You don't hear a lot about Tesla (TSLA -0.52%) and advertising. If it does come up, it's largely anecdotal, as in stories about CEO Elon Musk's distaste for marketing missives or how the country's leading electric vehicle maker doesn't pay up for spots on radio or TV the way that its rivals do to get noticed.
Tesla does not advertise or pay for endorsements. Instead, we use that money to make the product great. https://t.co/SsrfOq1Xyc-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 19, 2019
The obvious argument is that Musk doesn't need to pay for media spots. Tesla's aspirational brand and the product's strong word of mouth make it easy for the cars to sell themselves. During 2020 when most car sales sputtered in the wake of the global pandemic, Tesla saw its revenue climb 28%, nearly double the prior year's rate. The top line soared 71% last year, climbing another 81% and 42% through the first two quarters of this year, respectively.
Earlier this summer Musk mentioned that Tesla may change its tune, but it wouldn't be about putting out flashy ads of Tesla's fast cars and head-turning features. Musk's theory is that traditional media outlets routinely bash Tesla and protect other automakers because it's the competition that pays them for ads. In this scenario, Tesla paying for ads would be its way to clear the air. It's an interesting theory, but let's flip the flow to ponder something else entirely. Could Tesla be the next major ad platform?
It all "ads" up
I've been a hearing an ad pop up quite a bit lately as I drive around in my Tesla streaming CNBC on the built-in TuneIn app. It's for virtual human resources provider Bambee. It's an unfortunate spelling for a company advertising on radio, but that's not my point. The spot ends with a dedicated website landing page for Tesla drivers.
I heard plenty of platform-specific targeted ads when I was listening to satellite radio in my pre-Tesla days, but Sirius XM Holdings makes no bones about advertising as an important revenue channel beyond driver subscriptions. This is Tesla. I scoured its latest 10-Q filing, and there wasn't one mention of the word "advertising" in Tesla's 60-page document.
I'm not sure if Tesla is getting any money from the ads streaming on third-party apps available through its touchscreen. I don't know if the ad revenue is split between TuneIn, CNBC, and Tesla, but the spot is clearly only playing to Tesla drivers. Either way, it's not moving the needle for a company with $67 billion in trailing revenue. However, as the Tesla driver base grows -- and it is expanding rapidly -- this could be another secret weapon for Tesla to monetize its platform.
Musk may not be a fan of advertising, but he is a fan of money. By the time 2030 rolls around and Tesla is pushing out 20 million new cars every year, it's going to be a force in the world of marketing whether it wants to be or not. Digital audio ads are already gaining momentum, and you can imagine that advertising agencies and platforms will pay top dollar to reach Tesla drivers on the go.
Digital radio ads would be just the beginning, of course. Every retail business owner within walking distance of a Tesla Supercharger station would love to send special offers to woo drivers with time to kill. Tesla could be the fee-collecting middleman. As Tesla's audience grows it wouldn't be a surprise to see proprietary audio content and perhaps even video when the vehicles are stationary. That's another marketing opportunity, and I'm just scratching the surface.
Selling cars, services, and high-margin over-the-air upgrades will always be the real drivers for Tesla. However, the top dog of electric car stocks isn't cultivating a growing base of fans just to ignore other obvious revenue streams. It may not make sense now, but I bet if I scour a much longer 10-Q in a couple of years, "advertising" will be seen and heard, loud and clear.