Exclusive Interview: Creator Of The Chevy Jolt EV On How Easy Selling an Electric Car Really Is

It’s just before 10 am on a Tuesday morning and I’m seated at a small table at at an independent coffee shop in the trendy, upcoming hip neighborhood of Boise, Portland, Oregon. Far enough north to miss out on the usual hustle and bustle of downtown PDX rush hour, there’s a relaxed vibe about the coffee shop as the artisan baristas craft customers drinks from locally-roasted beans, a few students sit revising for an upcoming test, and freelancers settle in to do a half-hour of work before their next big client appointment. On the street outside, there’s an eclectic selection of cars from old Volvo wagons to sturdy Subarus and well-loved Toyota Prii. Most of them have bumper stickers touting support for one good cause or another, ranging from a local independent school through to a fiercely independent owner-operated store, some outdoor activity or other, and of course, Bernie Sanders for President decals.

Would you buy this as an electric car?

Would you buy this as an electric car?

For those familiar to the jewel that is Portland Oregon, this street scene is probably a familiar one, perhaps even comforting.  To others, the street scene is yet another example of how gentrification has taken over and destroyed the very heart of Portland’s close-knit communities (Boise used to be far more racially and demographically diverse than it is today). Others, viewing it for the first time, may mistake the whole scene as a set from the (now controversial) Portlandia comedy series, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein coming into view at any moment, mid-skit.

It is, to put it bluntly, about as far away from Detroit, Michigan — home to the U.S. auto industry for the past century — as Aleppo is a quiet place to go for your summer vacation. Yet I’m here to meet with Matt Teske, marketing expert and long-time auto industry insider whose recent social media experiment and carefully crafted product website for a fictional electric car sent shock waves around the world and straight into the heart of General Motors.

Just like the car, this app screen shot is completely faked -- but with good reason.

Just like the car, this app screen shot is completely faked — but with good reason.

“I never expected it to gain quite as much attention as it did,” Teske admits to me as he sips his freshly-prepared latte. “A few hours after I made the website live my server crashed under the load. I had to go and buy a bigger server.”

I wanted to show that a good-looking, desirable electric car will generate real buzz and excite customers. A car is an extension of your personality and lifestyle needs. A car should make someone say ‘wow, I want that.’ Most electrics don’t elicit that response right now.”

The website in question? A full-blown product website for the Chevrolet Jolt EV: a fictitious long-range sporty coupe with 230 miles of estimated range, advanced on-board safety technology, fully customizable touch screen display and dashboard, and of course, a price tag of less than $30,000. Built to conform with Chevrolet’s house style, the website was designed to look at realistic (and as plausible) as possible.  And while hardened gearheads quickly recognized the Chevy Jolt EV as the Tru 140s gasoline concept car unveiled by GM back in 2012 — with added charging port door of course — the Internet still went wild over the possibility that the Chevrolet Jolt EV could, maybe, be a real car.

For the first few hours, the Jolt EV site carried the Chevrolet logo, hiding contact details for Teske and the site’s true goal in a hyperlink easter egg coded into the site’s HTML. But after a few hours — and plenty of social media attention, Teske made the site’s intentions a lot more clear.

“The site wasn’t ever about tricking anyone,” he tells me. “It was a way to show automakers that if they offered more compelling electric cars, consumers would respond. My generation and those in the future have a different perspective on car ownership.”

Teske wanted the automotive industry -- and consumers -- to take notice.

Teske wanted the automotive industry — and consumers — to take notice.

Like me, Teske is part of the generation that spans the gap between gen X and millennials. He grew up with Saturday morning cartoons and lazy summer holidays without cellphones or Facebook. He remembers mastering the Dewey Decimal System to research things at the library. But he also remembers the first home computers and learning to explore the wonders of the Internet for the first time. He holds both the optimism and independence of gen X and the skepticism of Millennials. And he also happens to be an auto industry marketing specialist with more than 17 years of clients under his belt, including names like General Motors, Tesla Motors and Mercedes-Benz. Aside from his automotive clients, Teske has helped market everything from sports goods to TV shows.

Tesla understands how social media works. Their marketing department embraces buzz and content created by fans and owners. This stems from having a product design filled with technology that inspires and excites consumers. That’s where it gets the majority of its coverage from. “Detroit might be using social media, but it is not truly listening to the gen X and millennials, and their products are not inspiring consumers the same way.”

Put simply, much of Teske’s professional life has focused on helping automakers understand their customers better — so that they can then effectively advertise their cars to their target demographic more easily. Yet while Teske has spent more than his fair share of time using his marketing skills to enhance his client’s chance of selling to key demographics, there’s something that he says automakers still don’t get: how to advertise an electric car.

For Teske, it’s far simpler than many automakers insist. “It has to be desirable,” he tells me. “Gen X, millenials. We’re not interested in cars the same way our parents were. We’re interested in innovation and progress for all products we buy, including cars. We’re interested in how it will align with our digital life, not just what’s under the hood.

“That’s what the whole Chevy Jolt EV project is about,” he continues. “I wanted to show that a good-looking, desirable electric car will generate real buzz and excite customers. A car is an extension of your personality and lifestyle needs. A car should make someone say ‘wow, I want that.’ Most electrics don’t elicit that response right now.”

