Elon Musk: Engineering or Marketing Genius?

Elon Musk - engineer or marketing genius??

Elon Musk. Maverick entrepreneur and idol to tech geeks everywhere. His ventures are bringing science fiction to life and he has become one of the world’s richest people in the process.

No doubt, Musk’s engineering prowess has played a large part in his success. It provides him with vision and direction.

Despite this, I’m going to pose the question: is there another trait of Musk that has been even more pivotal to his success? Something that isn’t attributed to him as often – marketing genius.

Why ask this question? It seems to me that many companies that offer technical products or services underplay marketing. And to their detriment.

It’s fair enough, though. Compared to a left-brained activity like writing code, marketing is ambiguous with outcomes that are hard to assess. Therefore, it’s natural for tech minded managers to not prioritize it.

However, I think you will find this is not the case for the most successful engineer of our time…


Musk is a knowledgeable engineer which makes him a better businessman

I don’t want to downplay Musk as an engineer.

Not only is Musk somehow stretching his efforts across multiple ventures with Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink etc., but by many accounts, he is well across all the engineering nitty gritty. From knowing exactly how rocket bodies should be welded, to spending time on (and sleeping on) a factory floor to sort out production issues.

In this regard, Musk is an engineering genius – despite not having any formal engineering degree.

Is he superhuman and knows everything about every engineering discipline? I doubt it. But the breadth of his knowledge and hands-on attitude would definitely help with running his businesses.

By having a solid understanding of the technical aspects of his products, Musk can make wiser high-level decisions. He knows where to be ambitious and where to sit back. He doesn’t have to lean on the advice of others and can have a more wholistic view of company direction.

This is exactly why Musk has expressed a dislike for MBA degrees, as they move decision maker focus away from the product itself and towards bean counting.

So clearly, Musk’s engineering know-how plays a large part in the crazy success of Tesla and SpaceX in particular.

But is it the only piece of the puzzle? I think something extra is needed to explain the hype that now surrounds electric cars and rockets – both of which have been around for decades.

Tesla spends $0 on advertising. How can Musk be a marketer?

It’s true, Tesla does not do any paid advertising. To some, this might sound like Musk has thrown marketing out the window.

But in reality, marketing isn’t all about ads. Sure, they can play a part. But they are not what marketing is about fundamentally.

According to marketing guru Seth Godin, marketing at its core, is about making change. The aim is to change an audience’s view and to persuade them to do something they otherwise wouldn’t have done.

With Tesla, Musk has turned people’s perception of cars upside down. Electric cars have gone from something people laughed at (like the Toyota hybrid Prius), to the envy on the block. And in the process has caught competing car manufacturers off-guard.

So by Godin’s definition, Musk has definitely ticked the marketing box. But how has he done this?

For starters, by having a deep understanding of the market. He wanted to create a car that offered the best driving experience possible so that it would sell itself through network effects – the purest form of marketing.

So, is Musk dismissive of marketing? No, I don’t think so. I think he’s actually acutely aware of it at a fundamental level and wants to avoid the conventional and well-worn paths – like paid advertising.

So then, how else does Musk go about marketing?

Is Musk eccentric or just understands the power of publicity?

Here’s a few things to suggest Musk might be a bit crazy:

  • He smoked weed on a podcast

  • Launched a car into space

  • Appeared in a news interview barefooted

  • Named his child ‘X AE A-XII’

  • Tweets things like below:

Elon Musk Tweet

This list could possibly be a fair bit longer. But are the antics of Musk just a result of him being a bit of a nut? Or is he crafting a noteworthy persona that people will want to talk about and follow?

Why startup founders often exhibit strange personality traits is a question Musk’s old PayPal colleague, Peter Thiel, asks in his book Zero to One. Think Bill Gates with his geeky persona to the playboy Richard Branson.

Thiel concedes it is hard to know if it is all for show, or if they are just being themselves. But when discussing Steve Jobs and his quirks, Thiel states: “it’s hard to believe that such weird practices as apple-only diets weren’t part of a larger strategy.”

Musk probably takes the cake in terms of eccentric tech founder. Maybe it’s just the way he is. But like Thiel’s view on Jobs, I think Musk is at least exaggerating his behaviour – and for a purpose.

Musk is an avid social media user

Musk often tweets multiple times a day. He has created a cult-like following on twitter, and at the time of writing, has just under 60 million followers hanging out for his next meme.

As an incredibly busy and focused guy, would he consistently invest time in tweeting if he didn’t see value in it?

I don’t think so.

What I do think – Musk understands that a person is more relatable than a business entity. He therefore uses himself to draw attention to his companies. And has a bit of fun in the process.

Musk uses content marketing

This one might confuse you – Musk isn’t writing blog posts, making videos, or producing any other form of content (apart from memes).

But I believe this is because he knows he doesn’t need to produce it himself. Instead, he opens doors to some of the most popular content producers and gets them to make it for him. He has been more accessible to popular bloggers, vloggers and podcasters than other prolific entrepreneurs.

On multiple occasions, Musk has devoted hours, if not entire days, to talk to popular content producers. Some notable examples include:

Once again, would Musk give up his precious time to talk to these guys if he didn’t see something in it for himself?

So which has been more important - engineering or marketing prowess?

After all this, am I going to say that marketing has played a bigger role in the success of Musk?

Well, no actually. It’s hard to say what has been more important. Clearly, his knowledge in both engineering and marketing has been key.

But that’s what I think the true genius of Musk is – he appreciates both where so many like him don’t.

Of course, there’s bound to be many factors to the success of Musk. But, I maintain that marketing has played a large part even though it may not seem like it on the surface. I don’t think Tesla and SpaceX would see the same level of fanfare without Musk’s marketing endeavours.

Marketing takeaways for inspired companies

What should inspired tech/engineering related companies do to improve their marketing game? Plaster social media with memes and push boundaries with crazy antics? No, these are things that probably only Musk can get away with.

But if we break down what Musk does at a fundamental level, we get the following takeaways:

  • Focus on your product – create product experiences that sell themselves.

  • Be seen – have a prolific leader or company reps who actively network, speak at industry events, and post on social media, etc.

  • Be ‘talkaboutable’ – This can be tricky (especially if you can’t launch cars into space). But I think the best way tech related companies can achieve this is by providing creative and useful technical content for their customers.  Read our blog post on technical content marketing for more info.

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