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Tesla's image tumbles in new survey

Data: The Axios Harris Poll 100; Chart: Axios Visuals

Tesla's public reputation took a big hit in 2018, a tumultuous year for the electric automaker marked by a series of controversial comments by CEO Elon Musk, a new Axios-Harris Poll survey shows.

Why it matters: The drop in Tesla's ranking from number 3 to number 42 in the annual survey — the second-biggest decline after Facebook — shows the risks for companies with identities so closely aligned with one person.

"This is sort of a cautionary tale for when your CEO is a celebrity."
— Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema

The big picture: Musk's wild 2018 included . . .

  • Baseless allegations of pedophilia against a man who helped rescue the Thai boys' soccer team.
  • His "funding secured" tweet about the now-aborted plan to take Tesla private, which drew a complaint from securities regulators that Musk settled.
  • Taking a drag from a cigarette with marijuana on "The Joe Rogan Experience."

The drop in Tesla's ranking was one of the key findings of the Axios Harris Poll 100, a new partnership between Axios and Harris Poll.

By the numbers: Beyond the overall slide in the annual survey of the country's 100 most visible companies, Tesla also saw erosion in several metrics.

Its "character" ranking slid from 7 to 57; its "trust" ranking fell from 14 to 46; its "ethics" ranking dropped from 5 to 56, and its "vision" fell from 1 to 39.

But, but, but: Despite the tumble, Tesla's overall score remains higher than Ford, GM (see chart above) as well as several other automakers.

Our thought bubble: The results come at a risky time for Tesla as the company seeks to become consistently profitable.

Right now the Model 3 is proving very popular and Tesla dominates overall U.S. EV sales. But other automakers are bringing more EVs into the marketplace. Going forward, Tesla's fate will be tethered to how much the public likes the company.

What's next: Gerzema argues Tesla should consider having other executives take on higher-profile roles, rather than having Musk remain front and center on every topic. “It’s the equivalent of diversifying your portfolio,” Gerzema said.

The bottom line: “It’s imperative that [Musk] kind of right the ship and get back to doing what he does, which is being a brilliant leader and staking out a vision for where this company is going,” Gerzema said.

Methodology: The Axios Harris Poll 100 survey was conducted November through January in a nationally representative sample. One group, 6,118 U.S. adults, was asked to identify the two companies they believe have the best and worst reputations.

Then, the 100 “most visible companies” were ranked by a second group of 18,228 adults across key measures of corporate reputation.

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