Beautiful product design and sustainable business vision may be common ways to explain Tesla. But they only distract from Tesla's real driver of success: the enduring quest for heroic masculinity.
Few CEOs are keeping the audience on the edge of their seats like Tesla's Elon Musk. Musk's business credentials read like the biography of Iron Man alter-ego Tony Stark: after selling his PayPal venture, he became CEO of both Tesla and the space exploration company SpaceX in addition to being the chairman of innovative solar panel maker Solar City. And like Tony Stark, Elon Musk talks, seriously, about colonizing Mars and saving the human race.
Most marketing experts explain Musk's success either through the beauty and quality of his products or, alternatively, through the fact that he is driven to help solve some of humanities most vexing problems through entrepreneurship.
However, as my colleagues Doug Holt and Craig Thompson have demonstrated in the Journal of Consumer Research, men draw from a host of market-based resources like brands, movies, celebrities, and other cultural symbols to construct themselves as masculine. Like John Wayne or Ronald Reagan, every American man tries to blend opposing breadwinner and rebel values into a man-of-action-hero who is larger than the sum of his parts.
How can we better understand Tesla's value as a masculinity symbol?
To begin, most men aspire to be breadwinners. They present themselves as educated, corporate agents who provide for their families. But because too much breadwinning raises the specters of risk aversion, conformity, and boredom, most men also aspire to be rebels. Rebels are men who impress through their can-do spirit, their bold moves, and their ability to "show it to the Man." But the downside to rebel masculinity is the risk associated with rising up against the status quo. For this reason, society renders pure rebels attractive (for a brief moment) but also largely superficial, immature, uncaring, and unreliable.
Second, in every historical epoch, the uneasy relationship between breadwinner and rebel has also been influenced by a particular social climate. In our time, for instance, men's identity projects are also shaped by larger cultural conversations about global warming and the future of our planet. So, unlike post-war men, contemporary men must therefore also harmonize their traditional breadwinner responsibilities with larger-scale responsibilities -- responsibilities that would normally require some form of rebellious dissent. However, just being a radical environmentalist who rises up against the mainstream and agrees with Naomi Klein's recent argument that "the really inconvenient truth is that it's not about carbon -- it's about capitalism" undermines important economic goals.
So what's the symbolic solution? Tesla Man!
Almost like Iron Man, Tesla Man combines rugged individualism, entrepreneurial can-do spirit, and a seemingly unshakeable faith in markets and technology with a sensible care for nature, the planet, and future generations. Starting at $100.000, Tesla and Elon Musk invite middle- and upper-middle-class men to become mindful Man-of-Action heroes who can resolve any sense of contradiction between their corporate identities, their desire to be rugged, and their sensibility for environmental concerns.
Tesla Man is mindful about the environment but without sacrificing the long-held belief in the power of American entrepreneurial capitalism. Rather than embrace overly radical positions, Tesla Man can shroud himself in the cloaks of a Techtopian Tony Stark who tackles existential problems through innovative concepts like "conscious design" or "sustainable mobility" -- all without undermining existing power relationships. And whereas breadwinner men express their boring conformism through fuel-driven cars that were purchased at regular dealerships, Tesla Man boldly deviates from the status quo like a pioneer -- but without having to go to war with the institutions.
So in summary, arguments about beautiful product design and sustainable business may be one way to explain Tesla's success. But they exist on the surface of a deeper concern about what it means to be a great man today. And so, as Elon Musk adjusts his brand message to the parameters of contemporary American Man-of-Action heroism, the community of Tesla Men will continue to grow. Will Musk also solve some of humanity's most pressing issues? That will probably remain Tony Stark's job.