Transport Evolved Matt Teske3

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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  • Chris O

    Teske strikes me as naive. It’s not that carmakers are out of touch with their clientele, it’s really Teske who appears to be out of touch with carmakers. GM’s response to his initiative is telling: the General mobilized its legal stormtroopers rather than it’s marketing department. That’s because no carmaker is in any hurry to end the ICE age. It’s what they know, where their investments are tied up in, it’s where their key competencies are, it’s what their maintenance oriented retail model is based on. That’s why the plug-in concepts they are doing are good enough for compliance purposes but not compelling enough to have serious mass market appeal. That’s why they are marketed at the fringe rather than the mainstream.

    Teske’s effort is great but it was really Tesla that has demonstrated that such mass market appeal exists. Where Teske’s webpage got 20,000 vistors in a few days Tesla attracted more than 200,000 potential customers in a few days willing to plunge down $1,000 to be on the reservation list for a Model 3. That’s because it got the concept right, offering a car that’s both attractive looking and practical, both as a versatile car and because of the supercharger support. The car Teske designed is certainly an eye catcher but at the end of the day few people would buy it as it’s not all that practical. The idea that GM could make it more practical by installing quickchargers at dealers is also questionable. Nissan did that but did it work out well? Quickcharger locations need to be selected for easy access not by the fact that a dealer happens to be located there. Tesla understands that and build the Supercharger network at its own dime. If the GM behemoth were really interested in doing what little Tesla is doing it could very easily do the same, no need for improvised, low cost solutions.

    However GM was very emphatic that it has no interest in providing quick charge support for Bolt. It remains to be seen how tenable that position is in light of Tesla’s success but Teske as well as Tesla have experienced that when it comes to plug-ins with serious disruptive potential Tesla is more likely to go into counterstrike mode than to show serious interest.

    • Martin Lacey

      Couldn’t agree more!

    • Loanword Eggcorn

      GM probably is not in a financial position fund fast chargers. See their bankruptcy and the reasons for it.

      • Chris O

        GM made a $9.7 billion profit in 2015 and somehow it can’t afford to invest the $100 million or so little Tesla invested in its Supercharger network? We’re talking about a company that routinely invests billions in a single new model…

    • Matt Teske

      Hi Chris,

      You bring up a lot of very valid points that many will agree with, including myself. Unfortunately, it appears that you have misunderstood the reason I created the Jolt EV idea. I assure you I understand the underlying motivation for traditional automakers to not invest in EVs. Because of this, I recognized that consumers need more than just opinions on blogs and social media, we need tangible evidence to show the world and traditional automakers that EVs are truly in demand.

      As you and many are well aware, the narrative coming from traditional automotive brands is that they would produce more EVs, but there is no demand. And while the consumer response to the Model 3 disproves this narrative, the focus was again on Tesla and did not put any pressure on traditional automakers. With the Jolt EV, the point was to show that if a traditional automotive manufacturer were to offer more compelling variety in EVs, consumers would respond the same way to those EVs as they have for Tesla.

      In short, of course I did not expect GM would embrace the idea of the Jolt EV right out of the gate. At a minimum I wanted to add a new element to the conversation about EVs and provide a new frame of reference for both consumers and the media regarding EV demand. So, moving forward, if an automaker continues to assert that they would produce more EVs but they see no demand, the Jolt EV stands as a data driven example that disproves this narrative.

      I want to see the Jolt EV, and many other styles of EVs produced. As consumers we have to continue to work together to put pressure on automakers to offer the vehicles we want. With the response to the Jolt EV, you and others (including the media) can now use it as a talking point to say, “If one guy’s idea can prove demand for more EV options from Chevrolet, why do automakers continue to say demand doesn’t exist?” Then more consumers will begin to realize and further discuss the true motivations for the lack of EV development from automakers. With the truth more widely understood and discussed, options then become very clear for traditional automakers: invest in and produce more EVs, or lose market share to the competition that does.

      So, am I naive? Not at all. I’m just one guy trying to create change through the talents I have at my disposal. The response the Jolt EV proves that more people are excited about a variety of EVs from all automakers. And collectively, I am confident we can make the response from those automakers be more adoption, less subversion.

      Matt Teske

      • Chris O

        Hi Matt, thanks for the reply.

        Tesla shows us that if you get the concept right there is plenty of demand for EVs. Not sure if that’s a complete surprise for traditional carmakers, maybe its “naive” to think so. The way Tesla’s legal teams have been targeting Tesla for years now trying to subvert the sort of retail models that could sell EVs in meaningful numbers indicates to me that Tesla has been identified as a serious threat years ago. GM seems pretty happy with doing plug-ins in low numbers. Voltec is an engineering marvel but GM never diversified its Voltec portfolio towards the highly popular crossover segment. Bolt is a nice car but the market for a $30K (after incentives) compact hatch is necessarily small I think, GM might have opted for a body style more fitting the price tag like Tesla does.

