Be More Like Tesla: How To Turn Your Company Into A Movement

Businesses that change the culture–instead of just campaigning for sales–will transcend individual products by inspiring customers to something greater than just mindless consumption.

Be More Like Tesla: How To Turn Your Company Into A Movement
[All Images: via Tesla]

The Ice Bucket Challenge. Occupy Wall Street. CrossFit. For a discrete moment in time, each broke through the noise of popular culture and captured our attention. And then their stories faded away, leaving things largely as they were. Why didn’t these spark lasting change? Because they weren’t really movements. They were viral and even relevant, but they lacked the structure to sustain their spark.


Movements are often triggered by a single action–a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus, two men getting married, the unveiling of a computer the size of your hand. But movements only spread and deepen when an organized network is ready and moves to outlast a single act. While they may seem spontaneous, successful movements are planned, intentional and take a long-range view of their success.

Movement-making was popularized by nonprofits, but it’s a mistake to think this is just a do-gooder’s strategy. Today, movements have broad applicability in business as an organizational strategy to authentically transform relationships among brands, employees and customers. Businesses that influence the social norms affecting their product, instead of just campaigning for sales, will see their markets created organically.

By creating the environment for loyal demand, those businesses will transcend any individual product release. Apple has nailed this, beginning with the iPod and quickly evolving into the iPhone and App Store. The norm about what can be accomplished away from your stereo or computer has vastly changed how and where we live and work and practically requires us to be near our device at all times.

For your company to be a movement-maker, you must dial in three core elements: a goal that unites, clear roles for participants and the right rewards to transform a single action into lasting change.


It’s not enough to have a mission and vision on your website. You need a highly accessible goal that is inclusive and touches a core belief.

Since 1972, Patagonia’s goal has been conservation and the company is unapologetic about it. Like all movements, Patagonia started at the fringe of societal norms, led by a core of passionate climbers. In 1991 Patagonia nearly went out of business due to its shift to a transactional strategy.


Then a lifesaving decision was made to re-embrace the movement strategy described in founder Yvon Chouinard’s memoir, Let My People Go Surfing. From its manufacturing to its marketing, the brand consistently calls on its customers to act toward their shared purpose of preserving the places where their gear is worn. The transcendent goal that equates to loyalty isn’t gear obsession–it’s conservation obsession. Using a movement strategy, Patagonia has more than quadrupled its revenues to over $120 million a year.


Business leaders spend a lot of effort organizing the inner workings of their companies; they need to spend equal effort organizing potential customers on the outside.

Tesla Motors has the potential to steer a technology movement in a post-Detroit era. But to turn the corner, it must first create clear roles. Tesla’s customer, not unlike Patagonia’s, prioritizes shared purpose over the transaction. But Tesla’s savvy consumers need roles; in fact they’ve demanded them. A New York couple recently took out a full-page ad in local Silicon Valley newspapers to get attention for their feedback to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. While Musk responded positively to the couple’s ideas, it is clear that Tesla would be well served to define roles for its customers, such as influencing product improvements, raising brand awareness, and shaping ongoing customer experience.

Positive momentum was also created when Tesla released its patents for use by anyone, including competitors. But to catalyze a loyal movement, Tesla will need to actively facilitate the relationships that form as innovations occur.


Getting consumers to take action once is relatively easy–a coupon or a freebie does the trick. But Dan Pink’s book Drive concludes that implicit rewards outlast financial hooks for long-term dedication. Movement-makers prioritize rewards that offer an exclusive experience or enhance a participant’s reputation, rather than just increasing their bank balance.

The movement toward “Good, clean, and fair [food],” began with the gastronomical branch of ARCI, a network of Italian communist social clubs. People who appreciated food and wine but didn’t associate with the gastronomic elite began hosting tastings and trainings, which created structure and roles , in addition to generating press.


It wasn’t until activist Carlo Petrini created a sort of romance around the identity of both the niche farmer and the heirloom shopper that the Slow Food movement took hold globally. With a clear role and flattering reputation bump for each side of the transaction, and with the food itself as an exclusive experience, the movement took off. The Slow Food movement is now a global force across 150 countries and boasts a network of more than 100,000 members.

The rewards of supporting the Slow Food movement are implicit–the slow shopping, preparation and eating. Talking with a farmer at a Saturday market as you wipe juice from a peach picked that morning is an exclusive experience that’s unlikely to happen in your local grocery store. Running into your friends at the farmers market might even burnish your status.

But the Slow Food movement has moved far beyond the small farm heirloom tomato. It’s generated an entire special foods industry of companies including Whole Foods, Newman’s Own, and an enormous ecosystem of small artisanal producers who can charge a premium for their Slow Food cachet while also offering experiential rewards.

The goals of creating lasting change and influencing the social norms around products and services are more than an optimistic indulgence, they are imperative. Companies that adopt this approach will strengthen relationships and create networks of advocates and innovators that their competitors will be unable to rival.


About the author

Charlie Brown is the founder and CEO of Context Partners, a new type of design firm that helps organizations build networked business models. Previously, Charlie was executive director of Ashoka Change Makers, where he built an online community of 100,000 social innovators from 125 countries