Christine Barney|Nov 24, 2014

Many years ago, a little boy whooped in delight after unwrapping a brand new Big Wheel, a giant plastic three-wheeled ride-on toy. It was the greatest present ever until a few months later when his best friend got a Big Wheel that came with a new feature: a bright blue trunk. Suddenly the old Big Wheel was outdated and the joy of ridership was reduced.

We see this same phenomena today when the next version of a smartphone comes out, making the one you bought just six months ago lose status and appeal. Is it just human nature to always want the new thing, or is planned obsolescence just good marketing?

When I bought my Tesla last year, I thought they had finally found a cool way to avoid obsolescence. I loved to brag about how I didn’t need to buy a new car to get the latest features. Overnight my car would get a new download via the Internet and I suddenly had three memory seat settings instead of two. My dashboard now had an icon to show my phone’s Outlook calendar and also link it to the navigation system so I never had to manually input an address again. Very cool.

But then Tesla announced the new P85D Model S with all-wheel drive and autopilot. The only way to get that upgrade was to get a brand new car. That’s when I heard the Big Wheel story from my husband who said, just like his old Big Wheel, our one-year old Tesla was now obsolete.

Now, trading in your smartphone every six months to a year is one thing – a car is a different story. We have come to expect significant changes in a car’s design or features only after every seven or eight years, not after one or two. Yet demand for the new Tesla is already outstripping production.

So why did Tesla suddenly act more like a phone manufacturer than an auto manufacturer? Well, maybe that behavior isn’t so sudden or surprising after all.

First, Tesla is not selling a car as much as it is selling an experience. To keep things fresh, Tesla engages the owner on a regular basis. New updates and features added on at no charge and delivered to your dashboard overnight give a “value add” on your purchase. Think about them as apps, which make the user experience better. We all want to try new apps and share them with our friends. Thus, owning a Tesla fuels conversations with friends, family and even strangers about a variety of subjects – safety, technology, energy conservation, speed and performance.

Second, Tesla never “sells” you; it lets the product sell itself. From its transparent, no haggling buying process to service advisors who don’t upsell, you decide how to engage with the brand. There are no high pressure “come in before the year ends and prices go up” messages, as is common in the auto industry. Communications are informational. You read Tesla’s email updates because you know they will have relevant news, not just blatant sales pitches. And it’s entertaining. The new model S announcement was done with the same pomp and circumstance as an Apple launch event.

So why didn’t Tesla wait for seven or eight years like traditional auto brands to revise its barely launched sedan? Because Tesla is a Breakout Brand. A Breakout Brand is one that puts the customer first, anticipates the future and communicates with genuine integrity. It acts when it needs to, not on some predetermined schedule. Because of all-wheel drive, customers in the northern U.S. will adopt the car faster. Want your car to come when it’s called? Tesla’s autopilot technology has the answer.

In the end, is it good marketing that makes us eager for the next new thing? No. Good marketing tells the brand promise. However, great marketing capitalizes on what the brand actually delivers. Tesla delivers the whole experience and creates an emotional connection with buyers that makes them want to come along for the ride.

So, while I refuse to think of my Tesla as obsolete as an old Big Wheel, I can’t help wondering if the new PD85 Model S would be just that much better.


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