Last year, a survey of 1,000 20-somethings worldwide found young adults most admire Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis among public figures. But the name coming in third on that list wasn't Barack Obama or a historical figure like Gandhi, both of whom appear further down in the poll results.

The man who ranks among these titans is entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of two companies he still runs, Tesla Motors and SpaceX--both started with the billions Musk made off one of his earlier companies, PayPal.

Inc. has previously reported on Millennials' apparent love for Musk and his vision of the future, with data showing that young adults are willing to make less and take on more stress for the opportunity to help build part of that tomorrow. 

The popular explanation is that this generation is drawn to value work with a purpose over a big paycheck. OK, that's fine, but then why not work for NASA or Boeing or Mercedes-Benz or one of the countless other organizations out there that all have a vision of the future? What is it about Musk and his most forward-looking company, SpaceX, in particular, that resonates with Millennials?

Here are five key tools and strategies Musk has used to become the "it" iconoclast and create a cult following for SpaceX among young adults who would have been obsessed with NASA instead two generations ago. 

1. Social and media prowess: Musk's Twitter feed is the place where much news is broken about the space and automotive industries. The billionaire still claims to send out all his own tweets rather than having an assistant handle the feed. Not only does Musk give the appearance of letting his four million followers look behind the curtains of his companies, he's also a constant headliner at conferences, delivering detail-laden keynotes that keep him, SpaceX, and Tesla perpetually in the headlines. 

2. Creating a cult following: SpaceX and Tesla media events take all the marketing mastery of an Apple product unveiling and literally add rocket fuel to take it to a whole new level. Reveals of new model Teslas follow the Apple blueprint with events that manage to be simultaneously flashy but still cool and casual. But it is the live streams of SpaceX launches that garner a huge audience with millions of views. Space nerds around the world tune in to watch routine satellite deployments, followed by attempts at experimental landings of spent rockets on drone barges at sea or back at Cape Canaveral that are truly historic. Meanwhile, launches of actual humans to the International Space Station no longer garner many headlines.

 

3. Tangible innovation: Groundbreaking science is conducted by NASA every day in orbit, yet we're more likely to hear about a SpaceX experimental landing in the news and in our social media feeds. Part of this disconnect has to do with the above, but I also suspect that Musk's concrete goals and technological innovations have something to do with it. NASA is conducting science via several spacecraft scattered around the solar system at any given moment, but all that important work is not centered on a single and specific animating goal like that of SpaceX, which exists primarily to make humanity a multi-planetary species. So when the company pioneers reusable rocket landings at sea, it isn't just a scientific accomplishment that will be written up in a journal somewhere--it's a tangible step toward living on Mars.

4. Moving faster than government: While SpaceX looks to make money by doing business with NASA to provide launch services, the long-term goal of the company is to put humans on Mars permanently. It's a vision that's more ambitious than NASA's plan to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s, essentially as part of a research and exploration mission. By that time, Musk hopes to already have a permanent settlement under construction.

5. Superhero at the helm: Musk himself brings an awful lot of value to his ventures. Looking around the automotive and space sectors he operates in, there are no other comparable charismatic leaders to build a brand around. The guy is literally the inspiration for Tony Stark, the character who transforms into Iron Man. When you've got the closest thing to a real-life superhero captaining the ship, perhaps it's no surprise Tesla and SpaceX are more appealing than their older and stodgier legacy competitors. 

Published on: May 30, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.