It’s been a bad year for brands associated with Elon Musk. His Twitter takeover has been widely judged a dumpster fire, and his marquee brand, Tesla, has lost nearly half of its value. Surely, this has done damage to Musk’s reputation—but it certainly hasn’t marginalized him. To the contrary, Musk’s personal brand is, somehow, more ubiquitous than ever.
One data point to that effect comes from Axios, which recently number-crunched its way to the conclusion that engagement with Musk’s personal Twitter account has exploded: “Owning Twitter, and using the app to present and defend his plans for the company, has energized his personal platform.”
To be sure, “engagement” can be a mixed metric: In this case, it’s not just that his follower count is up 74%, it means quote tweets are up more than 200%, and replies are up 130%. That could obviously add up to a lot of negativity—Musk skeptics and critics trolling and dunking on him. But it unquestionably adds up to a lot more attention: Musk is exercising more personal influence over the digital “public square”—and living rent-free in more heads—than ever before. And that increasingly appears to be his personal-brand goal.
This might at first seem difficult to reconcile with Musk’s actual 2022 track record. By any measure, his Twitter takeover has been a hot mess: His ad hoc approach to “free speech” absolutism combined with mass layoffs has resulted in a spike of hate speech, spooked major advertisers, alienated high-profile users, and energized competitors. A scheme to monetize verification status has so far sputtered, and Musk himself has said that the enterprise is flirting with bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Tesla is losing market share as electric-vehicle competition grows, and its association with Musk is becoming a more fraught brand factor as his reputation tilts from “gutsy innovator” to “probably overextended” to “loudmouth” to “shitposter-in-chief.” (Tesla owners reportedly get hassled by strangers more than drivers of other EVs.)
While his SpaceX enterprise seems to be on course, it has also been the source of toxic-workplace accusations. His Boring Company appears to be spinning in place. Neuralink is reportedly being investigated for animal abuse, and Starlink has struggled to meet demand. For a guy who self-presents as an entrepreneurial savant, Musk sure had what looks like a losing year, with a jaw-dropping estimated $99 billion plunge in his net worth this year (though still leaving him with a net worth of about $170 billion, good enough to leave him the richest person in the world).
But, when it comes to attracting attention, Musk’s performance is off the charts.
Musk has said point blank that when he decided to buy Twitter, “I didn’t do it to make more money.” Instead, he claimed, he was motivated to ensure the social media platform performed like a “public square.” What’s become increasingly clear is that he meant a public square whose central feature was not merely a statue of Elon Musk, but the Head Twit himself, IRL, actively and personally deciding who is welcome and who is not. When he’s not doing that, he’s using his platform to opine more loudly than ever on politics, media, pop culture. His recent “Twitter Files” adventure—working with a once-respected journalist to share pre-Musk internal Twitter discussions of which he evidently disapproves—seems, above all, an exercise in creating a trending topic.
Even his gestures toward crowdsourcing seem to be head fakes designed to enhance Musk-centrality. Most notably, he’s used Twitter polls to (presumably) make decisions about controversial figures’ access to the platform. But the most significant thing about the polls is that they have originated from Musk’s personal account. You don’t have to follow Musk to be aware of these polls, but using his own account to solicit crowd feedback is putting a pretty big thumb on the scale: When he declares “the people have spoken,” what he really means is “my people have spoken.”
Musk knows better than to make his feedback experiments play out in anything resembling an objective environment because he’s seemingly not interested in “vox populi.” He’s interested in everyone being interested in vox Musk.
And while he’s clearly willing to pay a high price to reach that goal, the price may not be as high as anti-Musk doomsayers predict (or wish). The site has not yet, as some warned, simply buckled under the weight of unattended code. Despite some prominent user defections, Musk says actual Twitter traffic has been higher than usual, as the crowd simply can’t look away. At least some advertisers can’t resist staying involved. And, of course, the Musk fandom is more enthusiastic than ever.
It’s remarkable to recall that we seemed to be at Peak Musk around this time a year ago when he was named Time’s Person of the Year for 2021. Be honest: Did you think about Elon Musk more this year than you did last year? The answer to that question is the reason that, for better or worse, the Musk brand became inescapable in 2022.
Branded is a weekly column devoted to the intersection of marketing, business, design, and culture.