Tesla made news this past week when a list of media outlets all determined (mostly through Facebook group chat) that Tesla’s PR department no longer exists. Which outlets found that newsworthy? The New York Post, MSN, Forbes, Fortune, TechCrunch, CNET, and a long list of other publications without the recognizable names that serve the EV community, including Tesla-advocacy publication Elektrek. What few of them took the time to explain was just how far Tesla’s lack of self-promotion goes. Road and Track’s headline was, “Here's Why You Probably Won't See Any More Tesla Reviews in Car Magazines.” If you are a Tesla fan, is this something you are happy about?
The Difference Between PR, Advertising, and Other Forms of Promotion
If you were making a product that sold faster than you could build it, how much would you spend on advertising? Many business owners might answer "zero." It seems like common sense that it would be "wasting" money to advertise a product for which you cannot keep up with demand. Many marketing professionals may disagree, but that is not the focus of our story. Here, we will outline five other ways that Tesla opts not to promote its products, or protect its brand name. Fans of Tesla may be surprised just how far Tesla goes to pass up ways to strengthen its brand and generate a positive impression of the vehicles it builds.
Tesla Has No Public Relations
A public relations professional's job is to create room in the schedule for executives in the company to do their own jobs. PR people work to strengthen a brand and also build relationships with media outlets and other groups to enable a company to get its message out when things go wrong. Sometimes, the best person to tell a company's story may be its founder, but neither of the two people who founded Tesla work at the company anymore.
Elon Musk As Public Relations Manager and Chief Bottle Washer
Elon Musk is a precious resource. He is the leader of not just a successful vehicle manufacturer, but also a spaceship company, and a company that creates underground transportation systems. Within Tesla, Inc., there are also energy storage and energy generation products. Is the best use of Elon Musk's time to try to tell the story of one part of one of his multiple companies day in and day out? To put out the fires that every company, large and small, have to deal with on a regular basis? If so, the company should name him the head of public relations and hire a CEO. Because CEOs have bigger tasks to accomplish. Tesla has nearly 50,000 employees and operations on four continents.
Tesla Opts Out of Industry Quality Surveys
It may seem odd to those who have not worked in marketing, but telling the buying public how one's products perform is an important part of marketing promotion. J.D. Power and other companies conduct owner surveys, and they then create reports about what owners tell them. Many companies then publicize these reports and use them as proof of their superiority. Every automotive company in America except Tesla actively participates in such surveys. In the end, with or without Tesla's active support, the companies that conduct the surveys will still make a best effort to include Tesla. “Unlike other manufacturers, Tesla doesn’t grant us permission to survey its owners in 15 states where it is required,” said Doug Betts, president of the automotive division at J.D. Power. “However, we were able to collect a large enough sample of surveys from owners in the other 35 states and, from that base, we calculated Tesla’s score.” The real question is, "why would Tesla opt-out?" What is the company afraid of?
Tesla Opts Out Of Safety Reporting
In the U.S. market, there are two agencies that conduct the safety testing consumers rely on for impartial opinions. The first is the taxpayer-funded NHTSA. The other is the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS). The second group performs what most industry experts agree are the more rigorous tests. Many of the tests that IIHS conducts are not even conducted by NHTSA.
IIHS helps automakers with safe vehicles promote them. The group awards Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick Plus awards to those vehicles that meet the highest standards. Every automaker, including Tesla, highlights the results of the testing of their vehicles when they do well. What makes Tesla unusual is that it doesn't take the time to nominate its new vehicles for testing. This is, in essence, an oversight on Tesla's part. The end result is that Tesla's vehicle are placed at the end of the line for testing, or Tesla's model is left off of the testing schedule entirely. Not nominating the Model 3 and Model Y resulted in delays in the testing of the Model Y and previously the Model 3 (which earned the very highest possible score). Oddly, Tesla has even publicly accused this agency of being less than fair when testing revealed areas for improvement. That invites bad press.
Tesla Does Not Participate In Media Events
Many times per year, automakers participate in events across the country that give them low-cost publicity. Major media groups such as the International Motor Press Association, New England Motor Press Association, and other groups that represent other regions, hold events to cost-effectively allow journalists, social media leaders, and lifestyle writers to "test," photograph, and drive a wide variety of vehicles over a period of one or two days. Sometimes a racetrack is rented to allow for safe testing of high-performance vehicles (which Tesla certainly would qualify as). This saves hundreds of thousands of dollars for the manufacturer compared to arranging and delivering individual vehicles to individual media members or renting out the track solo to test just one car. Tesla opts out.
Similarly, Tesla opts out of ultra-low cost new vehicle introductions (by Zoom or similar) and low-cost regional press introductions. These events allow a manufacturer to highlight why its products are desirable. They generate almost unlimited positive press about the manufacturer's innovative products by providing the background info from which writers can generate stories. When you read previews of upcoming products, this is where the writer often got the information.
Tesla Opts Out of Vehicle Tests
There are over 1,000 models and trims in the U.S. market each year. It is impractical for media outlets to purchase every vehicle on which they report. Even the largest publications with the deepest pockets, like Road and Track, cannot buy all of the cars they test. Traditionally, the automakers instead send a handful of the vehicles they wish to promote to the media groups to share in testing. There is a meaningful cost to such a program. However, the benefits can be dramatic. One Superbowl advertisement can cost as much as $5 million. It lasts 30 seconds and plays one time. And many people DVR their way right over that advert. That would be a waste of money for Tesla. By contrast, ten Tesla Model Y media vehicles would cost Tesla about one-tenth that amount, and could generate thousands of videos, reviews, posts, and other content seen for years.
Short test drives, like a shopper would take when purchasing a vehicle, cannot provide enough information for a review of a vehicle. In fact, a short sample of a car can result in negative and incomplete reporting. Here's why. In the first ten minutes inside a vehicle, the driver does not know how to operate the infotainment system. They cannot possibly test the vehicle in the full range of conditions an owner will use it. Back roads touring, city driving, highway driving, nighttime driving (to test lighting), light off-pavement driving, and hopefully some winter condition testing if possible. A week is needed in the vehicle to learn its true personality and to sample of the features and advantages it offers. And sometimes track time.
By only providing almost no media testing opportunities, Tesla cannot possibly earn a top spot on any rating system. You cannot rate what you do not test. Have you ever noticed how many reviews of a vehicle like a BMW 3 Series will fail to mention that it is inferior to a Tesla Model 3? That is not an accident. A writer can only compare a vehicle to others he or she has had experience with. By opting out of this part of promotion, Tesla ends up left out of the conversation.
Tesla Lobbying and Infomercials
Tesla’s promotion isn’t zero. The company sometimes helps bloggers create what some might call infomercials. Tesla lobbies Congress to help direct taxpayer dollars to its bank account. And Tesla does speak to certain publications. Particularly ones that pander to the company. The sort of publication that will see online griping by owners about low quality panel gaps and spin it as “added ventilation.”
What Tesla is opting out of is the general media and general automotive media. Applaud the move as innovative, or “sticking it to The Man” if you like. However, fans shouldn’t be surprised when the media turns out stories highlighting that technology leader Tesla doesn’t offer Apple Car Play, or that premium-priced Teslas are hard to find with a heated steering wheel. Without product information available from Tesla highlighting the positive, these types of topics may be the only ones available on which to report.
John Goreham's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. Before completing a marketing program at Northeastern University, he was part of an academic engineering team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and marketing talents in the high tech world and automotive supply chain market. In 2008 he retired from that career to chase his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin
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