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With the Model 3, will Tesla's cult-like following stay that way?

With its first mass-market vehicle, Tesla will soon see its once-exclusive network of owners expand.

Maurizio Pesce via Flickr

Elon Musk is held in high regard around the world. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a group of people who hang on his every word, move, tweet more than those who have literally put their money where their mouth is, bought a Tesla and now spend their days contributing to a close to the 12,000-member Tesla-owners Facebook group.

Tesla owners around the world post in the group daily, either bashing another company’s sorry attempt at vehicle electrification, regaling Tesla’s newest line of vehicles or discussing what it’s like to be a Tesla owner. After scrolling through the hundreds of comments posted on the group, one thing is made abundantly clear: Tesla owners love — and are truly emotional about — being Tesla owners.

But with the introduction of the Model 3, the company’s first mass-market car, this once-exclusive network of owners will expand. And with that flood of new Tesla owners, many expect the demographics and the level of engagement of this consumer base to evolve from people who bought into a larger mission and the man behind it to people who, simply, bought a car.

The question is: Will they be as fervent?

Why Tesla?

The Facebook group is certainly not the only group Tesla owners have created that is completely devoted to their vehicles — there are dozens of forums, websites and clubs dedicated to owning Teslas. The earliest created, and largest, is the Tesla Motors Club, which also serves as a central forum for a number of other local Tesla groups.

Some, like the Tesla Club of Los Angeles, are more structured than others and organize in-person meet-ups as often as every month, have annual events (like an annual Tesla Ladies Tea) and charge membership fees. Others, like its Southern California counterpart the Tesla Club of Orange County, are more casual and meet once every other month for brunch.

20160331-tesla-line-closeupThe Tesla Motors Club even holds annual conferences called TMC Connect in California. Every year, Tesla owners drive from places like New York and New Jersey to attend, according to Tesla Motors Club creator Doug King.

For some it might be hard to understand the fervor around owning a Tesla, much less any other consumer product. But for those who subscribe to Musk’s mission to replace gas-fueled vehicles with electric vehicles, the cult-like appeal of the "movement" is almost obvious — these owners feel like they have directly contributed to Tesla’s success.

"I know a bunch of these early owners and I would best describe them as ‘radical idealists,’ who realized that the world was literally working hard to kill any electric car," angel investor Jason Calacanis, owner of a Roadster signature 16 and Model S signature 0000001, told Re/code. "Without the first 100 Roadster signatures (140k each), I don’t think Elon would have been able to fund the company. They fought to sell each and every Roadster which provided, candidly, the opposite of ‘value for dollar.'"

And Musk recognized these early owners during the unveiling of the Model 3 otherwise seen as the manifestation of the CEO’s "master plan" to create mass demand for an EV.

"He even seemed emotional about it," Calacanis continued. "He paused, it was notable to the radical idealists. And I think it is emotional for all the early owners, because we didn’t invest in a car company, we invested in an individual’s vision that the impossible could be achieved — and it happened."

Other, (relatively) casual Tesla owners, agree: It’s not just the cars, it’s the man.

"Why Tesla? Well, first of all, Elon Musk," Dennis Pascual, one of three organizers of the Orange County Tesla Owners’ Club, told Re/code. "He’s fascinating. His personality is enthralling. He’s not a great speaker, but when he speaks he’s uncensored, you don’t get that level of frankness from other CEOs of companies."

Let’s make it official

Between 2013 and 2015, early owners even took it upon themselves to evangelize for the company. Some set up test drives of their personal vehicle for strangers interested in buying Teslas in places where the company is prohibited from distributing its vehicles directly, like Michigan and Texas. Others gathered in protest of local laws that prohibited the company from selling its cars in the state unless it was through a franchise dealership.

It’s this enthusiasm and dedication that Tesla began to harness as of November 2015. The company — rather smartly — created a standard process to make any number of these local clubs "official," so long as there are more than 25 members and they comply with the company’s NDA.

To an extent, the company is leveraging the eagerness of their most engaged and loyal customers to, it says, "assist in protecting Tesla’s branding" and "provide reasonable assistance in … supporting local legislative efforts." All in exchange for things like discounts on merchandise, the ability to hold one club event a year at a Tesla store of choice and "a direct line of communication to provide comments and suggestions to Tesla."

But Tesla is also attempting to wrangle the branding and messaging of these groups that have decided to take on its name and logo.

"The company is going through a growth period and they want to make sure people aren’t taking the logo without regulation and structure," Paige Hutton, member and volunteer spokesperson for the Tesla Club of Los Angeles, told Re/code. "Mostly they wanted to see what people were doing and kind of have some tabs on it, but also want to be very hands off — they’re still trying to find that groove … We want it to be a symbiotic relationship."

And many groups have jumped on the opportunity. Other than the official Tesla Club of Los Angeles, there’s the official Tesla Club of Houston, of Northern Texas, of Southern Ontario, of British Columbia and of Southern Arizona — to name a few. (You can tell which groups are "official" because they have an official Tesla Owners’ Club logo.)

300,000 reservations and counting

With more than 300,000 reservations for the Model 3 in the books, this network of owners and enthusiasts has already begun to see some growth. In the weeks since the reveal, the new Model 3 page on the Tesla Motors Club website has seen more traffic than any other page, according to King — who helped create the site in 2006.

"It’s certainly driving a lot of interest," he said. "Because it’s another type of person who is interested, it’s another batch of people."


"There’s a different level of engagement," King continued. "The guy that owns the Roadster or Model S will probably be in a different income bracket and maybe have a different level of interest. For them, it’s kind of like a dream, because these people have been waiting for the Model 3 to come along."

These types of people — the early adopters and existing owners — are the type to drive from New York to California to attend his "little conference," as he called it.

"It’s a certain type of individual," he said. "Will new Model 3 owners do that? Probably not. Now, what it comes down to is, is the car fun to drive? Is it reliable? Can it perform?"

In other words, now it’s more about the car, not the man.

Siedel-Hutton agrees that the Model 3 will likely bring in a fresh batch of people into the LA club, which is mostly men between 45 and 60 years old and around 20 women.

"The club evolved from Roadster to Model S and I think it will evolve again because there will be a different type of Tesla user, an expanded user," she said. "And I’m excited. As a result maybe our events will change up a little bit, maybe the types of events we get invited to do might change. All of a sudden you have a whole new pool of people."

According to Hutton, the demographic of Model 3 buyers who lined up to reserve their cars at her local Tesla store ranged from college-aged students and families who had never owned a Tesla to people who already had at least one.

"There’s something to be said about how many people showed up, because they realize, ‘Oh, maybe [EVs] are real now,'" she said.

There’s also something to be said about the fact that Tesla doesn’t have to necessarily sell its mission to sell its cars — it’s by and large a good thing. But it also means that the next few generations of mass-market EVs may lead to a dropoff in the level of engagement Tesla sees today.

"Now the 100 Roadster Signature owners and 1,000 Model S signature owners are joined by the 400,000 Model 3 loyalists, in similar fashion, I suppose, to how Apple II and Mac owners from the 80s feel when they see people on their iPhones and iPads," Calacanis added. "I was part of something important."

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