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Don’t Follow Tesla’s Marketing Mistake

Don’t Follow Tesla’s Marketing Mistake

Tell us you don’t know anything about marketing without telling us you don’t know anything about marketing.

Last week, multibillionaire and marketing genius Elon Musk fired the newly formed content and marketing team one year after he begrudgingly said he would “try a little advertising and see how it goes.”

News of the dismissal came just after numerous reports of the bugs, failures, and limited sales of Tesla’s newest product — the bigger and fatter Back-To-The-Future DeLorean known as the Cybertruck. It also came just before Tesla’s latest earnings report.

Should you care that 40 people in Tesla’s marketing and content team were removed unceremoniously? Is that a good thing for the brand?  What does it say about your prospects in marketing?

We went to Robert Rose, CMI’s chief strategy advisor, for his take. Watch this video or read on for his takeaways:

What a difference a year makes

Last week was tough for about 40 people in Tesla’s marketing department. However, I imagine many probably saw their leave coming in one way or another.

Their departure was part of an ongoing broader layoff at Tesla, which earlier announced plans to reduce its global workforce by 10%. Given that Tesla still counts more than 140,000 employees, the total layoff number could eventually hit 30,000 to 40,000. So, losing 40 marketing and content people who are more appropriately described as communications professionals isn’t the most meaningful part of the Tesla story.

But what resonates with me the most is Tesla’s sudden turnaround in its beliefs about marketing, advertising, and content as a modern company. Only a year ago, Elon Musk seemingly begrudgingly said he would try advertising. At that time, the content team already existed, but they got a new mandate to “try a little” advertising. A year into that experiment, Elon said the ads were “far too generic” on his X platform.

But were they? Maybe they were, and maybe they weren’t. Maybe his team wasn’t big enough or lacked the skills to produce amazing brand advertising. Maybe the team did magnificent work but couldn’t get it approved. Maybe they did but couldn’t get it promoted properly. Today’s modern marketer realizes so many things that get in the way of doing — and publishing — outstanding creative work.

No doubt, the former Tesla marketing and content teams should be proud of the work they did. In a LinkedIn post, the group’s leader, Alex Ingram, wrote about the demise and thanked his team for the amazing creative work they did over the years.

So, what’s the takeaway?

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme

Back in January, which feels like ancient history, I wrote about Solo Brands throwing its brand marketing team under the bus after a disappointing sales quarter of its Solo Stove despite their amazing creative work. Its Snoop Dogg campaign went viral, but six weeks later, the company hadn’t achieved the desired sales, so it fired the CEO. I pointed out that something bigger was probably at play, but they felt compelled to make the marketing plan the scapegoat.

So here we go again, but this time it’s Tesla. As the famous quote says, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”

Though most news reports say the 40-person team had only been around a year, my reading says the employees had been around a lot longer than that. In Alex’s LinkedIn post, he mentions they had been doing the work in comms, public relations, and social media since 2019. It was Elon’s quote to “try a little paid advertising” that was a year old.

On the surface, the valuable comms team was doing interesting things, but then they had to try advertising. It didn’t work to Elon’s liking, so Tesla got rid of the team.

That makes almost as much sense as tearing down a social media platform to its studs to see what will break and then being surprised when it does.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned during the Solo Stove challenge, marketers must be used to this. When things go amazingly well, marketing almost never gets the credit. It’s the genius CEO’s vision, the extraordinary sales team, or a superstar product that won the day. Then things fail, and it’s almost always marketing’s fault.

It’s a Faustian bargain that marketers have accepted since marketing has been around.

Don’t take any takeaways from Tesla on what to do

What annoys me the most is when a CEO, board, or leadership team feels the need to throw marketing under the bus when it’s assuredly not their fault. If things were going great for Tesla — and they are really, really not — would Elon take time out of his busy day to thank the marketing and content team that created the ads? Of course not.

So, why, in the face of laying off 10% of Tesla’s workforce, would he go out of his way to throw shade at a team that makes up 0.0002% of the company and say that their work was “generic”?

Because Elon thinks he knows better, and his insecurity requires him to say the quiet part out loud. More troublesome are the leadership teams across the industry who will hear this pronouncement and, as they did in Twitter’s dismantling, say, “Maybe we should do that too.”

Spoiler alert for those leaders: Don’t. Tesla always considered marketing and branding as an afterthought. Its noted absence is not laudable but one of the myriad symptoms of challenges the car company has. There are no lessons to be learned here for any leadership team other than what not to do.

To the former content growth team at Tesla, bon voyage. Let me know if I can do anything to help. Your work was fantastic. Your fellow marketing and communications practitioners are with you. You will all end up in a better place.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute