Musk’s antics turn Tesla owners, new buyers against him | Business and Economy News
Dennis Levitt got his first Tesla, a blue Model S, in 2013 and loved it. “It was so much better than any car I’ve ever driven,” said the 73-year-old self-storage company executive.
He bought the brand along with Elon Musk, the charismatic CEO of Tesla Inc., buying another Model S the following year and driving the first across the country. In 2016, he lined up at a showroom near his home in suburban Los Angeles to be one of the first to order two Model 3s, one for himself, the other for his woman.
“I was a total Musk fanboy,” Levitt says.
Was, because while Levitt still loves his Teslas, he’s soured on Musk. “Over time, his public statements have come to bother me,” Levitt said, citing the CEO’s run-ins with US President Joe Biden, among others. “He acts like a seven-year-old.”
Before it was reported, Musk had an affair with Sergey Brin’s wife, which he denied; before its botched, then no-deal, deal to acquire Twitter Inc.; before the revelation, he fathered twins with an executive at his brain-interface startup Neuralink; before SpaceX fired employees who called it “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment”; before his daughter changed her name and legal sex after her history of mocking pronouns; before an article said SpaceX paid an employee $250,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint, allegations he called fake; Musk’s behavior turned off potential customers and unsettled some Tesla owners.
The trends have emerged in one consumer survey and one market research report after another: Tesla enjoys high brand awareness, consideration and loyalty, and customers are for the most delighted with his cars. Musk’s antics, on the other hand? They could do without.
Creative Strategies, a California-based customer experience evaluator, cited owner frustration with Musk in a study published in April. A year earlier, research firm Escalent found that Musk was the most negative aspect of the Tesla brand among electric vehicle owners surveyed.
“We hear Tesla owners say, ‘Listen, I love my vehicle, but I really wish I didn’t have to respond to my friends and family about his last tweet,'” said Mike Dovorany, who has spoken with thousands of EV owners and potential buyers during his two years working with Escalent’s automotive and mobility group.
Much harder to make friends than enemies. My skills in the latter area are improving.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 28, 2022
So far, Tesla has had no trouble navigating Musk’s many controversies. The drop in vehicle deliveries the company reported last quarter was its first sequential drop since the start of 2020 and was largely related to Covid lockdowns in Shanghai, forcing its most productive factory to close for weeks. Competitors who have been chasing the company for a decade could still be years away from catching up in the ranks of electric vehicle sales.
Musk’s star power, built in large part by his activity on Twitter — the same forum where he became such a lightning rod — has helped Tesla immensely, especially as he eschews traditional advertising. Its steady stream of online banter, punctuated by announcements or the occasional grandiose stunt (see: shooting a Roadster into space) keeps Tesla in the headlines. In the early days of the company, trolling and offhand comments were a feature, not a bug. They allowed Musk to shape media coverage and made him the leader of Tesla’s legion of very online fans.
But after making Tesla and himself so synonymous with each other, Musk got embroiled in political strife, tried to buy one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, and got struggling to fend off 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, Calif., who teaches his 219,000 YouTube channel subscribers how to cook vegan and vegetarian meals, drives a convertible Volkswagen Beetle and plans to go electric with his next car. He does not yet know which model, but certain that it will not be a Tesla.
“Elon just smeared this mark so badly for me that I don’t even think I’d take one if I won one,” Stone says. “You have this guy who is the richest dude in the world, who has this huge megaphone, and he uses it to call somebody a pedophile who isn’t, or to shame people, all those things which are just a little gross.”
According to Strategic Vision, a US research firm that consults with automakers, about 39% of car buyers say they wouldn’t consider a Tesla. That’s not necessarily unusual – nearly half of respondents say they won’t consider German luxury brands. But Tesla lags further behind the mainstream brands: Toyota, for example, is only on the shopping list for 23% of drivers.
Emma Sirr, a 28-year-old cloud computing worker who lives in Bozeman, Montana, travels with her partner and their two dogs in a 2004 Nissan Frontier. They have been researching electric vehicles for about three years and, until recently viewed Teslas as 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 complaints being his politics, employee turnover at the company and his cavalier approach to self-driving technology.
“We took Tesla off the table from the start,” says Sirr. She and her partner have their eyes set on the Kia Niro and Chevrolet Bolt as possible alternatives. “As consumers, our power is what we buy. I think younger generations in particular are voting with their wallets, and I feel like that might come back to bite.
For much of the past decade, Tesla has lacked competitors that matched its models’ battery lineup and other performance metrics. Consumers put off by Musk’s misdeeds had few electric vehicles to turn to. As traditional automakers introduce more capable electric models, Tesla won’t have as much leeway.
“We’ve seen among early adopters a greater willingness to take risks or put up with things that are out of the ordinary,” says Dovorany, who left Escalent for an automotive tech startup earlier this year. “We don’t see that as much with inbound buyers.” To win this cohort, automakers need to tick all the boxes, and for some, that includes employing a CEO who doesn’t share Hilter memes on social media.
Levitt, Musk’s self-proclaimed former fanboy, took a test ride last month in a Lucid. He wasn’t convinced, partly because there wasn’t enough cargo space for his golf equipment. He’s still waiting for another automaker to steal it from Tesla and is considering models from Audi, Mercedes and BMW.
“If you take Mr. Musk and his antics out of the equation, I’m about 98% sure my next car would be a Tesla,” Levitt says. “His antics put me on the line.”