The Tesla Tease: Exclusivity through Complicity

tesla-logoPrestige brands don’t have it easy. We don’t want them to sell to us (in fact, they should ‘un-sell‘), but we love for them to seduce us. They must make us desire them, not just need them, for only then might we be willing to splurge and pay the premium they demand.  Heck, in the case of Tesla people people even put down money before they can see a prototype let alone test drive that Model 3.

How do modern prestige brands do this?  How do they lure us in – often against our better judgement?  To a large degree it’s by making us ‘long to belong’: creating a sense that they can give us access to something we don’t want to miss, something that will enrich our lives, give us an extra kick or even a more meaningful experience. In our book we call the brands that do this best ‘Ueber-Brands’ and describe what they do in terms of putting up a ‘velvet rope’.  Not literally, but figuratively. They create a bit of a barrier which makes us want to look behind, get inside, try it out . It makes that brand feel a bit out of reach and desirable, even though it’s just a couple of feet or a ‘click’ away. 

Arguably the most important aspect of making the velvet rope work is the people. The whole concept is based on us being torn between ‘collectivity’ and individuality. Those who are ‘insiders’ will decide on who is going to wait outside and will define the aspirational pull the brand can exert.  This is why modern prestige follow a different targeting approach than most others. You could call it top-down vs. bottom-up. Yes, they will define the group of consumers they need to reach and convert in order to be successful (the ‘strategic target’).  But on top they map out the idealized version of their clients. Some call this the ‘design target,’ we like to think of them as the ‘Ueber-Target’.

Ueber-Brands play with our desire to belong to where we don’t quite belong.  The brand becomes the connection to a ‘tribe’ that promises their members the sense of cool in the eyes of others that it has for them. Think of Harley Davidson owners feeling like ‘Hells Angels’ – even if just for a week-end outing.  This ‘Ueber-Target’, the elite version of their true customers, is the benchmark for all the brand’s actions and they take great pains to always be associated with them. Because they know they only keep us dreaming – and spending the extra cash – as long as they can connect us with the dreams we have. And those are mostly dreams about ourselves – how and who we would like to be, and who we’d like to be seen with.

The Tesla Tease
A case in point is Tesla, the car brand of the moment.  Elon Musk, the CEO, very carefully planned on using the vanity as well as the allure of the rich eco-tech tribe to help him achieve his very public mission of building an empire, with an e-vehicle in every garage. The whole company is founded on a simple cascading model: first get the top of the market with the highest margins to buy-in and then develop down, using the capital generated on the top (and the reservation deposits the ‘others’ are willing to put down by then) to fund the expansion and successive democratization.

Not dealership but 'showroom' in Berlin

Not dealership but ‘showroom’ in Berlin

Consequently, Tesla started by launching the Tesla Roadster, a highly charged super sports car, in 2008, followed in 2012 with the Tesla Model S, a fully electric luxury sedan which is to be followed by the Tesla’s ‘people’s car’ – the Model 3′ – promised to start delivery in 2017.

The roadster was priced above US $110,000 and the sedan runs somewhere around US $90,000 – anything but cheap, especially for a company without an established reputation. And yet it worked – by applying the velvet rope principle. Musk made it his mission to place the car in the context of Hollywood. From Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner to Laurence Fishburne to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the fans of Tesla read almost like the guest list of an Academy Awards party.   And although the good people at Tesla keep saying that they don’t care about marketing tricks and that ‘everybody driving a Tesla is a celebrity’, they also concluded that ‘there are other buyer segments where being “in” on Hollywood’s A-list definitely helps stoke interest’.  With all this interest, there is, of course, a new movie in the making about the 19th-century electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, after whom the brand is named and who is described as ‘a “scientific superman” who, against all odds, changed the world forever with his imagination, discoveries, and inventions’.  – Sounds familiar?

The Man - a NYT bestseller

The Man – a NYT bestseller

Yes, because the biggest star of the tribe is Elon Musk himself, after all. He has managed to accrue so much wattage that he can outshine the entire car industry, with more than six million followers on Twitter alone (12x more than BMW Group) and an invitation to even the most exclusive Oscar party (he has 3x more followers than Ben, after all).  He is seen as the messiah of car making, alternative energy, migration to Mars and more. He is Steve Jobs and Al Gore rolled into one, a ‘creative-thinker-meets-power-player’, combining cool and charisma with conviction. And that exerts an almost irresistible pull, and not just to the eco-conscious elite.  Musk is his own best Ueber-Target, projecting fame and fortune with a big dose of foresight, representing the guy we all would like to be.


Exclusivity Through Complicity
Musk was crazy and courageous enough to think he could make the world a better place and cunning enough to make it happen. Perhaps that’s why it never really mattered that he pursues his ‘milk the rich to access the poor (OK, the middle class)’ in all openness. Anyone curious enough can quickly find out that Tesla aims to eventually mass-produce fully electric cars at affordable prices. In August 2008 Musk blogged ‘Just between you and me…  So, in short, the master plan is: 1. Build sports cars, 2. Use that money to build an affordable car, 3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car, and 4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options.’ And to this day you can read the same in more detail on the website: ‘The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high-end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market’.

Tesla never even tried to seduce us secretly. The brand pulls our strings in the most outspoken way – and yet we fall for it. Or actually, we don’t really fall for it, we follow Elon Musk willingly. We believe in his mission and are honored and enchanted to help him along. The fact that we can be part of an eco-elite outshines any sense of feeling manipulated and lets us gladly become tools in the hands of the eco-master.  It isn’t just Musk’s personality or his mission that lets Tesla get away with executing its strategy so unabashedly. Tesla isn’t successful despite being so open about it, but because of it.

Younger and better-educated consumers in particular have become so adept at marketing that the only way we can actually be ‘tricked’ is through a certain sense of complicity. At a more popular level, ‘crowdfunding’ often works this way. Eric Migicovsky used Kickstarter as a platform to create a community of accomplices when he worked on his dream to create a wearable computer – the Pebble Smartwatch. Pebble raised a record-shattering US $10 million through half a million investors back in 2012.  Yes, the funding helped develop the watch, but it was as instrumental in creating a deeper pull by investing people – beyond the money. Migicovsky recognized the strength of vesting people and went for Kickstarter again in 2015 – despite sitting on more than enough cash by then to have self-funded the development and advertisement for the second watch.

We prefer to see ourselves as participants than objects of somebody else’s marketing campaign. We want to be ‘in on the joke’ when we’re being fooled. Because fooled we still are. We may think we see through the strategy to lure us in, but we still can’t help ourselves. This is what Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and behavioral economist discovered: our intuitive, instinctive side will always be gullible, no matter how educated and critical our rational, logical one is. We people will always act to some degree ‘irrationally’ and against our better judgement. But Ueber-Brands make it a bit easier for us, by mediating between our ‘feeling’ and our ‘knowing’ sides. They acknowledge our marketing smarts and placate our critical minds by giving us a sense of following willingly rather than having one pulled on us. In other words, they create a sense of exclusivity by being inclusive – by including us and both sides of our brains. They involve us as knowing agents and happily feeling followers at the same time.


To learn more about Ueber-Brands, the fine balance between ‘Longing and Belonging‘, ‘Ueber-Targets‘, etc. check out other case studies and interviews on our blog – cast and read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands”.

Here is a link to the Tesla Motors’ website, information about Elon Musk and his muse Nikola Tesla.

And here is Elon’s blog post laying out the Tesla road to ruling the car industry ‘just between you and him’.

The Wikipedia description of Daniel Kahneman’s seminal work on ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is a global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. Principal at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm, he now helps others to elevate brands and make them peerless and priceless. JP also teaches brand strategy at NYU Stern and Columbia Business School and leads the Marketing Institute at The Conference Board, all in New York. Jp previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and lead brand- and corporate strategy development and execution at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP and Wolf Schaefer have co-authored the best-selling books “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which lays out what drives the success of modern premium brands and "Brand Elevation - Lessons in Ueber-Branding" a guide to developing and executing a brand elevation strategy. Find the books here:
This entry was posted in 1 - Mission Incomparable - The first rule is to make your own, 2 - Longing vs Belonging - The challenge is both, 6 - Un-Sell - The superiority of seduction and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Tesla Tease: Exclusivity through Complicity

  1. Pingback: Questions To Answer: How Balance Longing and Belonging? | Ueber-Brands™

  2. Pingback: Un-Selling – The Superiority of Seduction | Ueber-Brands™

  3. Pingback: Cadillac – Resuscitation without Nostalgia nor Provocation? – Interview with Uwe Ellinghaus, CMO | Ueber-Brands

Make an Ueber-Comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s