Published on March 22nd, 2019 | by Zachary Shahan0
Tesla — Framing Is Your Friend
March 22nd, 2019 by Zachary Shahan
Nobody likes a company that is constantly pushing annoying spin your way, constantly puffing PR nonsense into your brain, and constantly filling press releases with vague, fairytailish self-praise about the company’s grand vision and unique role in the future of the world. Nonetheless, any major company that wants its mission, culture, and positive attributes to be communicated accurately and helpfully by the media, customers, and investors needs to put some solid work into framing the discussion.
Tesla, of course, is no different. Actually, hold on, Tesla is different. Tesla has a humongous target on its head thanks to numerous short sellers, high-rolling competitors in the auto production industry, sleazy billionaire and multi-millionaire auto dealers, the saints and societal saviors in the world of Big Oil, and clueless loudmouths who consume the negative spin and regurgitate it through a microphone. Tesla, more than most other companies, needs to be as good as a Pulitzer Prize winner in literature at communications and framing.
Now, look, I’m not a Pulitzer Prize winner, so anyone can take my article about this and tear it up (you just have to print it first), spit on it (be careful if you haven’t printed it and are reading on your computer or phone), or just ignore it (sad me), but I felt something needed to be written about one recent announcement, and better to make the critique a broader message than a simple “kick you while your down” blog post.
Before I get into the details, let’s just throw a couple of examples out there of me telling my friend the same thing in different ways:
1. I’m leaving my job at the Washington Post. I’m going to become a full-time blogger on my own blog. This will save me money since I’ll no longer have to drive to work.
2. I’ve been doing some blogging on my own blog under a pseudonym for a while. I’m raking in the cash and actually have many more readers than on my Washington Post articles. But I only have so much time for it because of my full-time job at the Post. So, I’ve decided to leave the Post and focus 100% on blogging. I think it will go well, but if it ends up bombing, I can just work my way back into conventional reporting in 6 months or so.
I don’t think it’s hard to figure out which of those examples would make your friend nervous and which one would make your friend excited for you.
The recent announcement that Tesla was going to significantly cut back on the number of its stores was one of the most bewildering I’ve seen from Tesla. Aside from the idea/plan itself (which is a discussion for another day), the presentation of the idea is what really confused me. The move was going to be controversial no matter what, but it ended up being super controversial and very clearly spooked a large number of supporters and even highly bullish investors, while giving wet dreams to rabid Tesla short sellers and critics, some of whom thought it was a sign of what they’ve been waiting on for months, years, or even a decade+.
In fact, while I don’t actually know what contributed to the half backflip on the plan (the decision to drop approximately half as many stores as initially intended), I do seriously wonder if Tesla would have stuck with the original plan if the company had communicated it better, if Tesla had simply framed it correctly.
Let’s roll through a few lines in the Tesla blog post about this.
“To achieve these prices while remaining financially sustainable, Tesla is shifting sales worldwide to online only.”
Tesla should not have led with this explanation, so I’ll come back to this line in a moment.
“Shifting all sales online, combined with other ongoing cost efficiencies, will enable us to lower all vehicle prices by about 6% on average, allowing us to achieve the $35,000 Model 3 price point earlier than we expected. Over the next few months, we will be winding down many of our stores, with a small number of stores in high-traffic locations remaining as galleries, showcases and Tesla information centers. The important thing for customers in the United States to understand is that, with online sales, anyone in any state can quickly and easily buy a Tesla.”
Tesla also shouldn’t have led with this explanation, so I’ll come back to this paragraph in a moment.
Oh, shit, Tesla didn’t even put the most compelling reasons for the corporate shift in the blog post! Ahhhhh, thank goodness my head is nearly bald or trying to pull the hair out of it would really hurt!
I’m not actually sure now where this information was first shared (maybe the conference call with the press or maybe on Twitter?), but Tesla should have led this announcement with the point that 78% of Tesla’s 2018 Model 3 purchases were made online. A few other key points should have been worked in from the start as well.
Tesla could have highlighted that there’s an ongoing mass migration away from physical retail stores and toward online shopping. I could go to a number of locations within a 15 minute drive of my Florida home in order to get photos of totally shut down, dilapidated, depressing shopping centers, so I’m sure Tesla could find some good photos, too. Tesla could have painted the picture of a 2019 retail environment in which throwing money at physical stores is throwing money away. People could surely argue with that in the case of cars if they felt like it, but at the very least Tesla’s explanation for the change would have been on much more solid footing.
At the end of it all, Tesla could have said what it said in those quotes above, but in a slightly different way. The company could have highlighted that the change in retail policy meant a big cut in costs and helped to enable the $35,000 Model 3 even before further manufacturing improvements and greater economies of scale enabled it. In the process, Tesla could also highlight its company-wide focus on innovation. Here’s a brief example of how the announcement could have been made (before or alongside the announcement of the $35,000 Model 3):
Tesla is always looking for ways to innovate in order to bring down costs and provide a better experience to consumers. In recent years, we’ve noticed that buyers are increasingly purchasing their cars online. In fact, the vast majority of Model 3 buyers bought their cars online — 78% of them.
This is a trend not only at Tesla. Consumers across the world are buying more and more products online, and physical retail stores, shopping centers, and malls have been shutting down as a result.
