Tesla vs Uber — #TrumpEffect & Branding

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Trump’s Insane & Infamously Record-Setting “White House” Start

No doubt about it — associating with Donald Trump is a dangerous thing for any cleantech company to do. A weaker brand could be demolished by the backlash, and a stronger one severely damaged.

When it comes to cleantech, as a reminder, Donald Trump’s stance for years was the absurd claim that global warming was a hoax created “by and for the Chinese.” It was a funny joke for years among those of us with more functioning brain cells than a fish … until it essentially became insane conspiracy-focused White House policy. The new head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long worked to oppose the EPA and it is expected he and Trump will heavily neuter the EPA, resulting in dirtier air, dirtier water, more premature deaths, more health problems, more suffering, and more global warming and catastrophic climate change. For many cleantech enthusiasts, we are facing something akin to a Voldemort administration or Sheev Palpatine administration — not exactly something you want your favorite CEO to be in cooperation with.

That fictional take on the drama actually makes it seem more positive in some ways, because of the fictional aspect. In reality, since this administration means more premature human death and human suffering as well as a threat to human society as a whole, it feels a lot more horrible.

When it comes to the idea that climate science is some kind of conspiracy, by the way, make no mistake, the White House is now packed with conspiracy theorists — not only regarding this topic. Of course, an Infowars and Breitbart fanboy sits at the top, and it’s also widely presumed that former Breitbart executive chair Steve Bannon actually runs the show. Interestingly, speaking of conspiracy, Bannon has reportedly told a reporter that he’s a Leninist, and particularly that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Even Bill O’Reilly and other hardcore conservatives have been calling Trump out on his disconnection with reality. When Fox News propaganda pushers are telling you that you need to check in with reality after going extremely far to the right, yikes, you are not winning.

Of course, the threat to one’s brand goes far deeper than the Donald’s long-standing anti-science tendencies and some reprimanding from Bill O’Reilly. Donald Trump did quickly set a record — never before (since such polling began) had a president’s disapproval rating risen above 50% so quickly. “Two weeks into Trump’s presidency, a majority of people (53%) disapprove of how he is handling the job, while just 44% approve,” TIME reports. “By comparison, former President Ronald Reagan’s initial approval rating of 51% was only slightly higher than Trump’s, but his disapproval rating (13%) was not nearly as high.” The approval rating is now reportedly down to 40%.

Frankly, I’m shocked 40–44% of people could have given their approval, but I won’t go into the obvious reasons why here, since that’s not the point of this article. (Of course, there’s a solid chance 50% or more of the population is hardly paying any attention to what is happening in politics and answered the poll with little to no information, but hey, that’s American “democracy” today.)

Even at high levels of the Republican Party, Trump is getting rejected and “burned” by people who don’t want their brand ruined by association or by joining recipes for disaster. As just the latest example, after a record-fast resignation from Trump’s national security adviser, Trump’s next choice — retired Vice Adm. Bob Harward — very surprisingly rejected the offer. Here are a few key notes from that story (article sources are linked on text):

The focus of this story is actually not about Trump, but you have to understand that context to some extent to understand the premise. The focus of this article is the branding and mission of Tesla & Uber, and that of famous founders & CEOs Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick. So, after two more videos of Donald Trump’s initial absurdity in the White House (videos which cover probably just 1/1000 of the insanity), I’ll jump into these core topics.

The Tesla & Uber (Elon & Travis) Connection To Trump

Image in an email I received from CREDO Action that asked us to sign a petition to Tesla and other companies to “Refuse to legitimize and normalize Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic agenda by refusing to serve as a Trump adviser.” My 2-year-old daughter was walking by the computer when this was open and said, “That looks like Shrek.” She had no idea who this was or what a president or country even is.

Of course, there is more background, background regarding how Musk and Kalanick have been connected with Trump. Both Musk and Kalanick were selected for Trump’s “business advisory council.” Musk is still on it, Kalanick has already left.

In the eyes of many, being on a Trump advisory council alone is a crime — it helps to normalize Trump’s insane presidency, gives some perceived legitimacy to Trump’s policies, and in a very general but powerful way boosts Trump’s brand.

There is a sliver of hope that Elon Musk could talk some sense into Trump or his staff members, and I focused on that in a previous article about Elon’s work/goals with Donald. For sure, that is why Elon has been involved, explicitly stating a couple of times that he was pushing for a carbon tax, among other things.

However, the much more likely scenario is that Donald has been using Elon like a tool for branding purposes (and the same with Travis, but to a smaller extent). As we know, Donald has legitimate expertise in one topic — branding — and this kind of superficial branding strategy is right up Donald’s alley.

If this “advisory council” is just about Donald’s own branding and he isn’t planning to take any actual advice from Elon or Travis, it is probably counterproductive for Elon and Travis to be wasting their time in DC (or at one of Donald’s gold-plated properties).