We talk about some of the terrible ways in which electric cars have been advertised in the past, from the Nissan LEAF Polar Bear through to the infamous Chevy Volt dance. All of them, we agree, demonstrate how little many mainstream automakers know about electric cars.  At almost every turn, electric cars are portrayed as being quirky, unusual fringe vehicles. They’re not being portrayed as what they really are: a logical extension of our connected, rapidly changing lives.

Teske: automakers don't all understand what today's buyers want.

Teske: automakers don’t all understand what today’s buyers want.

“I’ve been in those meetings,” he tells me “where an executive shows market research that points out all the worries that customers have about electric cars: limited range; too expensive; boring to drive; not enough charging. But this research assumes customers can’t change. Or don’t want to change.

“That’s not the case,” he continues. “Customers will make the switch to a new product or concept if they can see value in it. Something that is both inspirational and innovative. But it has to be more than just looks. It has to add value to their life the same way other products do. Just like Apple did with the iPhone. It made a product that consumers implicitly understood and that they could see growing with them.”

Tesla and its Model 3 come into the conversation. Teske enthuses about the work Tesla has done to make electric cars desirable, and hints that the way Tesla has marketed its cars — essentially relying on the buzz generated from great design, killer features like the massive touch-screen interface, over the air updates and stunning performance — are what helped Tesla change consumer perception of electric vehicles. But more importantly, Tesla didn’t view a lack of knowledge about electric cars as a blocker: it viewed it as a challenge.

Teske has a Model 3 reservation, but he says he'd rather have a Jolt EV.

Teske has a Model 3 reservation, but he says he’d rather have a Jolt EV.

Tesla also understands the modern digital age. Its very foundation in the heart of Silicon Valley — not to mention its software-driven attitude to automotive design — gives it a massive edge in today’s automotive industry.

“Tesla understands how social media works. Their marketing department embraces buzz and content created by fans and owners. This stems from having a product design filled with technology that inspires and excites consumers. That’s where it gets the majority of its coverage from,” Teske said. “Detroit might be using social media, but it is not truly listening to the gen X and millennials, and their products are not inspiring consumers the same way.”

But Tesla, even with the Model S, Model X, and Model 3, isn’t able to satiate everyone’s needs in a single car. Even ignoring the high sticker price of the S and the X, the Model 3 isn’t everything that everyone looks for in a car.

We’re not clones, after all.

“There’s a serious lack of variety in the electric car marketplace,” Teske said. “I’m a long-standing Chevy fan and these days I drive a Chevy Volt. My wife drives a Chevy Spark EV. General Motors is capable of producing a long-range, sporty electric car that captures the imagination of young car buyers. It just hasn’t.”

Teske, who has also put his name down for a Tesla Model 3, ensured the Chevy Jolt EV site didn’t just include a sexy car with a great design and good specifications. Contrary to GM’s existing policy on electric car charging — namely that it won’t be funding the installation of any CCS quick charging stations as part of its Chevy Bolt EV rollout — Teske’s proposal includes equipping every single Chevy dealer across the U.S. with at least one CCS quick charge station, making it possible for the Chevy Jolt EV to drive coast to coast just as easily as a Tesla Model S or Model X can today.

CCS quick charging is key to any electric car's success.

CCS quick charging is key to any electric car’s success.

The logic behind the proposal is simple. There are already more than 3,000 Chevy dealers across the U.S. Installing multiple CCS charging stations at each not only gives those franchised dealerships another revenue stream, but also ensures that electric car owners keep in regular contact with their local dealerships, something that many in the automotive industry are fearful will not happen because of the lower maintenance requirements for electric cars.

Hearing Teske talk, there’s an air of simplicity often missing from marketing types. Rather than utilize buzz words and trending topics, our chat focuses on expressing simple emotions. Rather than make selling electric cars to the masses as being a gargantuan task of impossible proportions, his Chevy Jolt EV experiment has given him almost laser-like focus.

“It really is simple,” he said. “If I can do it, then so can GM, or any other automaker. I’m tired of the excuses. It’s time to build what people want.

“My site had 20,000 hits in a few days. People came from all over the world. And I’ve got a list of people who would buy the Chevy Jolt tomorrow if it were a real car,” he said. “That’s pretty powerful market research.”

Has GM taken notice? Teske admits he’s had some contact from auto industry clients wanting to know more about the website, as well as a polite request from GM about taking down the Chevy logo on his site.  But professionalism means that he’s not about to tell us if his experiment has created as big a stir in the automotive industry as it has on social media. Given what we’ve heard on the grapevine from various sources of our own, we’d have to say it did.

Has GM taken notice? We think so. Will it do the right thing? Who knows.

Has GM taken notice? We think so. Will it do the right thing? Who knows.

It’s not plain sailing. After I’ve finished chatting with Teske, a friend points out to me a few days later that the original Chevy Jolt EV Twitter account has disappeared from the Internet. A new one pops up almost immediately afterwards, hinting that perhaps GM and its legal team are not completely happy about embracing the buzz this innovative marketing experiment has created.

Yet Teske is still holding out. He tells me he’s willing and ready to help GM or any other automaker willing to build the right electric car to market to the right people. The Nissan LEAF has proven a great seller, but as Teske rightly points out, electric vehicles are not a “one size fits all” product.

“How it’s powered really isn’t the issue,” he said. “Function, form, and features are far more important. And now we have long-range, affordable battery chemistry, there’s really no excuse.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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