Elon Musk vs. Twitter, and What Brand Marketers Can Learn from the Ongoing Saga
Weaponized memes, cults of personality, and the unexpected lessons for brand marketers
Elon Musk is at it again.
Ten days after buying a majority stake of Twitter’s stock at 9.2% and sending the stock price flying, the tech billionaire provocateur is now offering an unsolicited bid to buy the whole company for $43.4 billion. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO sent the offer to Twitter board chair Bret Taylor, noting that “since making my investment, I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.” Predictably, the internet reacted in memes.
Gleaming through the headlines (and tweets) covering this ongoing saga of “Elon Musk vs. Twitter” over the past week or so, one may think it is only natural for Elon Musk to make a takeover bid. But, if Twitter’s stock price is any indication, Wall Street does not seem to believe this deal is actually going to happen. Usually when a company gets a takeover offer, the shares tend to trade around the price of that offer, and Twitter is currently trading well below Musk’s offer at $54.20 a share. Plus, the Twitter board is reportedly not interested in the takeover offer, and there are poison-pill bylaws that they could invoke to reject his offer.
But if, by all accounts, this bombshell takeover were not going to happen, why did Musk even bother to make an offer? Logically, Elon Musk does not need Twitter, but logic sometimes has to give way to ego and, in this case, personal brand building. Elon Musk wants to be perceived as an activist investor who is going to solve the “free speech issue” on Twitter, but upon a closer look, this may just be his greatest troll job as a meme-wielding business influencer.
We live in the age of social media and weaponized memes. The meme-driven reaction and remix culture now permeates nearly every corner of the internet and drives the discourse cycles. As a result, the best marketers must learn how to properly harness the power of memes for brand-building. Through this lens, Elon Musk is a fascinating case study of “celebrity CEOs,” a sub-genre of the “cults of personality” that are gaining traction in today’s consumer culture.
The Meme Lord of Twitter
Musk has been known to be an avid Twitter user and critic. Dubbed the “meme lord” of Twitter even before his embrace of leading meme cryptocurrency dogecoin, Musk often reposts funny memes and demonstrates his love for sophomoric jokes involving 69 or 420. Some may even refer to him as a troll. After all, he is a guy who started selling short shorts in Tesla’s merch store simply to troll hedge funds shorting his company.
Credit where credit’s due: Elon Musk knows exactly just what to tweet to rile up his fans and detractors alike. In October, he started a feud by tweeting a silver medal emoji in reply to Jeff Bezos, mocking the latter following reports of an increased wealth gap between him and Bezos — two of the richest men on earth. Last month, he tweeted out an attempt to challenge Vladimir Putin to hand-to-hand combat. He has even posted a meme that compared Twitter’s new CEO Parag Agrawal to Soviet dictator Stalin. Nothing seems too serious to be a meme for him, and the internet, of course, ate it up every single time. His irreverent, provocative Twitter persona has earned him over 81 million followers.
The genesis of this ongoing saga started aptly on Twitter itself. Last month, when taking over Twitter was a mere glint in his eyes, Musk polled his followers to ask them whether the company adheres to the principles of free speech, warning in a follow-up tweet that “the consequences of this poll will be important.” After more than 70% of respondents said no, he asked whether a new platform was needed and said he was giving serious thought to starting his own. Less than two weeks later, he decided to invest in Twitter, presumably because he’d like to protect his own version of “free speech.”
On Monday, just days after he became Twitter’s biggest individual shareholder, he posted a barrage of tweets criticizing Twitter and offering half-serious takes on how to improve it, such as banning ads and accepting dogecoin, only to later delete most of those tweets and refuse the board seat that came with his initial investment.
Despite all the criticism he has lobbed at Twitter’s management, it is evident that Elon Musk loves using Twitter. It enables him to directly talk to his fans without journalistic middle-men, and foster a cult of personality that enhances his personal brand and influence way beyond any normal tech CEO. Without Twitter, he has no clout.
And therein lies the truth — Musk does not need to own 100% of Twitter to have significant influence over the “town square of the internet.” In fact, owning Twitter would do nothing but bring him more responsibility and liabilities. As some analysts have pointed out, by refusing the Twitter board seat, Musk has effectively got everything he’d possibly get out of being a Twitter investor without jeopardizing himself in legal implications. Nonetheless, a takeover offer is made to further extend the press cycle and drive this story into the ground, for a reason.
When all is said and done, Elon Musk will have essentially bought two weeks of intense press cycle with his initial investment, successfully distracting everyone from the fact that Tesla is now the subject of the largest racial discrimination lawsuit ever brought by California, in addition to the continued shut-down of its Shanghai Gigafactory as the entire city undergoes a major Covid lockdown. The brouhaha following a potential hostile takeover is precisely the point.
Cults of Personality, and the Brewing Backlash
Through years of “shit-posting” and lending vocal support for meme stocks and coins, Musk has effectively turned his public persona into a walking meme. Everything he tweets out gets cycled through the internet discourse and is met with varying measures of admiration and disdain. And in the attention economy, he has successfully amassed a huge army of digitally-savvy followers to amplify his messages through memes and project an outsized influence. Some analysts estimate that Twitter stock could crash 20% if the board rejects Musk’s takeover offer.
Beneath all the juvenile memes and attention-seeking stunts, Elon Musk embodies the cult of personality in the digital age. As we pointed out in our 2022 Outlook report:
It’s easy to dismiss the communities that have popped up around celebrities as just fandoms, but there’s something fundamentally different around the relationship between someone like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Joe Rogan, or Gweneth Paltrow and their followers than, say, even the most devoted Beyoncé fans. The appeal is obvious, and is stealthily political in nature: they offer a much clearer vision of the future than most politicians, and they have the resources to help us get there, without any counterbalance to their power.