Since stores come at a significant extra cost and many of them are not a critical component of our sales process any longer, we have decided that we will close many of our stores in the coming months and pass the savings on to consumers. Prices on the Model 3, Model S, and Model X are being cut today as a result of these coming savings. This is one of the reasons we’re able to open up ordering right now for the $35,000 Model 3.
We recognize the importance of stores for some buyers, so we are keeping high-performing stores open in high-traffic locations. However, 100% of vehicle purchases, whether done on your phone in a store or from the comfort of your home, will now be made online.
Aside from seeing that 78% of Model 3 buyers purchased their cars online, we also saw that 82% of them didn’t take a test drive before buying their cars. For consumers who do want to go on test drives before making a final decision on a new car, we have another solution. We will let buyers return any car within 7 days of purchase for a full refund, no questions asked. With the most satisfied vehicle owners in the US, we don’t expect many people will want to return their Teslas, but this gives them that option via what is essentially a super-extended test drive (or free rental).
There’s also a subtle upside to this switch for many potential consumers. Auto dealer associations, automakers, and certain politicians have blocked Tesla sales in several US states. Many consumers in these states may feel like they can’t really buy a Tesla since there isn’t a store nearby. Now, with 100% of Tesla sales occurring online, everyone should feel like they are on even footing and there’s no need to go into a physical store to buy a Tesla. Even if your state will not let a sustainable energy company with the safest cars on the market sell vehicles or clean energy products at a store within its borders, you can now buy those cars or energy products online like everyone else.
Okay, perhaps I went a little long there, but you get the point. Would something like that spook investors, potential customers, or general supporters? I don’t think so.
Broader Framing Issues
Elon Musk is pretty superb about communications (overall) on Twitter and in interviews. It’s actually been a top strength of the company as far back as I’ve followed Tesla. People love candid, love real, love Elon’s interaction with all levels of social “klout,” love the joking, love all the allusions, and love the honest humility. I’m pretty sure Elon communicates this way not because of of some grand branding strategy (last I heard, he hates “branding”), but because he also prefers when people and companies communicate in this way. Cool. I love it.
I’m obviously not the only one, and even many of his biggest critics and skeptics have praised his communication skills — in backhanded ways. Some of them claim that he’s a master at smoke and mirrors or at creating a “reality distortion field.” I think that’s nonsense, but it’s a testament to something that even they can see — Elon is a communications wizard.
Tesla has also been pretty good at emphasizing its mission time and time again (if you don’t know it, you should by now). It’s been pretty good at emphasizing concern for human life, emphasizing an intention to do right by customers, and explaining what sets it apart from other companies. However, I think the company could do 5–10× more of this in a variety of ways in order to better create a narrative that makes its way to people like my aunt, uncle, and grandma, who I discovered in the past year picked up very warped and uninformed opinions of Tesla.
Believe me, I know all about the nasty forces at work warping the Tesla story for my relatives — CleanTechnica tracks and reports on that more than any other media outlet or blog. (See our Pravduh archives, for example.) But that’s the point — when your attackers are doing whatever they can to warp the story of the company ~30 times a day, you have to communicate a few core messages as obsessively and creatively as possible, too.
I think these are four big corners of the Tesla frame that should guide or be reflected in Tesla messaging over and over and over again:
1. Tesla’s chief aim is to help people, to help society, to help humanity.
2. Tesla puts safety top of the list when designing, developing, and producing vehicles.
3. Tesla loves fun. Tesla does fun like no one else. Tesla = fun.
4. Tesla is innovating every second of every day and at a level above any competitors. The company is constantly focused on trial & error of new ideas in order to improve faster than anyone else.
Those cornerstones of the Tesla story should be considered with every piece of messaging Tesla creates and should be so ingrained in Tesla communicators’ heads that they can talk about them effectively while falling asleep and also in the first 3 minutes of their sleep.
When responding to any press inquiry, when writing any blog post, and when creating any presentation, those four corners of the frame should be considered so that they can be included if appropriate. If you just throw them around here or there as they pop into mind, or as they are the primary focus of a specific news item, you are not creating a story of the company that captures and conveys the company’s essence. Those are the essence of Tesla, but go on the street (outside of California or Norway, preferably) and find how many people mention those four topics in one way or another if you ask them to tell you about Tesla. I hope the results are better than I expect.
As a final note, I’ll come back to the Tesla smear one more time. Indeed, the various smear campaigns targeted at Tesla are hard to counteract, but Tesla could do more to try to be in the thick of the fight and respond in a timely fashion. The rebuttals shouldn’t be late-night tweets from Elon. Tesla should push to be on the shows where the most attacks occur, should publish frequent pre-emptive communications that keep nonsense from growing legs and running all over the world, and should create regular blog posts outright demolishing nonsense about the company that is pushed via major outlets. Elon should oversee all of that and should certainly be able to tweet in the way that he’s been doing, but he shouldn’t be on the front lines almost alone and as the only major public face of Tesla. Of course, it’s Elon’s call at the end of the day whether he thinks the company should roll as it’s been rolling. It’s his call whether the company should take a much different approach. However, I think if he listened to his many supporters, as he is often keen to do, he’d notice them crying for this kind of change.