By Emma Ping


Building a Tribe

The Path to Customer Loyalty

A while ago, I wrote an article on Tesla, sharing a few thoughts on what Tesla has done to put itself way ahead of the game. One of the comments I received is, “Great points. I would add another point, which is building a marketing brand that resembles Apple with Steve Jobs, and now it’s Tesla with Elon Musk. It’s a key factor in their success.” Thanks, @Adi Hirshtein, for the insightful input.

Adi’s comment reminded me of Seth Godin’s book “Tribes,” which emphasizes the need to connect with customers emotionally, give them a sense of belonging similar to a tribe, and make them feel different from the people who use competing brands. Having spent time in building both enterprise and consumer products, I am always fascinated by the art of brand loyalty building. The brand loyalty that both Steve Jobs and Elon Musk managed to build is phenomenal. They did not just create a customer base. They made a tribe filled with loyal followers who would willingly follow their footsteps through ups and downs. Some people like to use the word “Cult” instead of “Tribe” when describing Mac users’ unique, creative, often funny culture. I do not like the word “cult” in this context because it takes away individual autonomy, and it implies hatred feeling toward those with differing brand preferences. As a comparison, “Tribe” does neither of those. It encourages individual creativity and inclusion.

If we look deeper into what Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have done to build the tribes of loyal followers successfully, we can find many similarities in their approaches:

Building a sense of belonging

“What people really want is the ability to connect to each other, not to companies. So the permission is used to build a tribe, to build people who want to hear from the company because it helps them connect, it helps them find each other, it gives them a story to tell and something to talk about…

People form tribes with or without us. The challenge is to work for the tribe and make it something even better.”

-Seth Godin, Tribe Management [1]

Although Tesla users do not have to camp outside Tesla stores for days to get a new Tesla model car, like Apple fans used to do for getting early versions of the iPhone, they share a similar sense of the world, “Tesla Driver,” and everyone else. Owning a Tesla brings you into a tribe of high tech enthusiasts and rebels who cares about sustainable energy usage and technology evolution. It makes you feel like you belong in something special. Who doesn’t want to feel like being part of an elite club with access to the best cutting-edge technologies, especially given that its owner is also the same person who never stops surprising the world with his “crazy” ideas? Just name a few, building recyclable rockets, implanting chips into people’s brains, and dreaming of sending people to mars?

Remember Musk’s tweet after the CEO of Ford Motor Company Europe belittled Tesla with his larger production capacity on Twitter? Musk’s tweet was about building a submarine from rocket ship parts to rescue the Thai soccer team kids out of a cave in Thailand [2]

After reading the tweets, which one gives you more sense of belonging, Tesla or Ford? The answer is self-evident.

Connecting emotionally

If you’re asked to describe what it feels like to drive a Chevy Bolt or Nissan Leaf, what would you say? An affordable electric car, maybe? But if Tesla customers were asked a similar question, what would they say? Extremely fun and easy to drive with supercar speeds. The user experience, design, and marketing of Tesla cars make their customer feel like they are driving the future, not just a car. Compared to Tesla’s competitors’ utilitarian approach, Tesla’s approach is about turning cool technology aspiration into reality and making its customers feel they are the part of the technology force that shapes the future of driving.

[ An earlier version of the article is available on LinkedIn ]







Innovator, Team Builder

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Danjue Li

Danjue Li

Innovator, Team Builder

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