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Tesla Time
Tesla retail chief George Blankenship re-imagines the car-buying experience.

tesla george blankenshipGeorge Blankenship might be the only retail strategist in the world who hopes he never sells anything in his stores.

Then again, George is also the only retail strategist whose job it is to convince the world to buy a Tesla — an electricity-powered automobile that not many people have heard of and even fewer aspire to own.

“I don’t want to sell anyone a Tesla,” says George. “I want people to buy a Tesla because they want it. If they walk away from a Tesla store thinking about someday owning one of our cars, then the store worked. That’s all I want the store to do.”

That’s why retail stores, situated in malls and other high-traffic shopping locations, are at the very core of Tesla’s marketing strategy. The big idea is to catch people’s attention while they’re out shopping for other things, introduce them to the car, and let them fall in love with it.

This is surely the very antithesis of the traditional car dealership model, with its jam-packed showrooms, high-octane sales reps and blowout sales. If that sounds insane — and vaguely familiar — it’s because it is. Before Tesla, George was the chief retail strategist for Apple, and the plan was similar.

“When I started at Apple in 2000, most people knew one thing about Apple computers: They didn’t want one,” says George. Apple changed that, in no small part, by opening stores in busy places, and seducing consumers with eye-popping products and a great retail experience.

Launched in 2003 by PayPal and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Tesla Motors, Inc. is named after Nikola Tesla, the eccentric scientist known for his innovations in all things electric, including the technology that now powers Tesla cars.

While the future of Tesla Motors may be uncertain, its contributions —both its cars and the way it is bringing them to market — are too bold to ignore.

Do you think of Tesla stores as showrooms?

I think of them as learning experiences. Our mission right now is different than your typical shoe or clothing store. Our mission is really about getting in front of as many people as possible on a day-in and day-out basis and teaching them about Tesla.

Most people come in and don’t even know that the car is electric. They don’t know who Tesla is. They come in and say: What kind of car is this? So, the store is really about education.

What’s the hardest thing to explain about Tesla?

The hardest thing to explain is that it’s really not just about an electric car. It’s really about a different way of buying, owning and experiencing transportation. It’s hard to explain that because the obvious difference is that Tesla is an electric car, but it is a better and different experience for reasons that have nothing to do with its being an electric car.

You need to live with the car and understand what a 17-inch touchscreen can do. On most cars, if you’re using navigation and the phone rings, your map disappears and you don’t have your directions anymore. With a Tesla Model S, the phone comes up on the dashboard, not on the touchscreen, so you don’t lose your navigation. That’s really about a better car, not just an electric car.

But it is also a better car because it is electric, and because of all the different things you can do with an electric car. For example, I have an iPhone app that lets me call my car. Suppose I’m at Nordstrom’s and know that I’m going to be back at my car in 10 or 15 minutes: I can pull up my car on my iPhone and turn on the air conditioning.

I can do that because it’s an electric car. With a gasoline car, the motor would have to be running to do that, but not with an electric car. That’s why it’s hard to explain to people that there are a lot of things that are better about this whole movement versus just the fact that it’s an electric car.

What’s it like to drive a Tesla?

You haven’t really experienced the true amazement of a Tesla until you get behind the wheel and drive it. Then all the light bulbs go on, and that’s the incredible experience. It shifts everything and every way you think about a car.

I get in the car, and look at Google Maps on the 17-inch touchscreen. I turn on traffic, and the car tells me the best way to get to work. It’s amazing. Then I turn on the internet radio. Slacker comes with the car, so if a song comes on that I don’t like, I can hit a button and it goes to the next song. I get to listen to internet music that isn’t on my phone or computer.

The car can set up 10 profiles: where you want the mirrors, the steering wheel, the height of the car, and the steering. You can set the suspension for comfort, normal or sport, and the daylight running lights. If you adjust the steering wheel, you get a prompt on the screen asking if you want to save it to your profile. Then every time you get into the car, it is set up for you.

Another thing that’s really cool is that I never interface with the key, other than keeping it in my pocket. When I come out in the morning and get in the car, I touch the door handle, and the door opens. When I sit down, the car knows I’m there, and when I put my foot on the brake, it is ready to go. I put it in reverse and I drive.

Have you ever forgotten to unplug the car?

