The SpaceX Tesla and the military parade are both legit branding exercises

Photo: SpaceX

Yesterday, we learned about two promotional stunts, one executed and one planned. Elon Musk launched a Tesla Roadster into solar orbit and word leaked that Donald Trump and the U.S. military were planning a massive military parade. These are both branding exercises. What do they say about the brands they reflect?

Sports cars in space

Why in hell would Elon Musk, CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla, launch a $200,000 roadster into orbit? Yes, as Doc Brown told us in a “Back to the Future” sequel, “Where we’re going we don’t need roads,” but the nearest charging station is now just a bit beyond the roadster’s maximum range.

The easiest explanation for this stunt is, “because he can.” The Falcon Heavy booster he was testing for the first time is twice as powerful as any other launch vehicle now operating. Musk had to put something in there, but since this was a test, there was a significant chance it would blow up or otherwise fail. So he needed something flashy, but not priceless or extremely valuable to a potential client (like, say, a person or a spy satellite). If you make sexy cars for a living, the roadster makes sense — if it blew up they had plenty more at home. Of course it was red.

As a branding and public relations exercise, this was brilliant:

  • Elon Musk livestreamed the view from the car, which of course had a dummy driver in a space suit, because video tells a story.
  • It gained the test launch huge amounts of coverage, because there was something more to write about than just “Elon Musk launched a big honkin’ rocket.”
  • It demonstrated that this vehicle could launch much heavier payloads. Everyone knows cars are heavy.
  • It showcased the roadster in a lust-inducing setting.
  • It further burnished Musk’s own brand as a hugely successful daredevil inventor.

Did Musk go too far with this stunt? I don’t think so. It’s his company and he can do what he wants with it. If you are shareholder, you have to be pleased — the booster worked perfectly, two out of three stages came back to earth as planned, the media coverage was wall-to-wall, and both SpaceX and Tesla will probably get more business as a result. A-plus work.

Military parades down Pennsylvania Avenue

The Washington Post revealed yesterday that Donald Trump has asked his top military commanders to see if it’s feasible to conduct a parade of troops and military equipment down Pennsylvania Avenue. This reveal, just like Musk’s stunt, is a branding exercise.

Trump’s entire presidency is based on a belief that he is going to “Make America Great Again.” But what does “great” mean? Looking back at the his actions over the next year, it appears to mean an unabashed pride in might and decisiveness. All presidents expend effort on both image and substance, only the balance changes. Trump’s constant tweeting and rallies demonstrate more effort on image, while his accomplishments have been limited to the Republican tax plan and conservative judges. This presidency is 95% branding.

What are the elements of this brand?

  • We expel foreigners. We build a huge, symbolic wall on the Mexican border. (The wall is Trump’s Falcon Heavy and Tesla Roadster).
  • We don’t compromise. We reject trade agreements, the Iran deal, the cost of NATO, and other collaborative international efforts that don’t give America its due. We put tariffs on Chinese solar panels. We recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. We make fun of Kim Jong-un. Why? Because we can.
  • We proudly drill for oil and mine coal. Climate science gets in the way of American energy and the unbridled American economy.
  • We fend for ourselves. We don’t force people to buy health insurance.
  • We like guns.
  • We support religious freedom for Christians and unpopular opinions about race, even where they threaten the rights of minorities like trans people, people who want abortions, non-whites, and Muslims.
  • Truth is complex and fungible, so we don’t trouble with it — we selectively make statements that seem true, regardless of whether they are. The brand is more important than the truth.
  • We attack anyone who threatens our worldview, notably Democrats and the media.

You may not like this brand, but at this point it’s extremely consistent. (It may be the most logical and consistent feature of the Trump Presidency.) And the projection of military might is totally in line with the rest of this brand. It’s big, it’s flashy, it’s associated with an element of American might and greatness, and it reflects the “America first through power” worldview of Donald Trump and his followers.

As with Musk, we should ask, is this an appropriate thing for Trump to do?

He is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. This is well within his powers as president.

This is not a declaration of war or a commitment of troops on the battlefield. (As military actions go, it may be the safest thing Trump could possibly order.) It’s not subject to congressional review, and even if Democrats in Congress object, there is no chance in hell that the Republicans in control of both branches will question it, let alone pass legislation to block it.

There is a cost to it. If the generals cannot fund it, I’m sure Trump can find another way to pay for it. The military has an advertising budget for recruiting. You could easily make the case that this is as effective as a Super Bowl ad for recruiting young people into the military.

This is nothing more than another Trump rally — a branding exercise for Trump and our government — that shows off our military might. It’s a marketing expense. If he can fly to Tallahassee to give a speech, he can do this.

Personally, I’m not a fan of Trump’s brand, because my idea of America is more inclusive, more international, more based in truth and science, and a lot less military. If you agree with me, what should you do? You can whine about this display of military bravado and how it’s the kind of thing that weak dictators do, but it’s well within Trump’s powers. Or you can get to the heart of the matter and support candidates whose brand vision for America is a more like your own.

Brand America is up for grabs. It’s marketing itself in the image of its leader like any other brand. If you don’t like it, using your voting shares and vote out the CEO.

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  1. Elon Musk can spend his money (and that of his backers) however he likes. Trump is spending your money and mine, on a pointless, expensive PR exercise. That fiscal element delegitimizes the project from the start.

    1. I sympathize, but your government spends money without your permission all the time. Legislation determines the rules for that. You can complain all you want, but why is this spending less legitimate than when the army advertises on a football game?

  2. Josh, I like this very much, but I think you’re missing a fundamental point about Trump’s “branding exercise,” namely, what he’s actually branding. Namely, himself. Shaping “the United States” for him is to reflect entirely on him and has little to do with the nature of the country.

  3. I think you made this clear, Josh, but let’s be sure everyone understands that the Falcon Heavy launch was necessary in furthering the SpaceX commercial launch business. The rocket had to be tested, just like any other product. Musk didn’t just “use his money” on a whim. He is carrying out the business plan that he and his backers all understand. Just so happens he found a clever way to promote his Tesla brand at the same time.

    1. David and Bob — I sort of agree. I think the problem is that TRUMP is confusing his brand with America’s. Or confusing his idea of America’s brand with it actually means.

  4. He’s not “confusing” his brand with America’s. He’s trying to make his brand America’s. He is abusing his power. He’s not confused and neither are we.

  5. Maybe it was the easiest way to spin your catchy headline, but by focusing on the recruitment value of the Trump military parade, you are oversimplifying the cost/benefits. In order to evaluate it’s legitimacy, several factors should be considered: historical conditions under which the U.S. has had such parades, which countries typically conduct showy military events (North Korea, China, Russia) and their leaders’ motivations, and finally, the message it sends about other critical government programs that have been cut or radically underfunded.