The Anatomy of a Strategic Narrative — Deconstructing Elon Musk's Tesla Pitch

Young startup teams set out with a vision to change the world. But today, they face intense competition for investment, talented employees, customers, and advisors. The pace of innovation has accelerated to a point where traditional differentiation is a sure-fire way to get lost in the crowd.

That means great ideas, world-changing innovations, millions in funding and years of intense work can be undermined by an inability to get people excited.

However, this intense feature-focused competition opens up new opportunities for differentiation. Tesla succeeded despite well-equipped, funded, and manned competitors. They’ve convinced investors, hired experts, developed complex products, and rallied customers across the world. All at a breakneck pace.

From the very beginning, Tesla has been driven by a strong strategic narrative. They’ve built teams that are not only eager to be part of their mission, but willing “to be the equivalent of Special Forces”. And they’ve forged a unique emotional connection with a global audience, an accolade their competitors cannot simply copy.

Tesla’s strategic narrative is evident in each of Elon Musk’s pitches and interviews. I’m going to deconstruct Musk’s Model 3 revelation to show you exactly what goes into both an exciting pitch and a competition-killing strategic narrative.

1: Start with a profound change

Musk starts his pitch by calling attention to a profound change: Record high CO₂ concentration growth

Musk starts his pitch by calling attention to a profound change: Record high CO₂ concentration growth

Musk starts the pitch by calling attention to a profound change in the world: record high concentrations of CO₂. Illustrated by an almost vertical line on the graph, this change directly addresses our tendency to be optimistic about the future: it clearly shows things aren’t getting better.

By calling attention to this undeniable shift, which is independent of Tesla, Musk can move his audience from adherence to the status quo to action… but to achieve this, he first needs to humanise the change, to show exactly why it matters to his audience.

2: Define what’s at stake

Musk establishes an enemy which his audience can align against: transportation emissions

Musk establishes an enemy which his audience can align against: transportation emissions

Rising global temperatures threaten to increase the likelihood of natural disasters and unforeseen environmental changes. But there is also a significant issue that’s affecting people right now: tens of thousands of deaths in the US alone are attributable to transportation emissions.

Emissions are killing people, a fact that everybody can agree upon. By calling attention to this, Musk created a tangible enemy that his audience can align against.

It’s important to note that Musk hasn’t directly pointed at the audience and accused them of causing the (or having a) problem. He’s created a separate enemy that they can collectively attack, avoiding resistance and giving his audience the opportunity to be the heroes, rather than the villains.

3: Describe a better future

Musk’s vision for the future: transition to sustainable energy

Musk’s vision for the future: transition to sustainable energy

With an enemy established and heroes poised to fight it, Musk introduces his vision of a better world. In this new world, we have transitioned to sustainable energy, therefore eradicating deadly emissions from our cities.

By showing what success looks like before introducing your products, you can position capabilities as tools that enable your customers to reach a new world. It gives everything you do context, and serves as a compelling answer to the question: so what?

Until this point Musk hasn’t introduced a single product or feature. He has differentiated Tesla from the competition by positioning them relative to a better future. This gives Tesla an intangible emotional advantage that many young tech startups fail to consider.

4. Features facilitate the journey

Musk introduces the Supercharger network as a tool which gives people the freedom to travel, rather than just a way to charge batteries

Musk introduces the Supercharger network as a tool which gives people the freedom to travel, rather than just a way to charge batteries

The journey to a better world is arduous, it’s interspersed with difficult challenges. If it were easy, your company wouldn’t need to exist!

At this point, the audience is eager to hear about the new ways that Tesla is going to help customers. But before Musk gets to the new Model 3, he reflects on Tesla’s achievements in the past. Starting with the Tesla Roadster, Musk introduces lessons, capabilities, and features that have been developed over the years. The benefits are twofold: first, Musk can describe what to expect in the Model 3 while referring to tangible evidence; and second, Musk proves that their strategic narrative isn’t just a marketing ploy, it’s a strategy that exists at the core of Tesla.

As he continues on to introduce the new car, Musk never fails to pair features with challenges. Take the Supercharger network. Musk starts with a concept that we can all relate to: a car should give us the freedom to travel where we want when we want. That’s exactly what the Supercharger network enables.

The result is an audience who value your capabilities because they understand exactly how they fit into their journey to a better future.

5. Prove it

To great applause, three new Tesla Model 3’s drive onto the stage

To great applause, three new Tesla Model 3’s drive onto the stage

Building a new product is always difficult and Musk’s audience know this. Scepticism is normal, especially when you’re asking customers to spend money, so to quash any doubts three Model 3’s drive onto the stage.

To reinforce the outstanding reception, Musk announces that “the total number of orders for the Model 3 in the last 24 hours has now passed 115,000.” An impressive number that alludes to a growing waiting list that no buyer wants to be at the bottom of.

Musk has engaged his audience with a story that empowers them to be the hero. He’s demonstrated what the future can look like and shown how Tesla is making it possible. And he’s provided solid proof that these aren’t just ideas, but real products that hundreds of thousands of customers are ordering.

The Strategic Narrative Drives Tesla

Tesla’s strategic narrative transformed a car unveiling into a celebration of Tesla’s success and the future that they’re enabling.

From the launch of the Roadster, Musk has deployed strategic narratives to power growth. Tesla has created a connection with their customers which goes beyond their products. It inspires fan-made ads and a movement of people who are playing their part to build a better future. And that’s something that their competitors can’t easily replicate.

It’s not enough to simply come up with your own strategic narrative. Like Tesla, you have to deploy it throughout your organisation. The evidence proves that this is the approach that Musk has taken from the start, even before Tesla had a product on the market, to successfully built a company in a highly competitive field.

James Phillips King