Uber & Tesla Differences That Complicate The Comparison

There’s a lot on the topic of Tesla & Uber branding (and company mission) at play that could be discussed here. I’ll reflect on some of it, but this is not a lab-based experiment and there are some “messy” matters that I can’t tease out from the main discussion. For one, Elon has apparently had more of Donald’s ear than Travis has — getting propelled to a bit of a higher access level early on. Additionally, Elon is creating thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs in the US — something that presumably appeals to Donald — whereas Uber is the type of Silicon Valley app company worth billions that Donald seems to despise and can’t at all relate to. These factors could give anti-Trump Tesla fans more hope of having a positive impact on Trump and his policies than anti-Trump Uber fans, but it’s not at all clear how much that matters.

Furthermore, looking at what the businesses are actually selling, there are vast differences between what Tesla and Uber offer. Uber is something that you choose to use on a day-by-day basis and is super cheap, an app used by people of all classes (from billionaire CEOs to hotel receptionists). Tesla products, on the other hand, are pretty obviously in the court of the rich for the time being. They are typically bought and held onto for years — certainly not service purchases that are extremely ephemeral and cost just a few dollars in many cases. These general matters result in vast differences in the customer bases as well as how quickly consumers respond to a brand problem and how quickly that can have a strong effect on company policy or the CEO’s personal decisions.

With all of that said, Tesla and Uber are often lumped together as tech leaders, successful Silicon Valley companies, innovative 21st century businesses, etc. — hence both of them being invited to this economic advisory council. But it seems there are some interesting differences between Tesla & Uber branding that are amplified by Elon & Travis working with Trump on an advisory council (and the resulting “#TrumpEffect” from people who are paying attention to Trump scandal after Trump scandal). I’ll dive into those differences after a few more Trump-related videos for those who haven’t been paying attention to the scandals and/or don’t quite grasp the strong opposition response.

Tesla — Mission Driven, Strong Morals, All About Helping

We’ve written about it many times; others have written about it many times; and it oozes out of Tesla communications, especially what seem to be candid, off-the-cuff, impulsive comments from Elon: Tesla’s mission is to help humanity, to help save society from unprecedented collapse.

The Tesla brand is hugely tied to “doing the right thing.” It is also clearly tied to climate action — electric transport is a critical solution needed to stop global warming and Elon Musk has spoken out on the threat of climate change many times.

On several occasions, Tesla/Elon specifically stated that the company was taking a certain action or approach simply because it was “the right thing to do.” This has not gone unnoticed by customers, and it is something that is regularly reinforced.

It is hard to detach how much of the brand’s tremendous value comes from this mission-driven, moralistic approach versus how much comes from amazing, superior technology or other factors. However, I would contend this “do the right thing” focus and reputation is the most powerful factor for the Tesla brand (not for the company’s valuation, of course, but for the brand’s actual value and influence).

This core brand factor isn’t just about the rationale for producing/buying electric cars (to help save the world). It is also built into several business approaches — Tesla’s stores vs sleazy dealerships, a no-pressure sales approach in which salespeople don’t get a commission and they are specifically requested to just make customers feel good, a flat price and no haggling or ripoffs (not even discounts for Elon’s family members, which is yet another strongly moral yet atypical decision Elon made and shared), etc.

Elon is idolized/loved and granted a kind of hero status in good part because of how morally focused he seems to be. We just got a small example of that this week when Elon tweeted that Tesla would cover the repair costs of a Model S that was used to riskily saved someone’s life.

Again, it’s hard to tease out specific factors influencing a brand’s value and power, but this “be good” directive and reputation is certainly a big bonus in Tesla’s and Elon’s brand bank account. I’ll get back to that bank account and the Trump connection after an Uber brand introduction/summary.

Uber — Just Tryin’ To Make A Billion Or Two?

I don’t follow Uber’s industry as closely as I follow the EV industry. It would be a huge stretch to call the on-demand taxi industry a cleantech industry at this point. But it seems Uber and Tesla are routinely the top companies mentioned when talking about “successful” or highly valued Silicon Valley (tech) startups, and Uber is extremely popular, so I think and hope I correctly understand general consumer impressions of the company.

Overall, Uber seems to have a negative reputation as a company. Yes, users love the cheap and convenient app — it is half the price of a taxi in many cases, not having to pull out your wallet to pay is pretty awesome for such a service, and getting an Uber seems to be easier and a nicer consumer experience than getting a taxi. As such, as noted above, Uber has a reputation for technological innovation and pleasing customers. However, Uber often gets slammed for ripping off workers, not offering benefits, breaking the law, and even being a scam (though, admittedly, there are certain people who claim the same about Tesla). I think the latter leave Uber with a net negative reputation, and certainly not with the strongly moralistic and mission-driven reputation Tesla has.

I don’t recall running across anything indicating Uber or Travis Kalanick are aiming to help protect society from collapse. I don’t recall reading or hearing anything about them having strong moral interests. Quite the opposite. The only really positive general attributes I commonly see people praising Uber for are: it’s convenient and cheap.

