Tesla vs. GM: Why does Musk get all the glory?

by Jul 11, 2018

The other day, my 7-year-old daughter actually referenced Elon Musk in a conversation. By name.

If you have kids, you know they’re giant mirrors, reflecting back stuff you’ve said. So, clearly, I’ve talked about him enough, and in a positive enough light, that it registered with her. But it’s not fair.

Like the news media and seemingly everyone else I talk with about the subject of electric cars, Musk/Tesla is held out as THE icon, THE example, THE visionary, THE one who will lead us to an electric transportation age. And as Musk raced to get production of the Model 3 up to the 5,000 cars/month he promised would happen, the media covered it with bated breath, like we were following the first airplane trip around the globe.

But what about GM?

They actually beat the Tesla Model S to market by three years with the Chevy Volt – against all kinds of odds and coming out of the Great Recession. And in the Bolt, they’ve accomplished what Musk is still struggling to do – release an all-electric car at a middle-America price point. In November of last year, the Bolt outsold all other electric cars – including all three Tesla models. And, according to their recently released sustainability report, GM intends to have at least 20 all-electric car models in the market by 2023, just five years from now.

So why does Tesla capture so much of “the ink” and not GM (or Nissan, for that matter)?

In my view, it’s all about the story.

The best stories have drama and conflict. They leave you on the edge of your seat, dying to hear more. Musk does that so, so well. He pulls you in with visions of rocket-ship travel and going to Mars, he keeps you in the story with never-before-tried business models and production approaches, and he earns your respect as he embodies the hero’s journey – a visionary sleeping at his factory, making appointments to talk with journalists at 2:00 AM. As humans, we love a good will-they-win-or-will-they-crash-and-burn story, and Musk embodies that, too. The more the news media questions whether Tesla will make it, the more we want to tune in to see how the story ends.

Meanwhile, GM is telegraphing an image of steadiness and responsibility. Their “zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion” vision is admirable and something we can all buy into. It just needs to be made sexy. You may be thinking, “Come on, Suzanne, GM will never be as sexy as Tesla.” That may be true – Elon Musk and Mary Barra have very different styles, and the brands they represent have very different descriptors and emotions attached to them. For now, anyway.

I suggest that GM could create a riveting story. They could cast themselves as the protagonist in pursuit of redemption. They could hook our hearts by talking openly about their regrets (the government bailout, the safety issues, etc.) and linking those regrets directly to their vision of the future. And in that vision of the future, they could aim bigger – not just for 20 electric models in five years and not just for zero emissions, but for Every Vehicle an Electric Vehicle by 2035.

So, there’s still the issue of all those non-electric vehicles …

My friends in the automotive industry would likely say, “That’s a nice idea, Suzanne, but, um, Ford, GM, Toyota – they still make a lot of money selling gas guzzling trucks.” Right. But what I’m suggesting is that GM devote itself to changing the game. If Every Vehicle Is an Electric Vehicle, that means trucks, too. That means doubling down on a clean energy future, rethinking everything the auto industry knows, and innovating the technology that makes it all work.

It would make for a fantastic story. One that would give Tesla a run for its money.

How about it, GM?

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


  1. Ryan Carr

    Spectacular piece Suzanne! I too love following this story as both cars and sustainability are huge passions of mine.

    One thing I will say Tesla has done immensely better than GM is making electric cars sexy and desirable. There certainly isn’t much exciting about either the Volt or Bolt and their performance figures (wearing my car enthusiast hat there). Meanwhile, even starting back with the original Tesla roadster, they promised (& delivered) blistering performance rivalling that of supercars and a pleasing aesthetic. They have been able to show that electric cars don’t have to be boring and can still excite the soul.

    As always, look forward to your newsletter!

  2. Joseph Appell

    This is true, but only half of the story.
    Not discussed is the microscopic, obsessive coverage of the few Tesla accidents/fires. Think about it, the GM ignition key safety disaster got much less coverage per incident than the Tesla incidents.

  3. Suzanne Shelton

    Yes! And as we’ve seen time and again in our research, beauty trumps sustainability a majority of the time. Companies that can deliver both are definitely hitting a home run!

  4. Chris Carter

    I think this article is very good and thought provoking. I follow Elon Musk and his other companies, and there is definitely a story there that resonates with me.
    I know there are great stories for large, established companies like GM, but I rarely see them. Maybe that is because they are perceived to be stable and established, so it is only “news” when something goes wrong?
    For all the news around Elon Musk, I wonder how much is because of him and his interactions with the public and how much is due to the disruptive businesses he creates. I also wonder how established companies could leverage those insights to building there brand.
    Thank you for the article.

  5. Suzanne Shelton

    You are exactly right. Audacity gets press, and Mr. musk is nothing if not audacious. I’m afraid it put a burden on established companies to do uncomfortable things, to make bold/moonshot commitments, to imagine radically different futures for themselves and talk about that effusively. It’s the opposite of what Wall Street wants —they want predictable and steady —but it’s what’s necessary to get ongoing press coverage.

  6. Sean Mitchell

    Though story telling is a key part of initial attention, I think there are a few points to clarify. The Volt and Model S are not using the same technology. The Model S is fully electric, the Volt a plug-in hybrid. The 2010 Volt was more like a petrol car with a backup battery of ~40 miles of range. The 2012 Model S offered a fully electric 265 miles of range at its 85 kWh offering – a far more difficult technology to develop with little to no charging infrastructure at that time. There was/is also a large delta in price between the two cars.

    Regarding the Bolt production, a well executed car in terms of its range, started off strong but have since tanked. The car design, both inside and out, is lacks a lot of styling cues Tesla has figured out – in other words, it’s ugly as hell.

    Here is production volume by car in 2018 (as of October):

    1) Model 3: 95,882
    2) Model S : 19,745
    3) Model X: 18,800
    4) Chevy Volt: 14,718
    5) Chevy Bolt: 13,882

    There are three reasons why Tesla has better attention:

    1) They’re a new shiny company with new technology
    2) Their battery tech is far superior and has proprietary battery chemistry
    3) Their software is lightyears ahead of any other auto maker because they develop it in-house

    Story telling is important and grabs people’s attention, but if your product is inferior, no one will purchase your product.

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