No, because it tells you on the screen, and if your car is still plugged in, you can’t go. So, you get out and unplug it. One of the biggest habits you have to get used to is when you’re finished with the car. You pull into a parking space, put it into park, and just get out and walk away. You don’t turn it off; you don’t do anything. When you get about 25 feet away, the car locks.

For the first week to 10 days, you tend to back away from the car slowly and cautiously, until a light flashes that tells you it’s locked. After I got used to that, I drove my wife’s Lexus and just got out of the car and headed for the store. My wife looked at me and said, “George…the car’s still running!” So, you need to have a wife with you to tell you how to navigate after you drive a Model S for a while.

How do you drive shoppers to your stores?

For the most part, our traffic comes from people walking by. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when journalists rave about the car. All we’ve done is given journalists the car and they’ve told the truth. We’re just letting people drive the car and form their own opinions.

Do you do any other marketing besides the stores?

Yes, we do events from time to time in places where we don’t have a store. We’ve done events like the Model X event in February of 2011, and the GetAmped! test-drive tour, where we did more than 5,000 test drives in two months.

We’ve done a media blitz in Europe. Our marketing team puts that together with the communications team. So, our marketing is not focused on print ads or things like that. It’s about providing information in the stores, and at events.

How does your marketing strategy play out at retail?

I consider every product specialist who works in our stores to be on the marketing team. Our focus on marketing is one-to-one contact.

It’s not about driving people to the store by saying: “On sale this weekend only, the best prices of the year. Come and see us.” It’s about a one-on-one relationship, us to a customer, giving each one a unique experience.

If someone comes in and wants to talk about the battery and the motor, we talk about the battery and the motor. If they want to talk about how much room is in the car, we talk about how much room is in the car.

Some people couldn’t care less about any of those things: All they want to talk about is the 17-inch touchscreen. So, what do we do? We talk about the 17-inch touchscreen. It’s a uniquely individual experience for each person.

That’s very similar to the Apple store experience.

tesla sidebarThe parallel is that you want to tell them who you are and what you do. You want to tell them about all the things that your product does and why it would be good for them.

When we opened up Apple stores, people stopped in, and we gave them great service. We talked about the Genius Bar and everything else we had to offer. Then along came this thing called the iPod. People had no idea what it did. We explained it: A thousand songs in your pocket. But it also cost $600. Other music players cost $149, right? A lot of people wanted one, but it was too expensive.

Then came the iPod Mini, priced at $249. People who wanted one could afford to buy it now. Then they came out in colors. I want a pink one. I want a blue one. I want a silver one. People then started getting it. They understood it and connected it to their computer, and then they wanted an Apple computer, too.

By 2007, the iPhone comes out and people started waiting in line on a Thursday evening, camped out around stores to get something they’d never seen before. They wanted it — they wanted an iPhone. Same thing with the iPad; they camped out for a product they had never even seen.

Did you make any mistakes at Apple that you don’t want to repeat at Tesla?

No. Having worked at Gap and across a whole series of different types of stores, the things that I learned I folded right into Tesla.

There were things that I learned after we opened Tesla stores that I did not expect, but I couldn’t have learned them at either of my previous companies. For example, traffic on a weekly basis was about three to four times greater than I anticipated.

People were very intrigued by the fact that we were in high-traffic shopping center locations and enticed to come in because they saw a car they did not recognize inside. There was no way I could have known this would happen so quickly from the experience at either of my previous companies.

How does Tesla’s culture compare to Apple’s?

At Apple, everything was focused around innovation and making things that were complex, simple. At Tesla, it’s not directly about innovation. It’s about changing the world. One leads to the other, but the impact is different.

Didn’t Steve Jobs think he was changing the world?

He did. The iPhone changed the way people communicate with each other. It was no longer just about plugging in a phone number and talking to somebody. It was about having your calendar on there, too. Then the App store changed the way people communicate.

Elon envisions the day when you will drive down the road, pull over, and charge your car at a solar charging location that is not even connected to the grid. He envisions a day when it’s free to charge your car. That changes the world. It changes the world differently than an iPhone, in my opinion. That’s the vision.

Is it fair to compare Elon Musk to Steve Jobs?

