Elon Musk’s antics turn owners and would-be buyers against Tesla

(Bloomberg) — Dennis Levitt got his first Tesla, a blue Model S, in 2013 and loved it. “It was much better than any car I’ve ever driven,” says the 73-year-old self-storage company executive.

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He bought into the brand as well as Elon Musk, the charismatic CEO of Tesla Inc., buying another Model S the following year and driving the first one across the country. In 2016, he stood in line at a showroom near his home in suburban Los Angeles to be one of the first to order two Model 3s — one for himself and one for his wife.

“I was a total fan of Musk,” Levitt says.

It was, because while Levitt still loves his Teslas, he’s sour on Musk. “Over time, his public statements really bother me,” Levitt said, citing the CEO’s disagreements with US President Joe Biden, among other things. “He acts like a seven-year-old.”

Before being reported Musk had an affair with Sergey Brin’s wife, which he denies. before his absurd deal, then no deal, to acquire Twitter Inc. Before the revelation, he had twins with an executive at his brain interface startup Neuralink. before SpaceX fired employees who called him “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment.” before his daughter changed her name and legal gender after his history of mocking pronouns. An article previously said SpaceX paid an employee $250,000 to settle a claim he sexually harassed her, claims they called untrue. Musk’s behavior turned off potential customers and annoyed some Tesla owners.

The trends show up in one consumer survey and market research report after another: Tesla has high brand awareness, attention and loyalty, and customers are mostly happy with its cars. Musk’s rants, on the other hand? They could do without.

Creative Strategies, a California-based customer experience tracker, reported owner frustration with Musk in a study it 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’re hearing from Tesla owners who will say, ‘Look, I love my car, but I really wish I didn’t have to answer to my friends and family about his latest tweet,'” says Mike Dovorany, who spoke with thousands of EV Owners and potential buyers during the two years he worked for Escalent’s automotive and mobility group.

Tesla has so far had no trouble navigating Musk’s many controversies. The drop in vehicle deliveries the company reported last quarter was its first consecutive decline since the start of 2020 and was largely to do with Covid lockdowns in Shanghai that forced its most productive factory to shut down for weeks. Competitors that have been chasing the company for a decade may still be years away from catching up in EV sales.

Musk’s star power, built largely from his activity on Twitter — the same forum where he’s become such a lightning rod — has helped Tesla immensely, especially since it eschews traditional advertising. His constant stream of online pranks, punctuated by the occasional grand announcement or stunt (see: shooting a Roadster into space) keeps Tesla in the headlines. During the company’s earlier days, trolling and trolling comments were a feature, not a bug. They allowed Musk to shape media coverage and made him the leader of Tesla’s legion of highly online fans.

But after making Tesla and himself so synonymous with each other, Musk ran into political conflicts, attempted to buy one of the world’s most influential social networking platforms, and struggled to prevent unflattering coverage of his personal life, putting the company’s increasingly valuable brand at risk.

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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’s not sure which model yet, but it certainly won’t be a Tesla.

“Elon has just smeared this brand on me so much that I don’t even think I’d get one if I won one,” Stone says. “You’ve got this guy who’s the richest guy in the world, who’s got this huge megaphone, and he’s using it to call somebody a pedophile who’s not, or to shame people, all that stuff is kind of gross.”

According to Strategic Vision, a US research firm that advises car companies, about 39% of car buyers say they would not consider a Tesla. This isn’t necessarily unusual – nearly half of respondents say they won’t consider German luxury brands. But Tesla lags further behind mass-market brands: Toyota, for example, is off the shopping list for only 23% of drivers.

Emma Sirr, a 28-year-old cloud computing worker who lives in Bozeman, Montana, drives 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. choice, given their range and the charging infrastructure the company has built in their area. But they refused to buy one because of Musk, with their main issues being his politics, staff turnover at the company and its cavalier approach to self-driving technology.

“We took Tesla off the table from the start,” says Sirr. She and her partner have their eyes on the Kia Niro and Chevrolet Bolt as possible alternatives. “As consumers, our power is what we buy. I think the younger generations in particular are voting with their wallets and I feel like that could come back to bite.”

For much of the past decade, Tesla has had no competitors to match its models’ battery range and other performance measures. Consumers disillusioned by Musk’s badassery had few EVs 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 tolerate things that are out of the ordinary,” says Dovorany, who left Escalent for an automotive technology startup earlier this year. “We don’t see that as much with inbound buyers.” To win over this cohort, 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-proclaimed former Musk fanboy, took a test ride last month in a Lucid. He wasn’t sold on it, in part he says because it didn’t have enough cargo space for his golf gear. He’s still waiting for another automaker to steal him away 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 percent sure my next car would be a Tesla,” Levitt says. “His antics set me off.”

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