And yet in many ways, placing too much trust in them is just a different brand of authoritarianism, with a particularly capitalist tint. “Yes, I can deliver the future I’m promising,” they say, “but to get there we’ll need you to buy some supplements. In exchange, we promise that you’ll be in good company, with like-minded individuals who think for themselves and do their own research.”
Cults of personality will continue to flourish in the digital age as trust in public institutions continues to slide, as more people look to celebrities outside the conventional confines of entertainment as both life coaches and thought leaders. This is particularly evident in the prevalent founder myth in Silicon Valley, where the public persona of a startup founder is sometimes deemed almost as important as the startup’s products. “Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but it takes a particular type of leader to build a unicorn,” the thinking goes. And as the tech industry starts to exert its outsized influence on society, it has inevitably given rise to the type of personality cults that are now rebalancing the gravity center of influences.
The dark side of founder worship is recently explored in a trio of limited series on three high-profile founders’ fall from grace: The Dropout on Hulu examines the infamous story of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes and what led her to defraud investors and brand partners with non-existing innovations; Super Pumped on Showtime dramatizes the battle for Uber’s company culture and reputation against founder-CEO Travis Kalanick; and WeCrashed on Apple TV+ chronicles the rise and fall of WeWork founder Adam Neumann and his wife. Simultaneously airing new episodes last month, all three shows are fundamentally working to punctuate the founder myth and, in the process, brewing a potential backlash in mainstream culture against the type of bombastic, aggressive, and provocative leaders that prefer to “move fast and break things.”
Elon Musk certainly fits the bill. As demonstrated time and time again, there’s little accountability for him to be an impulsive meme lord with a cult following. Infamously, he tweeted on Aug. 7, 2018 that he had secured the funding to take Tesla private, prompting the company’s stock price to rise by 6%. In reality, a deal was far from certain, and the SEC sued Musk for securities fraud, which was later settled out of court. He’s been accused of “pump-and-dump” schemes around bitcoins last year, but no formal investigation followed. Could this half-ironic, half-sincere attempt at buying Twitter result in any substantial consequences for him? It seems unlikely, going by the empirical evidence so far.
The key difference between Musk and the three aforementioned ex-CEOs is that Musk has amassed a public meme army via Twitter, while the three disgraced founders only had a cult following among their own startups and investors. That certainly helps in the court of public opinion, which helps to explain why Musk wanted control over Twitter in the first place. For now, Musk still enjoys his outsized influence, thanks to his meme-driven Twitter fanbase. In the long run, however, antagonizing Twitter’s management does not seem like the smartest move.
All Successful Brands Are “Cults”
We live in the age of memes. As the native language of the internet, memes provide a valuable shorthand for the chronically online to communicate while signifying the “in-the-know” status. For those who have mastered the language of memes, it is a great tool for spreading ideas, with a growing impact reaching far beyond pop culture and the digital realms. Last year, the meme stock movement originated on Reddit directly damaged the bottom line of several Wall Street investment firms and ushered in a new generation of retail investors.
Throughout the past decade, viral videos have resulted in as many incidents of public outrage as sales boosts. Songs like We Don’t Talk About Bruno topped the Billboard chart for weeks after going viral on TikTok, and Ocean Spray cranberry juice flew off the shelf after an innocuous skateboarding video blew up. Mastering the language of memes, and knowing when and how to authentically deploy it, is now a table-stake for digital marketers and brands.
Memes also build communities, as a shared status signal among the “in-groups.” And the brands that build the most fervent and loyal fanbases inevitably get compared to cults. From Apple users’ amply meme’d disdain towards “green bubbles”, to Peloton users joking about certain instructors and their catchphrases, those inside jokes are what help solidify a sense of community among the brands’ consumers.
Not every company needs a high-profile meme lord CEO like Elon Musk — in less meme-savvy hands, that could easily turn from a PR asset to a huge liability. Brands don’t always need to have a real public figure to amass a cult following. Finding a specific, underserved audience, and serving them with products and brand messages designed for them is a sure-fire way to inspire a devoted following.
Aligning with your fanbase’s social value is a good way to build a cult brand. Survey after survey, we learn that consumers, especially those of younger generations, now demand their favorite brands to support the causes that are dear and near to them. Whether it’s sustainability or LGBTQ rights, every passion-based community has their own favorite brands that spread through their communication channels of choice. Mission-driven brands are often deemed the most trustworthy ones for consumers.
Extending the lifecycle of your products and services is another important way to inspire cult-like loyalty. Tactics vary, but in general, they seek to re-engage with customers repeatedly long past the point of purchase. For example, Whirlpool ovens introduced a new air-fry mode via a software update to delight users. Being the default choice also matters a lot. Starbucks’ success with its mobile payment app exemplifies the need for convenient touchpoints that drive habitual purchases via integrated loyalty programs.
There are many other ways to build a successful cult following for your brand, but as the case of Elon Musk demonstrates, cults sometimes carry a negative connotation for a reason. It is a tricky balance to manage the public perception of your brand as a “personality” with distinct qualities, without going overboard with tactics that may result in the questionable, sometimes toxic community culture that often accompanies those cults of personality. As brands like Lululemon and CrossFit have learned firsthand, failing to control your brand’s communities will damage a brand’s reputation and limit growth potential. After all, no one thinks fondly of a cult that they are not in.