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Powered by Purpose: What Tesla’s Model 3 Says About the Future of Sustainability


By Geoff Ledford

On Thursday night, Elon Musk finally rolled out his highly-anticipated electric vehicle for the masses – the Tesla Model 3. It doesn’t take an automotive genius to see that Tesla nailed it with this one – the design is gorgeous, the price is right, and within 24 hours of the car’s release, Musk had already taken over 180,000 pre-orders. Given that Tesla requires a $1,000 deposit to place an order for a Model 3, the company pulled in a cool $180 million in one day – not bad for a product that won’t be delivered until the end of 2017 (at the earliest).

And all of this over an electric vehicle. As a car enthusiast, I can’t remember any car rollout that has garnered this kind of attention – let alone one for a car that runs on renewable energy. To be clear, we’re still a looooong way from the extinction of the internal combustion engine. But Thursday night definitively and emphatically pushed the needle toward a more sustainable future – with fanfare and celebration.

The reveal (broadcast live from Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, California) fell somewhere between a Steve Jobs-era iPhone reveal and a glitzy rock concert. In the wake of the event, Tesla’s media blitzkreig is nothing short of a CMO’s dream. Reviews are glowing, articles (like the one you’re reading now) are popping up like wildfire, and it was the hot topic on social media throughout the day on Friday (right up there with Taylor Swift biting it on her treadmill).

Which leads me to ask: Is Musk trying to outdo Cupertino at its own game?

In addition to the rollout event Thursday night, there’s more than a little bit of evidence that Tesla is stealing pages right out of Apple’s playbook:

Tesla is fanatical about design. They innovate and design the best product they can dream up – and then worry about how they’re gonna manufacture it (exhibit A: The Model-X crazy rear doors). Sounds very similar to Apple’s decision to start CNC machining unibody laptops out of solid blocks of aluminum.

Like Apple, Tesla is building an ecosystem of products. Contrary to what some people claim, the real genius behind Apple’s success isn’t the iPod, the iPhone, or any one of their beautifully designed hardware – it lies in the way that all of their devices, app store, products, and services all work together to deliver an integrated user experience. And that’s precisely what Musk is up to right now – carefully curating Tesla’s brand via a web of products, retail spaces, charging stations, in-home batteries, and the like. Expect more of this to come.

Tesla even peddles their wares out of architectural, company-run retail spaces located inside of high-end shopping centers. (Does that sound familiar?)

Lastly, both companies speak (or, in the case of Steve Jobs-era Apple, “spoke”) of their business operations in terms of in a deeper, broader purpose than transcends quarterly earnings statement or number of units sold. Admittedly, as someone who works at an agency that explicitly seeks to build brands with purpose, I might be a little bit biased in this area. But even with that disclaimer, it’s pretty clear that Tesla’s purpose is propelling their business into the future.

In the old days (a relative term when it comes to tech), no one had to guess about Apple’s mission. Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly a softly spoken or timid person when it came to discussing purpose – Apple sought to “make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” And, as multiple sources have noted, Job’s mission for the company has been greatly watered down since the late CEO’s departure. Correspondingly, it’s tough to deny that Apple has been acting a bit lost recently. Recent products (such as the watch and the battery case) have been regarded as a flops. Important design influencers have noted how confusing and convoluted iOS’s UX has become as they’ve tried to pack in ever more features. And now Apple has reportedly decided to start making cars. Without Jobs there to remind everyone of the company’s bigger purpose, Cupertino appears to be a rudderless ship.

By comparison, Tesla’s mission statement one ups Apple with a bigger, broader, and arguably more important mission. While Jobs simply wanted to change the world, Musk seems to be on a mission to save it.

Our goal when we created Tesla a decade ago was the same as it is today: to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” Thursday night’s rollout of the Model 3 represents much more than another product launch for Tesla. Building sexy, luxury cars had only been a step toward their ultimate goal; launching an everyman’s electric car was the logical next step. By seeking to bring “sustainable” transportation (read that: “uses renewable sources of fuel” – Tesla’s products still use boatloads of resources) to the masses, I’d argue that the torch of purposeful business has been passed.

And it’s enabling Musk & Co. to do incredible things that others can’t:

  1. Tesla designs electric vehicles with mass appeal
Electric cars are not necessarily new. GM’s EV1 dates back several decades while Nissan’s Leaf has been around for several years. But in neither of these cases did we see 200K people lining up to place a deposit on an electric car they haven't even driven yet. The Model 3 is a different animal altogether.

Until now, traditional automakers have designed and built quirky electric vehicles for the tree-hugging segment of the driving population. By in large, these car models have been sideshows of these companies main business – building “real” cars powered by liquid dinosaurs.

However, Tesla’s mission (to usher in an era of sustainable transportation) allowed them to think bigger about their product. “Sustainability” as the key selling feature will only appeal to a certain demographic. If Tesla wants everyone to start driving EVs, they have to build cars that appealed to the masses. It’s no secret that exceptional design and performance have always been the key motivators for automotive purchase decisions. (Case study: the Pontiac Aztek.) Tesla’s think-big vision simply allowed them to see the connection in a way that other car makers hadn’t. And now people who wouldn't be caught dead in a Prius are camping out overnight to buy an EV.

  1. Tesla is taking on the Goliaths of the fossil fuel industry
Getting customers to kick their liquid dinosaur fuel habit is no small undertaking. But the steps that Tesla has taken so far seem to be working. As if on cue, the auto industry establishment has begun to decry Tesla – downplaying the threat that Tesla represents to their business, scrambling tobeat” Tesla’s EVs to market, and even quietly backing legislation that bans the sale of Teslas in some states.

Such defensive activity can only signify one thing: the establishment is scared – because they realize that Tesla (armed with a purpose and picking up momentum) could actually turn their mission into a reality.

  1. Tesla’s vision for the future engages their work force
Tesla employees regard Musk as an hard-driving, tyrannical perfectionist. And they accept that a job at Tesla comes at the expense of a life outside of work. However, according to one inside source, top talent agrees to work there because “Tesla employees are “zealots” about their mission to change the world and bring about the use of clean energy.”

  1. Tesla has financial firepower
As mentioned above, customers cheerfully have given Tesla nearly $200 million dollars in pre-orders for the Model 3 (and that number continues to swell). But that’s only part of the story.

To say that Tesla’s business is risky (re-read points two and three above) would be a gross understatement. Add to this the fact that Tesla is billions of dollars in debt and you get a sense that a lesser company probably would have already thrown in the towel. But Tesla seems to be picking up speed – and investors are willing to gamble on them.

All of which goes to show: when done right, purpose can be an powerful, transformative thing.


Image courtesy of Tesla Motors

Geoff Ledford is a Creative Strategist at thinkPARALLAX – a strategic creative communications agency with a passion for building brands with purpose. We work at the intersection of business strategy, sustainability, and communication. Our values stem from the belief that profit and sustainability are not mutually exclusive – good business means doing the right thing. We cultivate knowledge, spread awareness, and create purposeful connections with audiences.

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