Absolutely. I don’t know how many people on the planet have actually worked as closely with both as I have. Both men are visionaries. Both are brilliant and both believe there is a better way of doing a lot of what we do today. They want to make it happen and they are willing to fight the battles to make it happen.

What was your role relative to Ron Johnson’s at Apple?

We worked very closely together. Ron is brilliant at branding. That was his major contribution at Target and at Apple. It was his idea to do the Genius Bar, which is an incredible addition to the Apple store. He is a branding genius.

I came in with a strategic growth strategy, a retail strategy. I know the world of shopping well. I oversaw store design, construction, and the roll out of stores for all Gap brands in North America from 1990 to 1997.

So, I have the store design background and the in-store background. I also have an operations background because I ran stores at Gap. So, between the branding and the strategy, we worked together to bring the Apple stores to life.

And then obviously Steve was involved in every detail of everything that went on in the stores. We were basically contributors to the meetings where Steve made the decisions.

Would you ever put a Tesla boutique in a JC Penney store?

I haven’t been contacted. It’s doubtful we would do that in the near future, but I will always take a phone call from Ron Johnson.

How do you decide where you put the stores?

That’s sort of my wheelhouse from the past. When I started at Gap, we had a little under 500 stores and when I left we had 3,000, including Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Gap Kids. When I was with Apple, I did the first 150 Apple stores around the world. You tell me where you want to go and I can pretty much tell you where to shop. I know where customers like to go.

Are they all upscale locations?

Not necessarily. The Westchester in New York is very upscale but we’re also in Roosevelt Field, which is not. The Westchester is a much lower traffic center with great tenants. Roosevelt Field is a very high traffic center with a wider cross-section of customers.

At the Third Street promenade, in Santa Monica, about half of the shoppers are not from Los Angeles, or even that part of the United States. It’s tourists. Our Lincoln Road store in Miami is going to have an impact on New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Europe, and South America because of the tourists. So, the benefit of that store is not just that location and the geography around it, because it will also impact all parts of the world. Each store has its own little niche.

How does consumer response compare around the world?

The response to the car is the same. People are wowed by the look of the car and the 17-inch touchscreen. They are wowed in every way about the car itself. However, the response to the car in terms of the buying decision is motivated by local governments.

The local government’s priorities often translate into what happens in a particular industry. The countries that have gotten behind electric vehicles do incentives. The bigger the incentives, the greater the attractiveness.

Countries in Europe, like Norway, have gotten behind the electric-vehicle movement big-time because they feel it’s incredibly important. The incentives are substantial, so many of our reservations are in those countries.

What is the biggest hurdle to Tesla’s success?

The biggest hurdle is getting in front of as many people as we can so that they understand what we are doing. We have a car that’s been out for three or four years, the Roadster, but people still don’t know who we are. We’ve got 18 stores now in North America, but people still don’t know who we are.

We are taking the Northeast by storm. We’re opening up two stores in New Jersey, we opened up in Roosevelt Field, and in Westchester. We opened up in Boston. We’re opening up in Northern Virginia, but people still don’t know who we are. So, our biggest hurdle right now is getting people to know who we are and what we do.

What is your greatest hope for Tesla?

I hope that 20 years from now, when people are driving around in a better car, that Elon gets the credit. I hope that the people who work at Tesla today get the credit for doing what most people think is impossible, and that they have a great life because they made a difference.

The people who come to work at Tesla every day do so knowing that everything we do is impossible. Four years ago, if you said, I’m going to build a car that’s electric and it’s going to go over 200 miles on a charge, go from 0-60 in under 4 seconds, and it’s going to look great — people would have said that was impossible.

Then we stood up and said we were going to build a car that holds five passengers and two kids. It’s going to weigh more than 4,000 pounds, go from 0-60 in under 4½ seconds, and it’s going to go 300 miles on a charge — and that was impossible.

Opening up stores and doing this differently than every other company in the world is impossible. A lot of people are putting a lot of blood, sweat and tears into making these things happen. I just hope the people who made the difference happen have a great life. That’s what I hope.

george blankenship
GEORGE BLANKENSHIP is vice president of worldwide sales and ownership experience for Tesla Motors, where his goal is to re-imagine how people buy cars. He previously was the chief retail strategist for Apple, and held a similar post with Gap.

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