Battle of the breakthrough products: Cybertruck vs. iPhone
Does the world need another Elon Musk/Steve Jobs comparison? I’ll leave that up to you to decide, dear readers (read on, or flit to the next flower). I assure you that only the most interesting, insightful and incisive specimens of the genre are chronicled in these pages, and an unusual video by Admazing caught my editorial eye.
The mysterious Admazing (who appears to be Jon Youshiel, Marketing Manager of Instagram) points out some uncanny parallels between the 2019 launch of Tesla’s Cybertruck and the unveiling of Apple’s iPhone in San Francisco in 2007.
As others have, Admazing identifies several parallels between the marketing styles of Musk and Jobs. One is the practice of calling out competitors by name. During the Cybertruck event, Musk dissed Ford (competitor #1 in the pickup truck arena) not once, but twice—first he made an unfavorable comparison between Ford’s “Built Tough” doors and the undentable stainless steel doors of the Cybertruck. Then he showed a video of a Cybertruck besting a Ford F-150 in an uphill tug-of-war (a Ford exec later tweeted a request for a rematch, then backed down).
During his 2007 iPhone presentation, Steve Jobs did much the same thing—not only did he claim that the iPhone was better than competing phones, including the Moto Q, BlackBerry, Palm Treo, and Nokia 62, but he enumerated the specific drawbacks of each one.
Product comparisons are a tried and true marketing tactic, and as Admazing tells us, marketing research has shown that it can be very effective, especially when the challenger brand calls out a segment leader. However, the criticism needs to be specific. It’s not enough just to say “we’re better.” (How many people pay attention to the “best burgers in town” line used by seemingly every neighborhood diner?) You need to tell prospective buyers exactly what their current favorite isn’t delivering.
There are other resonances between Jobs in 2007 and Musk in 2019. When Franz von Holzhausen smashed the Cybertruck’s window with a steel ball during the launch presentation, shallow sorts crowed that it was an epic fail. However, when it held the attention of the media for almost a week, it began to look more like a brilliant marketing stunt—so much so that I, for one, wondered if it had been intentionally staged (it probably wasn’t).
Could something similarly embarrassing have happened during Jobs’s iPhone presentation in 2007? From the audience’s perspective, the show came off without a hitch, but Admazing tells us that there was another story going on behind the scenes. At the time Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, he didn’t actually have a full working prototype, so when he took the stage, he had six or seven versions of the iPhone, each of which was set up to perform one function. The audience had no idea that he had stashed several iPhones in the lectern, and was deftly switching between them to demonstrate the various apps one at a time.
Above: The launch of Musk's Cybertruck vs. Jobs' iPhone (YouTube: Admazing)
One obvious thing Tesla and Apple have in common is that the coolness factor of their products is so great that some people just have to be among the first to have the latest model, even if they have to pay a premium or camp out in front of a store overnight. That sort of hype has long existed for popular movies, books or concerts, but Steve Jobs was surely one of the first to get people to think that way about tech products.
Tesla isn’t the first vehicle-maker to have rabid fans—in the past, buyers have gone to great lengths to get the newest Porsche, Mustang or Harley before their neighbors do. However, the California company has taken the concept to another level, creating virtual “lines around the block” that generate not only loads of positive press coverage, but also substantial amounts of cash.
Typically, when Tesla unveils a new vehicle, it allows people to “pre-order” by putting down a small deposit. For the Cybertruck, this was set at a mere $100. Not only did this generate a reported $25 million dollars in cash before Tesla had produced a single truck, but more importantly, it had a multiplier effect on the internet buzz as fans shared screenshots of their confirmation e-mails from Tesla.
And this brings us to perhaps the most striking similarity between Musk and Jobs—both have the vision and the enthusiasm to convince consumers to buy something that they hadn’t even known they wanted. Execs at the legacy automakers keep insisting that “there’s no consumer demand for EVs.” Well, there was no consumer demand for smartphones either, until people saw one. Likewise, nobody was demanding an angular, stainless steel truck either, until they got over the smashed window and read Tesla’s description of what it can do.
In fact, it’s a virtual certainty that people didn’t demand automobiles until they got a chance to experience them. As Henry Ford is believed to have said, and as Steve Jobs has reiterated, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said, a faster horse.”