The Auto Industry’s New PR Strategy: Attack Elon Musk on Twitter

VW Group's Herbert Diess joins a long line of Tesla trash talkers while debuting a relatively new industry tactic

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Volkswagen's Herbert Diess
Tesla’s Elon Musk (left) and VW Group’s Herbert Diess in November 2019.
Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images

In the past, when the automotive industry wanted to drum up some hype, the playbook was to go big, both financially and logistically. Maybe they’d pay to put James Bond in their latest and greatest, maybe they’d buy a Super Bowl ad and get Bill Murray to star, or maybe they’d just grease a few palms in the press corps in the form of an extravagant test-drive trip.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has never been one to follow the standard playbook. In fact, earlier this year the electric vehicle company dissolved its PR department, making Musk the one-man representative via his Twitter account (though it may be building back some of that team); and it certainly hasn’t hurt the automaker, as it’s currently the most valuable car company in the world in terms of market value. Despite Musk’s unequivocally vile tweets, he’s a star, and his company’s bottom line is better off for it.

So what is a multinational automotive titan to do? Some have attempted to forge their own irreverent internet personalities, with mostly poor results, often tied to the fact that they’re speaking through the brand, not an actual human being. Now, they’re trying it Elon Musk’s way.

Herbert Diess, the CEO of Volkswagen Group, joined Twitter on Wednesday. In his first tweet, he didn’t post a selfie in an ID.3 or Porsche Taycan or any other brand cliche. Instead, he took the 280 characters to get in a jab at Musk: “Hello @Twitter! I’m here to make an impact with @VWGroup, especially on political issues. And, of course, to get some of your market shares, @elonmusk – after all, our ID.3 and e-tron have won the first markets in Europe. Looking forward to productive discussions!”

It should be noted that Diess and Musk have a friendly history, and this is a relatively gentle prod, but after sending that tweet, Diess got writeups at Bloomberg, CNN and a number of other outlets. In short, their plan worked. But it’s not just Diess and Volkswagen — calling out Musk on Twitter has become a new PR strategy for a number of other automotive companies, and one that has so far been surprisingly effective.

In December, Jim Glickenhaus of racing powerhouse Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus challenged Musk and his Cybertruck to a race against his own hydrogen-powered vehicle via tweet, and now people are calling for the Baja 1000 showdown. One day later, startup Comma AI, which works in the self-driving car space, dangled a bet of $10K on Twitter that Musk wouldn’t achieve level 5 autonomous driving technology in 2021, and he actually responded

Less direct jabs at the Tesla boss have been going on for quite some time (remember when everyone laughed in the face of the Cybertruck?), but now it seems the car world is realizing that when it comes to success on Twitter, if you can’t beat Elon Musk, just @ him. 

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