If you look at the Tesla Reddit forum, it’s nearly universal: the Redditors love their Teslas. People who post there talk about the Tesla brand — the Supercharger network, Smart Summons, accessories and apps, the 4680 batteries, adapters, autonomy, and other vehicle-specific topics. Sure, a few commenters speak about the health of the company or its stock, but the majority are dedicated to sharing their insights into the Tesla catalog and their discoveries about hidden touchscreen lagniappes.
More recently, however, Tesla narratives seem to focus on the antics of the company’s mercurial CEO Elon Musk. Lots of former Tesla aficionados are dismayed by revelations about his private life and other ways that his often outrageous antics seep into the Tesla brand identity.
Why is there such a distinct line between fervor over the Tesla brand and chagrin over Musk as chief of the world’s leading all-electric car company?
The answer to that question is complex and nuanced.
Early adopters loved not only the Tesla brand but also CEO Elon Musk. His vision of a sustainable future resonated with a small but strong segment of the public. They found him innovative, curious, educated, motivated, articulate, and funny. Musk introduced us to a sweeping transportation and social revolution and disrupted the dominance of internal combustion (ICE) engines as a US congruence marker.
Competitors that have been chasing the company for a decade are probably still years away from catching up to Tesla in the EV sales rankings.
Rejecting traditional advertising, Musk has used social media to showcase the Tesla line of vehicles. Additionally, and often unfortunately, he has used social public platforms to gleefully express binary positions about issues, sparking controversies.
His fame has brought him over 100 million Twitter followers, many of whom scrutinize his every tweet. He has regularly attacked his perceived enemies. His tonality about other companies creates a signal advance — a type of indicator composed of optimism or pessimism that can drive a company’s valuation. Many institutional investors are frustrated by Musk but continue to stand by him due to the company’s overall strong performance. His frequent inability to connect with many followers causes angst among avowed fanboys and fangirls.
As Bloomberg Hyperdrive noted recently, lots of consumer surveys and market research reports confirm that Tesla commands high brand awareness, consideration, and loyalty. Customers are mostly delighted by its all-electric cars. Musk, however, has been a common subject of critique, “synonymous” with the Tesla brand at the same time he dives into “touchy political conflicts.” They add that batting back unflattering coverage of his personal life has put the company’s increasingly valuable brand at risk.
Reuters frames Musk’s influence as making “a name for himself and Tesla by breaking the rules.” Business Insider says that Tesla is one of the most divisive companies on Wall Street, with his “unfiltered tweeting” taking a good amount of the blame. How bad has the hit been?
What’s Not to Love in the Tesla Brand?
Tesla owners love its add-on’s and Easter eggs (an undocumented hidden feature that developers leave behind for users to discover). The features reflect Musk’s unique sense of humor and have added to Tesla fans’ admiration — taken separately from his social media messaging.
Autopilot: The car can steer, accelerate, and brake automatically within its lane.
Bioweapon defense mode: This HEPA filtration system prevents toxic chemicals from getting into the cabin of the car (only available in Model S and Model X).
Touchscreen: The 17″ screen houses standard features like climate control and navigation but also offers video games, connectivity, streaming services, and live traffic updates, among hundreds of other features.
Sentry mode: The feature allows you to keep a close eye on your parked vehicle from anywhere in the world.
Advanced parking sensors: Drivers are signaled when objects may be too close.
Supercharger network: 35,000+ fast chargers are available located on major routes near convenient amenities around the world.
Phone key: Instead of a metal key, Tesla owners access their vehicles via their phone (there’s also a valet key for times when the owner wants to confer driving privileges to someone else).
The app: The app allows drivers to control their car from virtually anywhere. It sends real-time updates and allows owners to check the status of their vehicle while it’s charging, control the air conditioning and heat, and lock and unlock the car, among other features.
Over-the-air updates: The company sends new features to the vehicles to make them safer and to offer more features to Tesla owners.
Dog mode: The interior temperature of the car is regulated to avoid the animal overheating. The touchscreen displays a message to apprise unnecessarily concerned passersby of the function.
Automatic cabin overheat protection: The car automatically cools if its interior temperature exceeds 105 degrees F.
Frunk: Without an engine to take up front space, a trunk in the front allows extra storage. It is a feature that was quickly copied by competitors.
Musk’s Comments Complicate the Company’s Disruptive Auto Technology
While Musk’s personal opinions have complicated Tesla brand appeal, his social media posts have also affected perceptions of the company’s manufacturing capabilities.
A case in point was the highly anticipated unveiling of the Tesla Model 3, designed for a mass market audience. The first customers who were able to drive off with the mass-market, electric, 4-door sedan at a private event were those who helped design and build the car. Seen as an inspirational and coveted car, the limited range of 215 miles was an accepted trade-off, and die-hard fans discussed the minutiae of the Model 3 and agonized over delivery dates.
Subsequently, Musk tweeted with confidence about Model 3 targets.
Looks like we can reach 20,000 Model 3 cars per month in Dec
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 3, 2017
Initial Model 3 production rates didn’t quite meet Musk’s promises. Tesla made just 2,685 Model 3 vehicles in 2017. Musk had stated the company would make 500,000 vehicles in 2018, but ended up manufacturing 254,530 vehicles instead.
Then in 2018 the SEC issued subpoenas to Tesla in connection with 2 issues:
- Musk’s prior statement that he was considering taking Tesla private;
- certain projections that we made for Model 3 production rates during 2017 and other public statements relating to Model 3 production.
It took until 2019 for Tesla to be able to assure stockholders that “we have launched, ramped, and stabilized Model 3,” as Zachary Kirkhorn, chief financial officer of Tesla, relayed.
Final Thoughts about the Tesla Brand & Musk’s Complicated Influence
The Model Y has been released with great acclaim and more company success. Yet Musk continues to baffle the market with his social media messaging, absent filters. He’s a person who has revealed that half his tweets are created on the toilet, yet he’s also a genius — albeit with flaws.
Consumers connect deeply with brands that share their values, or represent what they aspire to be, Americus Reed, a marketing professor at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN. “The intensity of the relationship for those that are really into Tesla is off the charts.”
As the Washington Post concluded about the Tesla brand, “Disassociation abounds. Love the car, not the tweeter.”
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