Elon Musk’s summer of discontent was nicely bookended last week, when he was forced to stand down as Tesla chairman by an SEC ruling, which effectively did the job that a vote of no confidence had attempted to do back in early June.
Tesla and Musk have seemingly lurched from crisis to crisis since that vote of no confidence, with ‘highlights’ including his bizarre (and likely defamatory) feud with Vernon Unsworth during and after the Thai Caves rescue attempt; announcing via Twitter that he had the funding to take Tesla private (resulting in the SEC investigation that cost him the chairmanship); losing his Chief Accounting Officer less than a month into his post; the ongoing struggle to hit production targets; and smoking marijuana on a late-night podcast with comedian Joe Rogan, potentially breaching his own employee guidelines.
But what impact have Musk’s antics had on Tesla as a brand? And will it harm growth?
Initial viewing suggests not. From a purely sales point of view, Tesla have continued to grow, and in 2017, Tesla was the top selling electric vehicle in the USA, selling 11,200 units, just ahead of Chevrolet’s Volt, which sold 10,900.
Customer satisfaction is high as well, with Tesla topping the consumer satisfaction reports for three years in a row.
Whilst Musk’s highly visible public profile (particularly across social media) undoubtedly creates a lot of conversation and P.R, we’re not sure if the old adage that all publicity is good publicity rings true, especially with the huge sales targets defined by Musk himself. The challenge to take both electric cars and Tesla from niche to mass market, particularly given the enormous targets that Musk himself has forecast, will require a product and brand that appeals to as much of that market as possible. They need to continue to drive adoption, and that’s where Musk’s antics, and whether they are putting people off of the brand, will come under the microscope.
Analysis of the overwhelming male-dominated conversations (across social and various Tesla owner forums) resulted in a pattern emerging that could potentially flag an eventual issue for Tesla. A thread, entitled “Is the Model S a Man Magnet for Women?” (an indicator in itself…) suggested that Tesla does indeed draw a lot of admiring glances. But normally from other men. One user described it as more of a “bro magnet” than a “chick magnet.” Is its success with a male audience masking an underlying issue?
We went back and looked again at the conversation surrounding Tesla over the summer, to see if there was a notable gender-bias. With an increasing proportion of cars being purchased by women, and even more purchase decisions being driven by women, a lack of interest could become a sizeable barrier to mass market sales.
Across Facebook, fewer women are interested in Tesla than other electric vehicles (16% versus 31% for the Nissan Leaf, 39% for the Toyota Prius), and an analysis of Tesla-related social media comments and blog posts over the last 6 months, demonstrated an even sharper divide.
We used natural language processing to rank words and phrases most used by each gender in relation to Tesla. The results revealed that the most common phrase used by men in relation to Tesla was ‘rocket thrusters’, showing Tesla benefiting from the halo effect of being led by the same man as a company that is trying to put humans on Mars. Men were also significantly more likely to reference Elon Musk’s status as a Billionaire. In fact, conversation around Musk was mainly positive, and at times reverential. The car models and features were all much more likely to be spoken about by Men than Women.
Women, on the other hand, were more likely to mention the behaviour of Elon Musk, and speak negatively about him, with proportionally more mentions of his name in association with Tesla, than men.
The negative incidents across the summer also seem to resonate much more negatively with women, with ‘called pedo’ and ‘pr stunt’ featuring as common word pairings.
Whilst the electric vehicle market will undoubtedly continue to grow (which will likely put pressure on Tesla’s place at the top of the pile), Tesla’s ability to ride that growth wave to market domination remains uncertain.
Production issues aside, the question of whether such a male-focused brand, with a figurehead seemingly jarring to women (who are increasingly making the majority of car purchase decisions), will be able to access enough of the consumer market is likely to become an increasingly important consideration for the company, and perhaps most importantly, it’s shareholders.
Written by Daniel Johnson