The Hit — #TrumpEffect

Unfortunately, we can’t really see what practical consumer effect or brand effect associating with Trump has had on Tesla or Uber, but there has very obviously been pushback.

Many tweets have been sent Elon’s way and many articles have been critical of him for his association with Trump. We’ve also heard of Tesla Model 3 reservation holders cancelling their reservations in protest. As noted above, I ended up writing about that because of how large the pushback became and because I thought the argument for his involvement was a strong one.

It seemed that one long Twitter discussion about Elon’s involvement burnt Elon out so much that he completely dropped any mention of that work — or maybe I’m just reading too much into it and he’s simply busy with other matters now.

Whereas some Model 3 cancellations may have trickled in and been noticed by Tesla/Elon (or not), Uber took a swift hit last month. However, it wasn’t just for Kalanick’s involvement — more so, it was for what seemed to be an opportunistic effort to steal more market share from taxi drivers in NYC. After the New York Taxi Workers Alliance decided to participate in protests regarding the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” Uber went the other way and cut surge pricing. It wasn’t during the same time period, but many people assumed it was a response. Uber users were pissed and a #DeleteUber movement quickly grew on social media.


Interestingly, although users assumed Uber was being pro-Trump and working against the taxi strike, Uber later stated that the goal was just to not profit off of the crazy situation and that’s why it turned off surge pricing. It has done this previously in the midst of disasters. Nonetheless, the damage was done, and the protesting was louder than the response.

Interestingly, Kalanick published a public letter denouncing the Muslim ban and has left the advisory council, while Musk is still an advisor, yet Uber seems to have taken a much stronger hit from the #TrumpEffect.

In the end, as I noted above, the nature of Uber’s business (a cheap and frequent but ephemeral service) may have been the biggest factor at play. However, I think Uber’s overall reputation and the fact that it hasn’t been a deeply mission-driven company simply made it much more susceptible to a big drop in its brand bank account. Tesla’s deep reputation as a mission-driven, morally focused company has surely helped it to weather this storm.

Again, though, we don’t have a way of thoroughly or objectively measuring the hit each of these brands took — and the same for the “brands” of CEOs Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick. Maybe the #DeleteUber burst is actually less of a deal than whatever consumer backlash Tesla has or will receive. How many Model 3 reservation holders have cancelled their reservations? (I’m guessing not many, but who knows?) How many people decided to not get a Model S or Model X? How many Tesla enthusiasts have lost a bit of (or a lot of) their enthusiasm? On the flip side, we should also consider how many Trump supporters got more into Tesla for the association? (Oh, yeah, never mind. :D)

I expect and am hopeful that most Tesla enthusiasts considered Elon to be doing what I saw him to be doing — trying his best to create positive change via the Trump administration, or at least guard against more dramatically negative change. Whether you agree with the approach or believe it normalizes and legitimizes (to some extent) a fascist, anti-science, batshit-crazy, conspiracy-theorist con man, I think it’s clear that the intentions have been good.

When it comes to Uber, I think this story shows well one of the weaknesses of having a non-mission-driven company. Companies that are just seen as chasing the money are more susceptible to consumer backlash over a variety of issues. I assume Kalanick was just trying to use the access to hopefully create some positive change for the country, but his overall motives seemed much more dubious. What would he push for on the advisory council? Did he just want to lobby for regulations that help Uber? The potential societal benefit of his involvement seemed much less clear, while the threat of improving/normalizing Trump’s brand remained. In my opinion, I think it’s good Kalanick dropped off of Trump’s economic advisory council, even while I am happy to have Elon and the stronger Tesla brand on the council.

In short, if you want to have a good brand and want to stand up strong in the midst of the storms that will inevitably come along, have a strong mission. Then again, if you are superficially focused on branding, you are missing the point from the start. The point is to be good, to do good, to try to help society as much as possible.

The CREDO Action email focused its call to action primarily on Tesla rather than IBM, Disney, GM, or Pepsi. It picked Tesla in part, I’m sure, because of Elon and Tesla’s strong focus on “doing what’s right” and helping society. Note also, however, that the email did come after Kalanick’s decision to leave the council and included lines like this: “It is time for them to join Kalanick and stop legitimizing Trump’s hate.” If Travis keeps speaking up, Uber could see a big boost in its brand. Its quick move allowed CREDO to send out this email, and probably stimulated it. More likely, Travis will now stay out of the limelight on this topic and Uber’s brand will retain a negative to neutral net effect from his short-lived time on a so-called advisory team for Donald Trump. Tesla’s brand? We’ll see. … But make no mistake, Elon is just trying to help. From back in 2015, here was a straightforward statement from Elon during a Vanity Fair panel after he was asked about the presidential election (very early on in the primaries): “I don’t really have strong feelings except that hopefully Trump doesn’t get the nomination of the Republican Party.” That was after he stated that he gets involved in politics “as little as possible.”

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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