One of Tesla’s core accomplishments has been to change the public’s idea of what — and who — electric cars are for. From the showy, uncompromising, original Roadster to the sleek, luxe Model S, to the almost-mainstream Model 3, the company’s most successful models have dramatically expanded its addressable market, reaching swaths of buyers that previous electric cars that were targeted solely at tree-huggers didn’t.
While Tesla’s stated mission is environmental, its marketing has always been more about trendsetting, innovation, and desirability. Its cars have succeeded, not primarily because they are practical or good for the world, but because they felt like the future. Tesla is not the first to take that approach: Toyota’s Prius initially touted its environmental credentials and practicality, but its sales took off only after the company gave it bolder styling and began marketing it as a high-tech status signifier.
Thursday night, Tesla made its boldest statement yet when it launched a striking addition to its lineup, a pickup truck that it calls the Cybertruck. Everything about it screams “tough,” from the stainless steel “exoskeleton” to its angular shape to the “armor glass” windows. Its radical design was instantly polarizing: Many hated and mocked its looks, while others drooled.
Starting at $40,000, the Cybertruck will compete at the high end of the truck market with incumbents such as Ford’s popular (and lucrative) F-Series and Chevy’s Silverado. In theory, it could be the next Tesla to electrify a whole new demographic, one for which previous electric vehicles have held little to no appeal: the 20% of U.S. vehicle owners who drive pickups. But for the first time, Tesla may have missed the mark with its marketing, building a vehicle that is so self-consciously futuristic that it overshoots the target audience entirely.
The North American large truck market is one in which, broadly speaking, environmental concerns take a backseat to virtues such as capacity, power, and ruggedness. So it makes sense that Tesla went for broke on the Cybertruck’s design and durability — quite literally, as it turned out, when lead designer Franz von Holzhausen threw a metal ball at its window to prove its impregnability, and ended up cracking it (twice).
Tesla’s Cybertruck embodies a vision of “cool” that seems to be pitched at no one so much as its own iconoclastic CEO.
That delightful blooper aside, no one can accuse the Cybertruck of lacking machismo. It is absolutely enormous, for one thing. It looks like an unholy union of a Hummer, a DeLorean, and a post-apocalyptic armored vehicle. The base model boasts a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds, on par with some of the top sellers in its class, while the higher-end Dual Motor AWD and top-end Tri Motor AWD versions promise to haul upwards of 10,000 and 14,000 pounds, respectively. On specs alone, Cybertruck fills the bill.
There’s also no question that the Cybertruck is distinctive. When it finally begins rolling off of assembly lines, likely in 2022 at the earliest, it might be the most instantly recognizable vehicle on the road. The question is: Is it too distinctive? Or, put another way, is it distinctive in a way that appeals to the right people?
Tesla’s Cybertruck embodies a vision of “cool” that seems to be pitched at no one so much as its own iconoclastic CEO — a sci-fi-obsessed billionaire who shuttles between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, dreams of building civilizations on Mars, and has nightmares about super-intelligent A.I.
No doubt there are others who share his tastes, especially among the California jet set. Some of the most positive responses to the Cybertruck’s launch came from tech CEOs and venture capitalists such as tech investor Jason Calacanis, Facebook’s David Marcus, and Basecamp CEO Jason Fried. These seem like the type of people who might feel right at home in a Cybertruck (and can easily afford it). It would make a fine vehicle for someone navigating a techlash protest or girding for battle against a fleet of rogue killer robots.
But these are also the same types of people who were already buying Tesla’s various other offerings. To succeed, remember, the Cybertruck needs to appeal to people who weren’t Tesla buyers until now. And market research shows that full-size pickup owners don’t just make their decisions on the basis of performance; they also highly value tradition, and show some of the highest brand loyalty of any vehicle buyers. There is nothing remotely traditional about the Cybertruck.
Market analysts are among those looking askance at the strange machine. “It misses the core truck buyer,” Gene Munster of Loup Ventures told Bloomberg. “A contractor is not going to show up to a work site in this truck. Bernstein analyst Tony Sacconaghi compared the Cybertruck’s sales prospects to those of the Hummer, in a note quoted by MarketWatch. “Looks do matter, and we think Cybertruck is likely to be a niche offering,” he wrote, though he left open the possibility that future design tweaks could broaden its appeal.
But there’s another worrying sign for those hoping he can once again sell the public on something that seems outlandish at first. The one thing that has been shown to peel pickup truck owners away from their preferred nameplate? Price hikes. That bodes poorly for the Cybertruck, because its $40,000 base price is already high for the market segment, and to get key features such as all-wheel drive and longer range — especially important in rural regions where pickups prevail — you’ll have to pay upwards of $50,000.
As successful as Tesla has been in the past at reaching new buyers, its strategy of imbuing each new model with Musk’s particular, high-tech, masculine aesthetic is already showing its limits: there are signs that the Model 3 is cannibalizing sales of the Model S and Model X.
If Tesla is serious about widening the audience for its vehicles, pickup trucks aren’t a bad bet. But marketing them to its existing fanbase feels like a missed opportunity.