How is Elon Musk Both the Best and Worst Advertisement for his Businesses?

As the saying goes, “all publicity is good publicity”. But is it true, or just something public figures say to diffuse their controversial behaviour? One recent high-profile case has dominated the headlines with his problematic antics. Elon Musk, the current richest man in the world and the new Twitter CEO, has baffled the world’s press by conducting himself in a manner that would ordinarily sink a company’s reputation – but somehow for him, it only increases his infamy.

It’s an interesting case, which goes against everything we know about maintaining a positive business reputation. In this article, we’ll unpack the pros and cons of Elon’s provocative approach and explain what brands can learn from it.

A Quick Recap

While he’s been in the news for a while now, Elon Musk has enjoyed more attention than usual recently due to his calamitous acquisition of Twitter. As well as being the CEO, Musk has used the platform as his soap box for a number of years now. He’s come out with some corkers, such as these:

And it’s not only his social media presence that has gained him notoriety. He has hit the headlines for his polyamorous home life, his controversial views on COVID-19 and the many lawsuits he has been embroiled in, one of which led to a $41.53 million payout from Tesla.

We love it when brands stand up for what is important to them. But if you have controversial views like Elon Musk, sometimes for the sake of your business, it’s best to keep quiet.

The Pros of Musk’s Provocative Approach

Despite the odds, Musk is the wealthiest man in the world with an estimated net worth between $226-$249 billion as of September 2023, so he must be doing something right. First, let’s discuss what works with Musk’s unconventional approach to being a CEO.

He stays relevant.

As demonstrated by the very existence of this article, his approach is attention-grabbing. His outlandish behaviour maintains his constant presence in the news cycle, which also extends to his businesses. What’s more, with his active presence on Twitter, he has a degree of control over the media narrative. By speaking up about issues or controversies before the media can, he reclaims some agency over public opinion.

It fits his brand.

Since his companies operate at the forefront of developing technology – self-driving electric vehicles, brain-implant technology and space travel – Elon Musk’s persona as a disruptor makes sense. It goes along with his brand. You wouldn’t expect a CEO of such companies to be boring and middle-of-the-road. So in this instance, being outspoken and opinionated works for him. Furthermore, his approach has gained Tesla the highest brand loyalty rate among mainstream luxury car brands.

A cult of personality.

Elon Musk has amassed a die-hard fanbase of like-minded people. A recent YouGov poll showed that “Republicans (74%) are far more likely than Democrats (40%) to have a favourable view of Musk,” and opinions of him surprisingly became more favourable following his takeover of Twitter/X. There is a correlation between fans of Elon Musk and fans of Donald Trump. This could be explained by their shared public persona of being ‘authentic’ and ‘unfiltered’.

Many people are drawn to public figures who portray themselves as outspoken due to the prevalence of misinformation in media and politics. Just because somebody is provocative though, does not necessarily mean they are truthful, but this is a fallacy that seems to have worked in Elon Musk’s favour. While outrageous social media posting from a business owner would ordinarily alienate customers, for Musk, it continually strikes a chord with his audience who view him as real and raw, and more than just a faceless businessman.

The Cons of Elon’s Provocative Approach

His business acumen aside, if you followed a course on how to be a successful CEO, Elon Musk’s Twitter feed would not necessarily be on the reading list. Let’s unpack the drawbacks of behaving provocatively in a professional context.

Decline in Business Value

A key downside to Elon Musk’s controversial public identity is that his business’ value has rapidly declined, in line with his worsening opinion. Research from leading business reputation management firm, Igniyte, shows that the reputation of a company’s CEO can account for over 49% of the company’s overall public perception, and is directly linked to shareholder value and business growth.

In Twitter’s case, Musk recently announced that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Jewish-led organization civil rights organisation, caused a significant drop in X’s revenue due to its discouragement of advertisers dealing with the platform due to X permitting strongly anti-semitic posts.

Turns off some consumers and investors who see him as erratic.

While the numbers speak for themselves with regard to the declining value of his companies, his behaviour is wreaking havoc on his reputation with investors and consumers. Musk’s behaviour doesn’t exactly scream ‘trustworthy and reliable’ which means that potential investors view him as erratic.

Creates distractions from his company’s missions and products

Especially since Musk’s takeover of Twitter, there has been a lot of speculation about the man himself, his personal life and his personality. So much so, that the actual products and services he sells have been overshadowed.

