Tesla Motors’ 400-Mile Roadster Upgrade Is an Act of Marketing Genius

In a move that’s completely unheard of in the automotive world, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk confirmed on Christmas Day that Tesla would soon demonstrate an upgrade package that would enable its original Tesla Roadster to drive at least 400 miles on a single charge under certain circumstances.

Tesla's loyal fans are far more likely to stay fans if Tesla continues to reward them with good service and upgrades.

Tesla’s loyal fans are far more likely to stay fans if Tesla continues to reward them with good service and upgrades.

Consisting of a more energy-dense battery pack, upgraded aerodynamics and improved tires with lower rolling resistance, Tesla’s upgrade package has already earned itself a large amount of press attention — even before pricing or a public demonstration has been held.

But with just 2,600 Tesla Roadsters made, it’s Tesla — not its owners — who really benefit from the time and money spent developing this unusual and unprecedented upgrade package.

Here’s why.

Happy owners = Happy advocates

Original and second-hand owners of the Tesla Roadster are true fans of electric cars and of Tesla Motors in general. While many will have owned their car since new, there’s been a recent wave of enthusiastic ‘second’ owners who were unable to buy a brand-new Tesla Roadster when they first hit the market in 2008 but have managed to secure a good deal on a well-loved one in the second-hand market.

Without making too many generalisations, Tesla Roadster owners tend to be a rather enthusiastic and evangelical bunch when it comes to Tesla. They’ll talk for hours about their car, how it works, and how wonderfully liberating it is to travel from point A to point B without spending a dime on gasoline.

The majority of Tesla's advertising comes from existing owners and fans.

The majority of Tesla’s advertising comes from existing owners and fans.

And happy owners, it turns out, make the best sorts of advocates and sales people. In short, by keeping its early adopters happy, Tesla earns far more per dollar spent in sales leads than any expensive mainstream ad campaign would.

Even if a tiny proportion of Tesla Roadster owners buy the upgrade package, the fact that Tesla is offering it will no doubt keep many more Roadster owners feeling loved and valued by the Californian automaker.

Behaving Differently = Positive Publicity

One of Tesla’s key defining qualities since its inception has been its willingness to behave differently to other automakers, from the way it sells its cars direct to customers through to its zero-profit servicing ethos and beyond-the-call customer service attitude.

Traditionally, when a car rolls off the lot, it retains the same efficiency and capabilities until it rolls its final feet at the end of life. Tesla changed that notion with its over-the-air updates for Model S owners, adding new features and functionality with every new update.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk understands the true value of good publicity.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk understands the true value of good publicity.

As a consequence, the features and capabilities of the Tesla Model S improves with age rather than deteriorates. Offering a similar attitude to the Roadster — one which Tesla started way back in 2011 when it began offering Roadster customers an easy way to upgrade their early Roadsters to the latest 2.5 specification — seems a logical step.

Why? Because behaving in that way generates a lot of press for Tesla, and a great deal of kudos. Instead of a traditional car purchase — where you can bet on the car and its entertainment system to be out of date a few months after driving it off the lot — Tesla actively promotes long-term, long-life ownership, with upgrades providing the additional functionality normally only available with a trade-in for a newer model.

The Roadster Upgrade Keeps Tesla at the Top

For as long as there have been electric cars for sale, Tesla has been something of a poster child for plug-in vehicles. Sexy, fast and sleek, the Tesla Model S takes up where the Tesla Roadster left off.

But with more automakers than ever before looking to build plug-in cars — some of which are rumored to match or better the current range of a Tesla Model S 85 — Tesla risks losing its range crown to another automaker.

As South Park once noted, there's something of a cult following for Musk akin to that of the late Steve Jobs.

As South Park once noted, there’s something of a cult following for Musk akin to that of the late Steve Jobs.

The Roadster upgrade allows Tesla to creep up towards the 400-mile range point, something no-other automaker has aimed for yet. And while it’s undeniable that Tesla’s aimed range of 400 miles per charge will likely be nearer to 360 in real-life under everyday conditions, the marketing boost of claiming a 400 mile range in perfect conditions could help Tesla stay in at the top of the plug-in totem pole a little while longer.

Our Readers Agree

While we’ve encountered some genuinely excited Tesla Roadster owners, the majority of Tesla owners we’ve spoken to — and the majority of our readers we’ve asked today on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter — say that Tesla’s 400-mile Roadster promise is more clever marketing on Tesla’s part than it is a revolutionary moment in the world of plug-in vehicles.

And we suspect we’re not alone either. Like Apple’s founder and late CEO Steve Jobs, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has something of a ‘reality distortion field’ when it comes to media hype and product promises.

As many have noted, Musk, like Jobs, is skilled in releasing the right good news at the right time. At the end of a particularly tough few months for Tesla, when Tesla’s heavily overweight stock started to adjust and several news outlets had started to question the company’s direction, the Roadster announcement is like putting up a Christmas Tree: everyone notices.

Although there’s certainly merit in supporting and promoting the continued longevity of its early Roadsters long after most automakers would have resigned them to ‘past model’ status, we suspect the real value in the Tesla Roadster upgrade package isn’t for any of Tesla’s existing customers, but for Tesla and its future, ever-growing market.

Because there are just some things that money can’t buy, but goodwill and great publicity can cash. And we’re okay with that, because it’s a very, very clever marketing ploy.

As long as we acknowledge that fact, that is, rather than try and paint it as something it isn’t.

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