When the news broke that Elon Musk had purchased 9.2% of Twitter for just shy of $3 billion, the first statement about the move by the Tesla CEO—one of Twitter’s most popular and prolific users—was a giddily glib tweet: “Oh hi lol.”
Oh hi lol
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 4, 2022
The social platform’s stock, meanwhile, jumped by 27%. That is the Musk effect. His mere presence within Twitter’s ownership structure was enough to boost confidence in the power of not just the social platform’s product potential, but even more so, its brand. The little blue bird is now officially tied to Musk, a person who has used tweeting as his primary tool to build more financial gain than anyone on Earth.
Since its founding in 2003, Tesla has famously budgeted approximately zero to traditional advertising, relying heavily on the earned media drummed up by Musk through news media and, more recently, his antics and insights on Twitter. That approach has helped the electric car company become a member of the trillion-dollar market cap club, a valuation that’s almost ten times more than the combined market caps of Ford, GM, and Chrysler, all of whom spend billions on advertising. Maybe Jim Farley, Ford’s CEO, is a lot of laughs (the late SNL performer Chris Farley is a cousin), but his Twitter feed is almost exclusively about Ford. He hasn’t adopted an altcoin cryptocurrency to promote to his followers. To my knowledge, he has insulted exactly zero U.S. Senators. Musk’s personal brand is so strong that he turned Dogecoin, which started as a joke cryptocurrency, into a . . . well, it’s still a joke, albeit one that some early adopters have benefited from his attention.
Musk’s latest move to become the single-largest stockholder in his favorite megaphone will have significant brand value implications for Twitter, Tesla, and his own personal brand.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 7, 2022
For Twitter, that brand impact will depend on how Musk’s innovation-by-Twitter-poll approach works and whether it actually changes the platform for the better. Maybe it’ll be the edit button! But if it is, there are already klaxons going off about what a terrible idea an edit button could be. Or maybe this is the first step in a longer journey toward the decentralized social media that Musk, Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, and current Twitter CEO (for now, at least) Parag Agrawal have been advocating for. That, too, is the sort of thing that sounds great at, say, 4:20, but may not hold up in execution.
Tesla is also in a vulnerable position, given just how closely tied its brand is to that of its leader. I had suggested years ago that the company maaaay want to slowly start laying the foundation for, and growing, its own brand independent of Musk. The balance between the public image of an inspiring CEO and iconic brand advertising of its own can be a driving force for brand growth, as the history of Apple can attest. Of course, we’re talking about a founder who has publicly suggested the acronym for his favorite federal agency stands for fellatio, with little to no effect on his brands, so y’know, uncharted waters.
When it comes to Musk, in a brand context, the guy has been essentially bulletproof. He’s just joined the Twitter board, but he’s already the CEO of a $1 trillion car company, with [checks notes] three other jobs: CEO of an aerospace company, CEO of a computer-brain interface company, and the majority owner of an urban tunneling company. In those roles, he’s navigating the following scandals: The car company is facing lawsuits over a deeply racist work culture, and its autonomous driving system has reputedly caused deaths on the streets as the tech is workshopped in public. The urban tunneling firm Boring Company is routinely mocked for its feebleness in terms of what it actually delivers. And his brain interface company Neuralink has been accused of torturing animals in a way that hasn’t been accepted in scientific circles for decades. This isn’t even a complete list of Musk-related scandals! Meanwhile we’re all over here talking about an edit button?!?
This is the point. This is the power Musk already wields—over this platform and the culture at large. It’s a testament to how he’s used Twitter to build unwavering confidence among his customers, investors, and admirers. He already constructed a free media flywheel around his Twitter presence: Write something provocative, absurd, or insightful; trigger a wave of coverage; rinse and repeat. That flywheel will only spin more quickly, because the cultural footprint of Twitter dwarfs his electric car. At its core, this new Musk story is about a very vocal and powerful individual moving to protect his greatest brand—and brand-building asset. While we dance around whatever feature bauble Musk decides to dangle in front of us, it all adds to his brand image, and by extension, arguably that of his companies. It is the Musk-iest of Musk moves.
The only way this move has a downside for Musk and his brand is if a) the SEC goes full scorched earth and somehow forces him to stop tweeting. (Based on the track record of enforcement so far, this seems highly unlikely). Or b) in the longer term, Twitter’s decentralization or some other Musk-led change takes Twitter beyond a hot-take yellscape and into an even more dangerous weapon that can be tied to a specific, terrible event, or issue. His own personal version of what the 2016 election did for Mark Zuckerberg.
Yet if everything at Twitter goes to hell, Musk will most likely walk away with his personal brand under his arm as the social network explodes into a fireball in the distance, Musk striding confidently ahead like he’s the star of a Michael Bay movie. He’ll tweet something to the effect of, “Well they didn’t listen to me and all my great ideas”—in the lingua franca of some popular meme, of course—along with a Twitter poll asking if he should resign his seat or sell his stock, even if that actually was already happening and the nod to democracy (or mob rule, depending on your POV) is just another performance.
Marketers are constantly talking about and seeking to make their brands a part of culture. By that measure, Musk is one of the world’s greatest. Remember the 2019 Cybertruck event? When Musk had a rock thrown at the window? Musk buying Twitter could very well lead to the first significant crack in his reputation, yet if recent precedent is any indication, it’ll actually just add to his already formidable brand armor.