Employee dissatisfaction

While Musk has been causing chaos online, all has not been well in the actual businesses that he runs. He’s been wrapped up in lengthy legal battles relating to reports of sexual harassment and racism at Tesla. Meanwhile, Twitter’s employees conducted a mass walk-out.

As the CEO of multiple multi-billion dollar companies, people-pleasing and employee appreciation are not top of his agenda. Nor is cultivating a psychologically safe work environment. It hopefully goes without saying that smaller businesses should not follow this example and should pay attention where it is due to make sure your team feels safe to come to work.

What Brands Can Learn from Musk

Though he’s a frequent target of ridicule and criticism, whether you love or hate him, Elon Musk is a very successful businessman. And while he may not be the most relatable character out there, there are some takeaways from his approach that can be useful for any business.

The importance of standing out and capturing attention.

If there’s one thing you can say for sure about Elon Musk, it’s that he knows how to attract attention. This is of course crucial for any business looking to establish itself in an existing market. Musk’s brand is categorised as being disruptive, and forward-thinking. His businesses, SpaceX and Tesla, are known for being industry leaders in tech. In order to stand out in this space, any business owner would need to demonstrate trailblazing tendencies.

Leveraging controversy and polarisation can solidify your base.

As discussed, Musk has attracted his fair share of controversy in his time. As explained, his disruptive and irreverent ways suit his brand because his brands are disrupting the status quo. Any business can be on the receiving end of controversy, whether it’s deserved or not. What you can control is how you respond to it. To be fair to Musk, he may have one of the most resilient reputations out there to endure the amount of controversy he has and still have profitable businesses.

Putting a face to a name.

Humans like to deal with other humans. Especially online, it’s easy to feel like brands are nameless, faceless entities. It’s well known that advertising the face or faces behind your brand can help personify your business and forge a deeper relationship with your customers. Your audience is more likely to trust you when they know who you are, what you look like and what you care about. It’s about authenticity.

How can you personalise your business online?

  1. Meet the team: Introduce yourself and your team to your audience. Give fun facts and explain a little bit about your company’s structure. It helps you stand out and reminds followers that there’s a person behind the screen.
  2. Conversational copy: You don’t have to be too robotic with your copywriting. Speak to your customers in a friendly manner on social media and it will give more personality to your brand.
  3. Get behind the camera: Vertical video is currently dominating the social media-sphere. It’s a great time to get involved with TikTok or Instagram reels. Some ideas may be to demonstrate your product, show behind-the-scenes footage or do a Q&A.

If you take too many leaves from Elon Musk’s book, you may spill out of authentic territory and into oversharing. While Musk intended to enable free speech with his rebrand of Twitter, oversharing about your personal life, controversial views and opinions as a business owner can have a detrimental effect on your business. It may also alienate customers if they share differing views to your own. So it’s a fine line to navigate.

How should a business owner behave?

We asked Roz Sheldon, Managing Director of the UK’s longest-standing reputation management firm Igniyte, which helps businesses improve their online reputation and perception for her thoughts on which traits a good CEO should demonstrate.

  1. Being honest, transparent and ethical: “A strong reputation for an individual comes from having a clear message. Trust and reputation go hand-in-hand.”
  2. Consistency: “It’s no use having an online presence which sounds great and answers all of the questions, but doesn’t live up to their personality in real life. Consistency is key. The CEO’s personality, traits, and intentions need to ring true.”
  3. Being a good external communicator: “As the face of the company, a CEO must be able to talk confidently and respectfully to the press and potential consumers. Showing leadership, and a knowledge of the market.”
  4. A customer focus: “Above all, CEOs should be focused on delivering a good customer experience and retaining and growing their customer base. Consumers like to know that they’re at the heart of a company’s focus.”
  5. Having a clear, ambitious focus: “If the CEO appears ambitious, with a clear company message and direction, then consumers will buy into it.”
  6. Internally inspiring, motivating and communicating: “Often, a positive reputation starts internally, so a business’ staff are the biggest brand advocates. Once staff are on board, the CEO’s reputation spreads to external sectors.”

Elon Musk’s provocative approach to his public persona is working for him but businesses should be wary of hitting copy and paste on his strategy. His informal yet polarising attitude online vastly goes against the typical image of a buttoned-up, professional CEO. Some find it refreshing, some find it utterly ridiculous. One crucial takeaway from Musk’s approach is that authenticity is of high value when it comes to establishing a loyal customer base and putting a face behind your brand. 

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Alice is one of Expert Market's resident software experts, helping businesses improve their efficiency or reach, with an emphasis on productivity software, CRM and telecommunications.