Elon Musk Doubles Down on Brand Messaging to Defy Haters

Digital news outlet Electrek dropped the entirety of Elon Musk’s recent call to arms for Tesla employees last week, a purportedly internal email about Model 3 production strategies. Naturally, mass media from the BBC to SFGATE spun it into clickbait in less than 24 hours. The gist of Musk’s message obliquely responds to highly publicized criticisms of Tesla’s missed production goals of its latest model, concerns of tightened cash flow, and skepticism that Tesla will ever mature into a profitable automaker. This nearly 1,250-word missive contains many curious gems to examine, but let’s focus on a few nuggets in his concluding statements.

Under the subject “Progress, Precision and Profit,” Musk first lays out technical and operational directives to realize substantive output. However, he culminates with: “BTW, here are a few productivity recommendations” for organizational communications. In a seven-bullet dispatching of corporate meetings and structural hierarchies, Musk encodes millennial values in Tesla’s internal brand philosophy. The first three bullets attack meetings – big, small, long, short, inclusive or exclusive. Musk identifies nearly all meetings as enemies of productivity. Then he rebukes old-school paradigms of corporate communication inefficiencies, threatening the livelihood of managers getting lost in the noise that leads to “super dumb things.” Finally, Musk chides employees not to be a “Dilbert cartoon” by empowering a new corporate hegemony based on “common sense” and questioning rules.

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This radical top-down proclamation calculates on its figurative appeal to millennials. The sensational aspect of Musk championing meeting walkouts is certain watercooler fodder. This sentiment corresponds with the social currency of protests and youth activism. But the buzz isn’t exactly the point since most employees already know the narrative. Rumors have long established Musk’s anti-meeting ethos, such as this Quora post by a former SpaceX employee. These seven bullets about communication efficiency aren’t fresh news, so it’s curious that he included them. Musk’s expansiveness seems deliberately crafted for translation and dissemination through mass and social media on multiple levels. His productivity advice reminds external stakeholders and spectators of Tesla’s audacious, ambitious brand, but serves an entirely different purpose for its internal audience.

Notably, earlier in the email Musk prioritizes a hiring spree to meet a new, round-the-clock production cycle. “Please refer anyone you know who you think meets the Tesla bar for talent, drive and trust,” Musk challenges. “Tesla will be adding about 400 people per week for several weeks.” While mass media blew up the rule-breaking and the meeting-killing (again), Musk cunningly signaled that Tesla needs thousands of entry-level job applicants – stat. Imagine the texts, snaps and grams proliferating a simple recruiting hook: “u shd apply @ Tesla, don’t have 2 go 2 mtgs!”

According to Pew Research, which defines millennials as adults between the ages of 22 and 37, this Tesla workforce target is characterized as much by its unique dependence on technology for communication as by its birthdates. Indeed, this generation relies on smartphones, clouds and SaaS to communicate and develop professional relationships. Meeting culture and pecking orders signify inefficient information flow and obsolescence to them; we get that. That’s why Musk’s email is all about rallying employees to leverage their best millennial attributes to attract more candidates. Tesla hopes to activate a key employment base and tool mass media to confirm its hotshot brand.

Furthermore, it turns out that Musk needs to get ahead of a report that California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating Tesla’s factory for a seeming disregard of employee welfare. Although Musk characterizes the investigation as just another political tactic in a long-running unionization sideshow, the scrutiny of worker conditions strikes at the critical confluence of Tesla’s latest hiring initiative. It seems to create a potential contradiction within Tesla’s brand identity by enticing a generation’s progressive, egalitarian instincts while denying their socialistic expectations. Musk treads a fine edge in messaging here. On the one hand, he encourages employees to express independence and confront ineptitudes. On the other hand, quashing employee pleas for correction and prevention of dangerous factory conditions implies hypocrisy. The veracity of former Tesla employees’ claims of workplace hazards may be the latest touchstone for Musk’s brand vision as a millennial icon. How he ultimately resolves the unfortunate timing of ambitious recruiting goals against escalating calls for employee protections will be one more chapter in the lore of Musk’s leadership.

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Six Degrees
Six Degrees uses psycho-sensory tools and techniques to build more successful national and global brands. Brands are rooted in human perception. And our psycho-sensory approach is designed to identify deeper and richer insights from human perception and then develop brand communications that change suboptimal perceptions or reinforce the right perceptions. More than 80 percent of the information humans process is nonverbal, making it essential that brands manage the sensory signals they send out. Our people are passionate branding experts wielding powerful psycho-sensory tools to build stronger and more successful brands across the globe.

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