        Also part of getting the concept right is the quick charge infrastructure support, like Tesla’s Supercharger network. This can’t be a surprise for traditional carmakers, yet GM for one is emphatically uninterested in making sure it’s in place for Bolt customers, in fact Bolt doesn’t even come with quick charging as standard and even if you order it it’s anything but quick as Bolt, despite its large battery can only take a 50KW charge. To me it paints a picture of a company that needs plug-ins to comply/greenwash but quite deliberately stops short of getting the concept good enough to have serious mass market appeal.

        Tesla and your PR exercise do make for some excellent talking points though. It will make it that much harder for carmakers to hide behind the low demand meme, not only towards the public but -much more important- towards policy makers that may be less inclined to accept that meme when they negotiate with the industry about MPG/emission mandates.

        The effect on policymakers may be the biggest part of the threat traditional carmakers see in Tesla and I do expect efforts to step up anti-Tesla subversion rather than adoption of the principles that make Tesla so successful.

  • Martin Lacey

    Oh dear!

    I bet those suffering from Tb will kick up a stink about this article as well.

    (Tb = Tesla burkulosis)

  • Loanword Eggcorn

    While it would be nice to make millions of cheap electric Honda civic-class cars immediately, the economic reality is different. The key cost determiner of EVs is the battery pack and Tesla followed exactly the right path of using high-value, low-volume cars to drive down the battery cost while ramping up volume, reducing costs, and moving down market. They started with a BMW 5 series-class car with the Model S and are moving to a BMW 3 series-class with the Model 3. GM is at least making a credible effort with the strange looking Bolt by having a range and price that’s realistic and appropriate.

    If Teske is saying the Bolt could have been better styled and marketed, I’d agree completely. But the Bolt price at $37 is realistic for the current state of the world. It’s as unrealistic to start at the bottom of the market for a new technology like EVs as it would be to expect the very first iPhone to be priced at under $100, as some cheap smartphones are today, compared to the $500 price of the original iPhone. The world simply doesn’t work that way.

    That said, we almost certainly will get to mass volume EVs at lower prices. Nissan is already working towards that by increasing the Leaf’s battery capacity. If Teske is saying the Leaf could be better styled and marketed, I’d agree. If he’s saying the Leaf should be priced at $30k and have a 230+ mile range today, again real world economics say it can’t.

    As battery costs fall, EVs will take over the car market. They will eventually cost less to build than ICEs, and they already cost a small fraction to operate compared to ICE. At that point (which may only be a few years away given the rate of battery improvements), there will certainly be EVs marketed at millenials, etc.

  • Joe

    Last year there was news of GM’s copyrighting the “Corvette E-Ray” name, leading to speculation that they’re working on an electric Corvette. The Corvette seems to be an excellent candidate for an electric drivetrain (well-known to be a fast car, made of lightweight fiberglass, due for a major overhaul) I wonder if this is something GM will actually do in the near future. Somehow I doubt it, but it would certainly be interesting!

  • Dennis Tivey

    GM might not meet this price point with a 200 mile EV, but might with a sexy coupe based on the Volt EREV platform. That’s what the Cadillac ELR was, but they priced it at $75k, gave it no performance advantage over a pedestrian Volt, and introduced it just as the new improved Volt was announced, making it instantly obsolete. The following year they adjusted the ELR for more performance and a somewhat lower price, but it was too little too late.

    GM’s M.O. is to introduce a half-baked product, let the owners be testers, and gradually improve it each model year. By the time it has grown into the vehicle the public wanted (and thought they were getting) in the first place, the public has given up on the model and moved on, and rather than relaunching it, GM kills the model for apparent lack of consumer interest. The Corvair, the Fiero, the ELR… a long history of this.

    I hope this will not be the case with the Bolt, as I’m very excited about it. But as some have pointed out, styling a $37k car to look look like an $18k Honda Fit when they knew a stylish “affordable” Tesla was imminent, and not lifting a finger to build fast charge infrastructure when they knew Nissan has Chademo at every dealer and Tesla has Superchargers on every major highway, suggests they may be slow learners.

  • DanFrederiksen

    I agree exciting is very important in a car but what he designed has the childish crude chevy front and it’s a small car that isn’t practical for anything but personal transport, which limits buyer count considerably. A solo car product can work but the prize or performance really needs to reflect it. That particular car there would probably not sell well if made by Chevy.

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