Elon Musk’s antics turn owners and buyers against Tesla

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 driven,” says the 73-year-old self-storage company executive.

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He bought the brand as well as Tesla Inc.’s charismatic CEO Elon Musk, bought another Model S the following year and drove the first model nationwide. In 2016, he lined up in a showroom near his suburban Los Angeles home to be among the first to order two Model 3s—one for himself, the other for his wife.

“I was a total Musk fanboy,” Levitt says.

Because Levitt still loves his Tesla, he sours on Musk. “Over time, his public statements have really started to bother me,” Levitt said, citing the CEO’s feud with US President Joe Biden. “He acts like a seven-year-old.”

Before it was reported that Musk had an affair with Sergey Brin’s wife, which he denied; Before his slipshod deal to acquire Twitter Inc., then a no-deal; Before the revelation she fathered twins with an executive at her brain-interface startup Neuralink; That was before SpaceX fired employees, who called them “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment”; Before his daughter changed his name and legal gender, following the history of his joke pronouns; Prior to an article claiming SpaceX paid an employee $250,000 to claim he sexually assaulted her, the allegations called them untrue; Musk’s behavior was turning potential customers away and upsetting some Tesla owners.

One after another consumer surveys and market research reports have shown trends: Tesla commands higher brand awareness, views and loyalty, and customers are mostly pleased with its cars. Musk’s actions on the other hand? They could do without.

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A study published in April by California-based customer-experience measurer Creative Strategies noted owner frustrations with Musk. A year ago, research firm Escalante found that Musk was the most negative aspect of the Tesla brand in a survey of electric-vehicle owners.

“We hear from Tesla owners who will say, ‘Look, I love my vehicle, but I really wish I didn’t have to reply to my friends and family about their latest tweet,'” says Mike Dovorani, who spoke with thousands of EV owners and potential buyers during their two years working at Escalent’s automotive and mobility group.

Tesla has had no trouble making its way through Musk’s many controversies so far. The decline in vehicle deliveries last quarter was its first sequential decline since the start of 2020 and the massive Covid lockdown in Shanghai forced its most productive factory to close for weeks. Competitors that have been following the company for a decade may still be far from catching up in the EV sales ranks.

Musk’s star power, built in no small part by his activity on Twitter – the same platform where he has become such a lightning rod – has contributed greatly to Tesla, especially since it veers away from traditional advertising. His steady stream of online banter, sometimes punctuated with grand announcements or stunts (see: shooting a Roadster in space) puts Tesla in the spotlight. In the company’s early days, trolling and glib comments were a feature, not a bug. He allowed Musk to shape media coverage and made him the kingpin for Tesla’s very own online fans.

But after making Tesla and himself synonymous with each other, Musk entered political conflicts, attempting to buy one of the world’s most influential social media platforms and leaving the company’s increasingly valuable brand unaffordable for his personal life. Struggled to bat coverage back. risk.

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Chef Jerry James Stone, 48, in Sacramento, Calif., who teaches how to cook vegetarian and vegan meals to his 219,000 YouTube channel subscribers, drives a Volkswagen Beetle convertible and plans to go electric with his next car. He’s not sure yet which model, but is certain it won’t be a Tesla.

“Elon has made that brand so dirty for me that I don’t think I’ll take one if I won one,” Stone says. “You have this guy who’s the richest dude in the world, who has such a big megaphone, and he uses it to call someone a pedophile who isn’t, or fat-shame people, all these Things that are just kind of gross.”

According to Strategic Vision, a US research firm that consults auto companies, about 39% of car buyers say they would not consider Tesla. This is not necessarily out of the ordinary – almost half of the respondents say they would not consider German luxury brands. But Tesla lags behind more mass-market brands: Toyota, for example, is off the shopping list for only 23% of drivers.

Emma Sirr, 28, a cloud computing worker living in Bozeman, Montana, walks around in a 2004 Nissan Frontier with her partner and their two dogs. They have been researching EVs for almost three years and until recently Tesla was considered the only viable option, given their range and charging infrastructure the company has built in its field. But he declined to buy one because of Musk, his main gripes being his politics, the employee turnover at the company, and his cavalier approach to autonomous-driving technology.

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Says Sirr, “We took the Tesla off the table from the start. He and his teammates have their eyes on the Kia Niro and the Chevrolet Bolt. Vote exclusively with your wallet, and I think it’s back to bite may come.”

Over the past decade, Tesla lacked competitors that matched its models’ battery range and other measures of performance. Consumers disappointed by Musk’s mischief had few electric vehicles. As older automakers introduce more capable electric models, Tesla won’t have as many discounts.

“We’ve seen a willingness to take risks or do things out of the ordinary in early adopters,” says Dovorani, who left Escalante for an automotive tech startup earlier this year. “We’re not seeing as much with incoming buyers.” To win this group, automakers have to check every box, and for some, that includes hiring a CEO who doesn’t share Hilter memes on social media.

Levitt, a self-described former Musk fanboy, took a test ride last month in a Lucid. That wasn’t sold on it, he says, partly because he didn’t have enough cargo space for his golf gear. He’s still waiting for another automaker to move him away from Tesla and consider models from Audi, Mercedes, and BMW.

“If you take Mr. Musk and his antics out of the equation, I am about 98% certain that my next car will be a Tesla,” Levitt says. “His antics put me in the game.”

First published date: 31 July 2022, 17:32 PM IST