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By Venus Tamturk. Originally published in Gustavson’s 2019 Year in Review.

When Tesla Motors was first included in the Gustavson Brand Trust Index in 2016, the electric automaker was rated 11th by consumers in overall brand trust. In the 2019 Index, Tesla sits at 138th of over 300 brands measured. What caused the automaker that set out to revolutionize an industry to take such a precipitous tumble in consumer perceptions?

Tesla’s mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” appealed to many people regardless of income level, but especially to respondents under 35, according to our survey. With a charismatic CEO and a transformational vision, the company represented a highly trusted brand despite a price point that was, for many, so high that they had no first-hand experience with the product.

Since this inaugural appearance on the Gustavson Brand Trust Index, several things have happened: the company missed production targets on its Model 3; their cars made headlines by spontaneously bursting into flame; and CEO Elon Musk spawned several lawsuits with his unfiltered, controversial tweets and statements. Our index shows an erosion of trust in how the brand communicates with consumers and the functionality of the product.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Tesla’s score on the “honest communication” question in the Gustavson Brand Trust Index started at ninth in 2016 and hit 172nd in 2019. Despite the overall plummet across all categories of trustworthiness, consumers continue to rank the brand on top across all industries on “eco-friendliness” and “innovation.”

The Tesla case illustrates that while the market is evolving from a product-based economy to a values-based one, there is still no trade-off between functionality and sustainability. For an organization to be trusted and seen as credible in its social and sustainability mission, it must first ensure the quality and competitiveness of its product and customer experience.

Ranked tenth on values-based trust, Tesla remains one of the most exciting brands to watch in the 2020 edition of the Gustavson Brand Trust Index. We will see whether or not they have been able to repair their reputation more broadly.

Photo: Michael Olsen on Unsplash.