You have to hand it to Tesla. Even though it may be small relative to traditional automakers, it goes big when it has to.
CEO Elon Musk doesn’t want to merely sell cars; he wants to change the world and end our dependence on fossil fuels.
When Tesla rolls out a new car — as it did recently with the Model X SUV — it throws a party. And when something goes wrong, Tesla doesn’t do half-measures, as we learned Friday when the automaker voluntarily recalled its entire Model S sedan fleet, 90,000 cars globally, over an important but most likely minor safety flaw. One seat belt in one Model S car failed in Europe. No one was hurt. But Tesla will now inspect and fix, if necessary, every Model S on earth.
A combination of factors are at work. First, Tesla wants to establish that its relationship with its owners is sacred. Customer loyalty will be essential in the future as the company builds more Model X crossovers and introduces the Model 3 mass-market car in 2017.
Second, the worldwide auto industry has been rocked by a series of massive recalls, affecting millions of vehicles. And they haven’t been about squeaks and rattles; they have been about safety. Toyota’s unintended-acceleration recall in 2010. General Motors’ ignition-switch recall of 2014-15. And the ongoing Takata exploding-airbag recall, which has affected millions of vehicles from numerous automakers.
There have been deaths and injuries. All in the context of an industry that has labored mightily to make its cars safer and has developed a reputation over decades that automobiles are now designed to preserve life rather than end it.
We won’t even go into the recall that VW will execute over its emissions cheating. That did violence to consumers trust in the company, although no one was injured or killed.
Third, Tesla has been hit by some negatives on the quality-control front. Consumer Reports took away its “recommended” rating for the Model S because of owner complaints about various aspects of the car, while around the same time CR also reported that the P85D version of the Model S was so good that it broke the publication’s testing scale.
The rear seats on the Model X presented enough problems that Tesla decided to construct them in-house. And the startup electric-car maker is struggling a bit this year to make its production goal of about 50,000 vehicles.
Sending a signal
So with the Model S recall, Tesla is sending a clear signal: Our brand is about the future, and the carmakers of the future don’t mess around with recalls like the automakers of the past. The affected seat-belt part is a bolt that, according to Tesla, takes about six minutes to replace, if defective, at negligible cost. But this is obviously one of those things that Tesla can’t repair via an over-the-air software update. It has to do it the old-fashioned way.
But it isn’t taking an old-fashioned approach. In fact, it’s rather overdoing it, not even waiting until federal regulators compel the automaker to send out recall notices to owners. This is the “abundance of caution” approach, as a Tesla representative put it.
This is the kind of thing that makes Tesla owners feel great about owning a Tesla — and that makes owners who don’t own Teslas wonder why people who make their cars can’t behave similarly. In a sense, then, this is crisis management as recognising an opportunity, an opportunity to let Tesla owners know that Tesla has their back and won’t do business as usual.
Major traditional automakers take safety-related recalls no less seriously, but they also have thicker skins than Tesla. The Toyotas, GMs, Fords, and VWs of the world routinely recall vehicles. They
expect to endure recalls, and have accustomed themselves to working in step with governments to calibrate their recall effort to how big a threat a problem is to life and limb.
No sitting down on the job
Tesla won’t be able to do that until it grows much larger. But even then, Tesla might not ever be able to behave like a traditional automaker on this front. It probably doesn’t want to — Tesla doesn’t think of itself as anything like a traditional automaker — but that means Tesla will always be very much in the business of managing its owners’ experiences.
Tesla doesn’t do any conventional marketing or advertising, but a recall such as this shows where its bread is really buttered when it comes to selling more cars: word of mouth.
That word could be spoken or beamed out across Twitter and Facebook. But it is Tesla’s best type of advertising. And in the parlance of marketing and branding, it’s the best type of advertising to have: “earned” rather than bought.
That’s why Tesla isn’t holding back on a bolt that probably costs less than $US2. Its reputation is everything.
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