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The enigma of Musk – and why you shouldn’t try to emulate him

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The Perks of Being an Elon Musk

It is safe to say that Elon Musk is one of the most influential personal brands today.

Love him or hate him, it’s difficult to ignore him.

A single tweet from him can influence stock markets, cryptocurrency, or even the fate of songs.¹

In this age of LinkedIn wars being waged over whether 18-hour work days are ethical or not, Musk is creating his own playbook- clocking in 100-hour work weeks, engaging with customers directly over Twitter, taking responsibility for his mistakes, and firefighting issues on the frontlines.

And he isn’t shy about doing it all under full public glare- through his myriad interviews and Twitter pronouncements that create a high media frenzy. Thus, he takes the general public along on his personal journey, and they in turn become invested in knowing the outcome of his adventures.

And he doesn’t disappoint them. Almost all of his actions are adventurous and announced with either candidness or humor (sometimes both, as in the “let that sink in” joke about his entrance to the Twitter office as its owner.)

He does not deal in esoteric ‘life truths’ like some Silicon Valley philosophers, or complex financial products like Wall Street millionaires. He builds rockets, cars, tunnels, and solar panels. Even if they fail sometimes, they still lend credence to the aura of a ‘people’s hero’ who is fighting valiantly in the public arena.

This has given Musk some unique advantages as far as building a personal brand goes, perhaps advantages not enjoyed so far by any other personality at such a vast scale.

Let’s take a look at some of these advantages:

An influencer who can really influence

Over the years, the term ‘influencer’ has become diluted to an extent. So many of our run-of-the-mill influencers focus purely on vanity metrics like the number of followers and reach. However, the true impact of an influencer lies in how he/she can influence conversion. And Musk certainly can do that. His actions have a tremendous financial impact, whether it be for good or bad.

A single tweet of his can change the course of the stock market, elevate or plunge company shares, change the fortunes of cryptocurrency, or even improve the business of song publishers. As an influencer, he has transcended the business world, becoming a combination of a celebrity, a pop culture icon, and curiously enough, a man of the people.

All screenshots are taken from the Guardian newspaper (links in sources)²³⁴⁵⁶

He has a better command of social media, the cultural rubrics of the new generation, and the pulse of the market than most CMOs. This allows him to break all rules of social media engagement and still gain popularity and press coverage. For instance, he is well known for elevating trolling and memes to an art form, even making serious announcements in the form of memes. Musk’s success on this front lies in a combination of two things – 1) he comes across as authentic (after all, he named his own child X Æ A-Xii) and 2) he has mastered the balance between constantly being in the news and yet preventing his audience from getting tired of him by providing variety.

Musk’s post reaffirming his commitment to charge $8 for Twitter verification.

Musk announcing his intention to oppose Apple’s move to stop advertising on Twitter.

And true to form, Musk himself has acknowledged this:

Cultish followers who form a defensive wall

Over the years, Musk has fashioned himself into a modern folk hero, with a story and following to match. Even though he became successful with PayPal, his story is best associated with Tesla, and his vision to save the earth from climate change and ensure the multi-planetary survival of our species.

This attracted a cultish following of fans, who refer to themselves as Muskateers. They praise his actions publicly, and defend his decisions vigorously, thus creating a positive reputation buffer between him and his critics.

This cultish devotion has come in handy for Musk’s defense in recent times, when he was criticized for what was perceived as his harsh treatment of Twitter employees.

While blind devotees are a part and parcel of a cult, Musk’s universal appeal and success have also drawn leading thinkers, politicians and media personalities to his camp. And these folks are not afraid to publicly defend Musk, putting their personal reputations on the line, often parsing his decisions to decode the strategy and brilliance behind them. At the very least, they are always willing to cut him a lot of slack.

Paul Graham is the co-founder of Y Combinator

But only having blind followers won’t make someone a cult figure. One needs to have detractors also. Musk certainly has his share of critics, but curiously enough, his detractors and the debates they generate, often end up as a counterfoil that amplifies the very narrative Musk wants to push.

A media house by himself

With 119 mn followers on a single social media platform, Musk is a one-man media house. In 2016, Musk generated ~$2 bn worth of free press for Tesla because of his personal brand and his followers who amplified his message.⁷

Which CEO in modern times can lay claim to such figures?

Musk’s media success lies in the fact that for better or for worse, every single tweet of his, even when he is joking around, gets people animated. His detractors and followers fight it out on public media, thus ensuring that Musk’s message remains relevant long after he has stopped talking about it. Musk often helps matters along by finding time to respond to social media posts, thus ensuring their reach expands considerably.

Bidding in Public and Building in Public

Most founders these days are embracing the idea of building in public, but Musk has gone a step further by bidding in public. He often throws up important decisions to the public’s opinion, conducting polls that seem designed to help him make up his mind. Some examples of this include how he ‘came to the decision’ to sell Tesla shares, or how he figured out whether to reinstate Donald Trump on Twitter.

Musk has also often taken the public along for the ride on his thought processes behind setting up companies or taking major actions. This sort of free styling approach to business is something no one else has attempted so far, thus adding to the mystique of Elon’s brand.

Taking on Governments and public bodies with impunity

Over the years, Musk has also become politically outspoken, tying together his personal values of free speech, capitalism and enterprise to form definite opinions about politics and governance. Even as his businesses utilize state subsidies, Musk has criticized the government’s policies and antagonized politicians. He has offered his solution to world problems like the Russia-Ukraine war and has even weighed in on public health issues like population control and Covid vaccines, often controversially.

And he has not shied away from this even when he has had to face world legal and financial consequences. For instance, his tweet about taking Tesla private, which invited SEC action, stripped him of his Tesla Chairmanship for 3 years.⁸

A great personal brand – but should you try to emulate it?

Starting from buying Twitter shares to its eventful acquisition journey, Elon Musk has no doubt been one of the most visible faces in 2022. Interestingly, his appeal cuts across a wide swath of audiences and geographies- from the US to India and from startup founders to crypto enthusiasts.

It is natural for such a powerful personal brand to create a bewitching impact- especially in the startup fraternity that sees Musk as a classic iconoclast who is challenging conventions, disrupting categories and creating impact at scale.

In times when founders are increasingly becoming the de-facto ambassadors of their startup brands, it can be an easy temptation for them to emulate the ‘Musk-template’ in a quest to build their own personal brand.

However, it is wise to remember that Elon Musk is an outlier and an enigma. The method behind his seeming eccentricity is tough to decode. All said and done, Elon Musk has got a cult following because he has built something game-changing, demonstrated an impact and is on multiple missions that can change the future of humanity. That’s probably the reason why Musk stands as a rare exception where even his devil-may-care attitude evokes such devotion.

For mere mortals, ‘Musk-Inspired’ mannerisms- the temptation to be deliberately eccentric and provocative in media pronouncements, social media posts and actions might seem like a clever hack to garner attention. But if not backed by real substance these can come across as shallow and arrogant, inviting a barrage of backlash.

Worse, while trying to copy their icons, some founders start to inhabit a make-believe world, an echo chamber of their own creation that is far removed from reality. The consequences can be disastrous for both their personal brand as well as their business.

The saga of Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos and the consequences thereof is a sobering reminder of how deleterious this pursuit can be.⁹

While building a personal brand is rewarding, it is important to recognize your own strengths, your own authentic voice and live up to them with conviction and consistency. This is the only sustainable way to curate an enduring personal brand. (read more about it here).

So, while it’s great to follow Musk on social media and maybe even get inspired by his feats, the most important rider in the story of Brand Musk remains- “Don’t Try This at Home.”


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