For much of the past decade, Tesla lacked competitors that matched its models’ battery range and other measures of performance.
The trends have shown up in one consumer survey and market research report after another: Tesla commands high brand awareness, consideration and loyalty, and customers are mostly delighted by its cars. Musk’s antics, on the other hand? They could do without.
Creative Strategies, a California-based customer-experience measurer, mentioned owner frustration with Musk in a study it published in April. A year earlier, research firm Escalent found Musk was the most negative aspect of the Tesla brand among electric-vehicle owners surveyed.
“We hear from Tesla owners who will say, ‘Look, I love my vehicle, but I really wish I didn’t have to respond to my friends and family about his latest tweet,’” says Mike Dovorany, who spoke with thousands of EV owners and potential buyers during his two years working in Eswarm’s automotive and mobility group.
Tesla has so far had no trouble growing its way through Musk’s many controversies. The dip in vehicle deliveries the company reported last quarter was its first sequential decline since early 2020 and largely had to do with COVID-19 lockdowns in Shanghai forcing its most productive factory to shut for weeks. Competitors that have been chasing the company for a decade may still be years away from catching up in the EV sales ranks.
Musk’s star power, built in no small part by his activity on Twitter – the same forum where he’s become such a lightning rod – has contributed immensely to Tesla, especially since it’s shunned traditional advertising. His steady stream of online banter, punctuated with the occasional grandiose announcement or stunt (see: shooting a Roadster into space) keeps Tesla in the headlines. During the company’s earlier days, the trolling and glib comments were a feature, not a bug. They allowed Musk to shape media coverage and made him the ringleader for Tesla’s legion of very-online fans.
But after making Tesla and himself so synonymous with one another, Musk has waded into political conflicts, attempted to buy one of the world’s most influential social media platforms and struggled to bat back unflattering coverage of his personal life, putting the company’s increasingly valuable brand at risk.
Jerry James Stone, a 48-year-old chef in Sacramento, California, who teaches his 219,000 YouTube channel subscribers how to make vegan and vegetarian meals, drives a Volkswagen Beetle convertible and plans to go electric with his next car. He is not sure yet which model, but he is certain it wo n’t be a Tesla.
“Elon has just soiled that brand for me so much that I don’t even think I would take one if I won one,” Stone says. “You have this guy who’s the richest dude in the world, who has this huge megaphone, and he uses it to call somebody a paedophile who’s not, or to fat-shame people, all these things that are just kind of gross.”
Teslas off the table
According to Strategic Vision, a US research firm that consults auto companies, some 39 per cent of car buyers say they wouldn’t consider Tesla. That’s not necessarily out of the ordinary – almost half of respondents say they won’t consider German luxury brands. But Tesla does lag more mass-market brands: Toyota, for example, is only off the shopping list for 23 per cent of drivers.
Emma Sirr, a 28-year-old worker in cloud computing who lives in Bozeman, Montana, gets around with her partner and their two dogs in a 2004 Nissan Frontier. They’ve been researching EVs for about three years and until recently considered Teslas the only viable option, given their range and the charging infrastructure the company has built in their area. But they refused to buy one because of Musk, their main concerns being his politics, staff turnover at the company and its cavalier approach to autonomous-driving technology.
“We took Tesla off the table from the get-go,” Sirr says. She and her partner de ella have their eyes on the Kia Niro and Chevrolet Bolt as possible alternatives. “As consumers, our power is what we buy. I think younger generations in particular vote with their wallets, and I feel like that might come back to bite.”
For much of the past decade, Tesla lacked competitors that matched its models’ battery range and other measures of performance. Consumers put off by Musk’s mischief had few EVs to turn to. As legacy vehicle makers introduce more capable electric models, Tesla won’t have as much leeway.
“We’ve seen among the early adopters more of a willingness to take risks or to put up with things that are out of the ordinary,” says Dovorany, who left Escalent for an automotive tech start-up earlier this year. “We’re not seeing that as much with incoming buyers.” To win this cohort, automakers need to check every box, and for some, that includes employing a chief executive who doesn’t share Hitler memes on social media.
Levitt, the self-described former Musk fanboy, took a test ride last month in a Lucid. He was n’t sold on it, partly he says because it did n’t have enough cargo space for his golf gear. He’s still waiting for another automaker to steal him away from Tesla and considering models from Audi, Mercedes and BMW.
“If you take Mr. Musk and his antics out of the equation, I’m about 98 per cent certain that my next car would be a Tesla,” Levitt says. “His antics of him put me in play.”