. The polarizing 48-year-old entrepreneur extraordinaire consistently manages to excite, rattle and assuage employees, investors and shareholders alike as he executes his vision.
Love him or hate him, here are three branding lessons every executive can learn from Elon Musk.
1. Stick to the mission.
Musk has justified his business decisions by referencing his "mission of accelerating the advent of sustainable transport and energy, which is important for all life on Earth." Even if it's in the form of a memo discussing employee cuts sent in the middle of the night, Musk is always reiterating that his primary focus is the relentless pursuit of developing technology that best serves humanity.
Musk has had to make tough calls that many executives face, including firing colleagues and prioritizing personal projects over contracted commitments. But despite the occasional tweet-storm, outlandish statement or tantrum, Musk has achieved icon status among the Millennial generation because of his positions on renewable energy and investing in the future of the world. Simply put, he has a vision and a mission that he sticks to, and has earned loyal followers who appreciate his dedication.
2. Know when to apologize.
Reputation management is all about timing, and high-level executives must learn how to effectively own up to mistakes made either within the company or due to a personal failure. In Musk’s case, these aren't often mutually exclusive. During one post-earnings conference call, Musk became impatient with two Wall Street analysts and chided them for their “boring, bonehead questions.” Unsurprisingly, Tesla shares dropped quickly.
At the next meeting, Elon Musk adopted a measured tone when describing the company outlook and profitability predictions. He also gave an authentic apology to the Wall Street analysts, citing lack of sleep and overwork while admitting he was in the wrong. As a result of what has been called “the most valuable apology of all time,” Tesla shares surged and added almost $5 billion dollars to its stock value.
3. Don’t chase the popular vote.
Musk didn’t become the most inspirational leader in tech by being well-liked. While most CEOs consult their legal counsel before sharing messages with the masses, Musk fires off salvos with little regard to political, legal or financial consequences to his companies.
Critics can question his messaging strategy (or seeming lack thereof), but the risk-taker boasts a net worth of more than $20 billion and has dismissed jabs at his unconventional workstyle, telling the New York Times, “If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know.”
Similarly, staff at NASA may be panicking due to Musk allegedly overpromising and under-delivering, but tabloid fodder ultimately brings the scope of space exploration to the forefront and invites its proponents to engage and share ideas and information. And he does at least have famed astrophyisicist and author Neal deGrasse Tyson in his corner.
Though most of his projects are still years away from completion, Musk isn’t done hyping his companies's potential to disrupt almost every major industry and global program in existence. By investing in sustainable technology companies, relentlessly pushing innovation and leveraging any and all platforms to spread his philosophy, Musk has emerged as one of the most visible business and innovation leaders of the past decade. Other CEOs would do well to revisit their own brand-messaging strategies, because as Musk has demonstrated, the era of the hyper-communicative executive is here to stay.