When the topic turns to brand reputation and electric vehicles, the case seems easy enough. Zero emission cars make an important contribution to decarbonization, and that reflects nicely on the auto companies who produce them. However, even the simplest of brand calculations can take an unexpected turn when politics are involved.
A case in point is Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk.
Ever a lightning rod for publicity, Musk is largely credited with resurrecting interest in electric vehicles at the close of the Bush administration. He launched the all-electric Roadster sports car in 2008, just a few years after GM pulled the plug on its ill-fated EV-1.
Tesla didn’t hold the field for long, though. Competition began to heat up during the Obama administration, mainly in the hybrid electric field. Along with the popular Toyota Prius, GM re-entered the race with the Volt hybrid, and Ford introduced the C-Max Energi.
Auto industry boosters were also early EV supporters, including NASCAR and the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway venue.
Nevertheless, during the Obama administration the political divide dictated that electric vehicles were the enemy. Conservative pundits engaged in a steady drumbeat against the new technology, despite strong support within the auto industry.
The political lines could not have been clearer. Electric vehicles were the choice of blue-state Democrats, while red-state Republicans continued to champion traditional vehicles.
By 2014, the us-versus-them attitude was so influential that some drivers acted out bullying behaviors on the road. Specifically, some diesel drivers began deploying a “rolling coal” modification to blanket Teslas and other electric cars in smog. Others blocked access to Tesla’s public charging stations.
The bullying behavior continued after Trump took office, with Tesla drivers continuing to be a favorite target.
The anti-Tesla fervor was more than a little ironic, considering that during the 2016 campaign cycle then-candidate Donald Trump was reported to have a Tesla in his personal collection of high-end cars.
Adding to the irony, Elon Musk very publicly stepped out of the blue state EV bubble to support the new U.S. president when he took office in 2017. Partly thanks to his aggressive use of Twitter, Musk caught more than his share of media attention when he agreed to join the President’s newly formed manufacturing council. He also took heat for endorsing former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State.
The relationship appeared to cool when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but that was only temporary. In 2018 Musk again drew attention for joining top Republican donor Sheldon Adelson in support of a PAC aimed at protecting the Republican majority in Congress.
Musk’s SpaceX venture has also provided ample motivation to maintain cordial relations with the White House. That is a two-way street. The success of the SpaceX program happens to intersect with the president’s pet space projects, including travel to Mars and creation of the new “Space Force.”
Asked about Musk during the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Trump enthused about the SpaceX program and asserted that Musk is “one of our great geniuses.”
Trump’s support for Tesla took on a more definitive shape on April 14, when he announced the newly formed “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups” aimed at developing plans for re-starting the economy. He named Musk among the 12 CEOs tapped for the manufacturing group.
Interestingly, the big three auto makers were also represented in the group. In fact, nine of the 12 the manufacturers were involved with electric vehicles to one degree or another, including Caterpillar, Deere & Company, Cummins, Emerson Electric and General Electric as well as Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and of course, Tesla.
By all appearances, Musk and other electric vehicles stakeholders were working collaboratively toward a carefully coordinated restart date, reportedly set for Monday, May 18.
However, the appearances were wrong. Less than two weeks after the Great American groups were announced, Musk began pressing for a quick restart. In an April 29 earnings call reported by The Drive, he spoke against the extension of lockdown rules, calling it “forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights”
On May 1 he turned up the heat on Twitter, writing “Now give people back their FREEDOM” among other thoughts.
Officials in Alameda County, California, had been working with Tesla on a May 18 reopening plan for its Fremont facility, but Musk launched a ferocious attack on Twitter demanding an earlier opening.
The result was a blinding blitz of free publicity, during which Musk restarted his factory in Fremont, California days before Ford and GM were set to open.
If the idea was to re-assert Tesla’s image as a maverick bucking the entrenched industry tide and bureaucrats alike, Musk certainly succeeded on that score.
He may have also sought to deflate widespread criticism of his attempt at delivering ventilators. Musk’s effort came up short of GM’s ventilator production in Indiana, which was publicly recognized by Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials during an April 30 factory tour.
One-upping GM with a factory tour by the president himself may have also been on Musk’s agenda — and he might just succeed.
Last week the president tweeted his approval of Musk’s tactics over the Fremont opening, writing that “California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW. It can be done Fast & Safely!”
If things continue in this vein, it seems that Musk may accomplish the seemingly impossible task of turning Trump voters into Tesla buyers.
Musk has already drawn attention for downplaying the dangers of COVID-19, fighting over public health policy, and pressuring employees to return to work early, all of which could help to endear the Tesla brand to supporters of the President.
For the rest of the car buying public, though, that kind of brand reputation may not the one they’d like to see parked in their own driveway.
Image credit: Taun Stewart/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.