Stop Copying Me: Is Elon Musk the New Steve Jobs?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The level of influence Elon Musk has is truly staggering, though not entirely without precedent. Steve Jobs was similarly famous and his whimsical marketing style ended up being so effective that you would see doppelgangers embracing his tactic of selling people an experience, rather than focusing wholly on the product. Minus the black turtleneck, some might even argue Musk has aped his style — perhaps while noticing similar sales tactics embraced by Ron Popeil, David Ogilvy, or P.T. Barnum.

A good pitchman is one that can adapt tried-and-true methods from their forebears while having enough unique flare not to come across as derivative. But not everyone has the magic and we’re left with a sea of less enduring (and endearing) copycats. Notice how practically every electric vehicle manufacturer seems hellbent on becoming the next Tesla, rather than adopting a corporate personality of their own.

Jobs’ public persona evolved from down-to-earth spokesman to technological cleric in the 1990s and his motto of ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’ was swiftly put to the test when every other computer business tried and failed to become the next Apple. Musk appears to be on a similar trajectory — though he’s strived to maintain a sense that he’s a relatively normal person, despite his unbelievable wealth and many quirks.

Apple’s business model seems to be most effectively duplicated in other industries. In fact, your author has repeatedly heard people suggest that’s exactly what made Tesla a success, with good reason. But Elon Musk’s role cannot be understated; his personality is a big reason why the company has such an ardent fanbase. Bloomberg recently ran a piece that explaining just how influential he’s become by explaining how Tesla’s terminology has become the default for automakers the world over.

From Bloomberg:

Many of the words speak to the sheer scale of Musk’s ambitions, which are always far grander than people realize initially. A battery factory isn’t just a battery factory, it’s a Gigafactory. (Giga comes from the Greek word “gigas,” or giant.)

A fast charging station for Tesla’s electric cars isn’t just a charging station, it’s a Supercharger. (Tesla has more than 25,000, giving them the largest network in the world.)

The battery packs that Tesla sells to utilities that promise “massive energy storage?” Megapacks.

There are no signs of him stopping. At Tesla’s “Battery Day” in September 2020, Musk talked about reaching “Terawatt-hour” scale battery production. “Tera is the new Giga,” Musk said on stage.

Just about every automaker building EVs now has its own version of Battery Day and numerous firms have embraced Tesla-centric terms to describe their own facilities. Case in point, we found it supremely odd when Volkswagen announced it was building a new “gigafactory” during an annual event it calls “Power Day.”

But VW is just one of several companies that have embraced the American manufacturer’s phraseology. While the Bloomberg piece spends a bit too much time praising Musk, it also correctly identified the vastness of his influence. It noted that journalists and automakers are beginning to default calling all battery plants gigafactories, using Stellantis and Nissan as recent examples.

What we’re wondering is whether or not this is good for the long-term health of the industry. Automakers consistently chase each other around when one business is fortunate enough to strike upon a successful concept. But the Tesla copying has been going on for quite some time and Elon Musk has grown to become a larger-than-life figure. Only those truly invested in the automotive sector know who’s at the top of the ladder at General Motors or Volkswagen Group. But practically everyone can identify Elon Musk and is familiar with the companies he represents.

Does that place him alongside Steve Jobs or is he a more substantive figurehead? And what’s to become of all of these EV companies that are clearly fixated on Tesla’s success? How can they shine brightly enough to become truly successful when they seem to be intentionally living in another company’s shadow?

[Image: Tesla]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Jmo Jmo on Jun 03, 2021

    Two parallels between Jobs and Musk as they both made three billion dollar fortunes. Jobs started Apple and made a fortune. He sold that off in a huff and joined Pixar. He eventually sold that to Disney and in so doing bacame Disney's largest individual shareholder. That's fortune #2. Then he rejoined an almost bankrupt Apple and turned it into the most valuable company in the world. Fortune #3. Musk was PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX. That's even a little more impressive as that's 3 entirely different businesses. To make one billion dollar fortune is impressive. To make three puts you in another league entirely.

  • Robert Hamilton Robert Hamilton on Jun 04, 2021

    Don't confuse between the two technical icons. Elon is more like a practical engineer. Steve is a genius in design, recruitment, and marketing.

  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)