He bought the brand as well as Elon Musk, the charismatic CEO of Tesla Inc. He bought another Model S the following year and drove the first car across the country. In 2016, he queued at a showroom near his home in suburban Los Angeles to be the first to order two Model 3s — one for himself and one for his wife.
“I was a fan of musk music,” Levitt says.
That was because while Levitt still loves his Teslas, he has grown nervous about Musk. “Over time, his public statements really bothered me,” Levitt said, citing the CEO’s quarrels with US President Joe Biden, among others. “He’s acting like a seven-year-old.”
Before there was news that Musk was having an affair with Sergey Brin’s wife, which he denied; Before his bogus, then no-deal, takeover of Twitter Inc. Before the revelation was announced, he gave birth to twins with a CEO at his brain-front startup Neuralink; Before SpaceX fired employees they described it as a “recurring source of distraction and embarrassment”; before his daughter changed her name and legal gender after his history of mocking pronouns; Before an article said that SpaceX paid an employee $250,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim, allegations he contacted incorrect; Musk’s behavior was putting off potential customers and worrying some Tesla owners.
Trends emerged in consumer survey and market research report after market: Tesla has high brand awareness, mindfulness and loyalty, and customers are mostly happy with its cars. On the other hand, Musk’s antics? They can do without it.
Creative Strategies, a California-based customer experience measurement company, mentioned the owner’s frustration with Musk in a study it published in April. A year ago, research firm Escalent found that Musk was the most negative aspect of the Tesla brand among electric car owners surveyed.
says Mike Duvorani, who has spoken with thousands of electric car owners and potential buyers during his two years working for Escalent’s automotive and mobility group.
Making friends is much more difficult than enemies. My skill is finally improving.
– Elon Musk 28 July 2022
Tesla has so far had no trouble making its way through the many controversies that Musk has raised. The decline in vehicle deliveries the company reported last quarter was its first sequential decline since early 2020 and was largely related to the Covid shutdown in Shanghai that forced its most productive plant to shutter for weeks. The competitors that have been chasing the company for a decade may still be years away from catching up in the electric car sales ranks.
Musk’s star power, built in large part through his activity on Twitter – the same forum he became such a thunderbolt – has made a significant contribution to Tesla, especially after it has eschewed traditional advertising. Its constant stream of online banter, punctuated by an ad or a major accidental stunt (see: Roadster launching into space) keeps Tesla in the headlines. During the company’s earlier days, phishing and offensive comments were a feature rather than a bug. They allowed Musk to shape media coverage and made him the leader of the Tesla Legion gang a fan online.
But after making Tesla and himself synonymous with each other, Musk plunged into political squabbles, tried to buy one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, and struggled to win back unwanted coverage of his personal life, putting the increasingly valuable brand of the company at risk.
Jerry James Stone, a 48-year-old chef in Sacramento, California, is teaching his 219,000 YouTube subscribers how to make vegetarian and vegan meals, drives a Volkswagen Beetle convertible and plans to use electricity with his next car. He’s not sure yet about the model, but he’s sure it won’t be a Tesla.
“Elon has just smeared this brand on me to the point that I don’t think I’d get one if I won one,” Stone says. “You have this guy who’s the richest guy in the world, and he’s got this huge megaphone, and he uses it to call someone a pedophile who isn’t, or to shame fat people, all of those things are just kind of rude.”
According to Strategic Vision, a US research firm that consults with auto companies, about 39% of car buyers say they would not consider buying a Tesla. This is not necessarily out of the ordinary – almost half of 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 23% of drivers.
Emma Sear, a 28-year-old cloud computing worker who lives in Bozeman, Montana, rides with her partner and their dogs in a 2004 Nissan Frontier. They’ve been searching for EVs for about three years and until recently considered Teslas the only viable option, given their range and the charging infrastructure that the company has built in their area. But they refused to buy one because of Musk, their main concern being his politics, the company’s employee turnover and arrogant approach to self-driving technology.
“We took Tesla off the table from the start,” says Sir. She and her partner have their eyes set on the Kia Niro and the Chevrolet Bolt as possible alternatives. “As consumers, our power is what we buy. I think the younger generations in particular vote with their money, and I feel like that might come back to nibble.”
For most of the past decade, Tesla has lacked competitors that match its models’ battery range and other performance metrics. Consumers put off by Musk’s mischief had few electric vehicles they could turn to. As old automakers offer more capable electric models, Tesla won’t have much leeway.
“We’ve seen among early adopters a greater willingness to take risks or take on things out of the ordinary,” says Duvorani, who left Escalent for an auto tech startup earlier this year. “We don’t see that often with the buyers coming in.” To win this group, automakers need to check every box, and for some, that includes hiring a CEO who doesn’t share helter memes on social media.
Levitt, a self-described aficionado of Musk, took a test ride last month in a Lucid van. It wasn’t sold, in part because it didn’t have enough cargo space for his golf gear. He’s still waiting for another automaker to steal it away from Tesla and is considering Audi, Mercedes and BMW models.
“If you take Mr. Musk and his behaviors out of the equation, I’m 98% sure my next car will be a Tesla,” Levitt says. “His antics put me in play.”