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Aptera's Marketing Misfires

I was a fan of electric car startup Aptera from the earliest days. It was the summer of 2008 when I first heard about the new car company and its radical three-wheeled prototype that looked like a fancy streamlined airplane without wings. When Aptera let people place $500 down-payments to order a car, I signed right up.

Email Activity
That was August 2008. Around that time they were promising to deliver their first production vehicle by the end of 2008. Things were looking bright.

At the end of September 2008 I got an "Aptera newsletter" email. "There's lots going on here at Aptera," the newsletter began, under a headline of "Getting Closer and Closer to Rollout." "We're getting ready for our big move to our new building," they continued. The newsletter spoke about how they'd hired 21 people between May and August 2008. Things were still looking bright.

There wasn't another "Aptera newsletter" email December 23, 2008. Remember, as of August they were saying that the first production vehicle would ship by end of 2008. Here we are at December 23, with a new email newsletter, and there's no mention of the car going into production. Not a good sign.

In January 2009 they sent an email entitled "Letter to Reservation Holders" saying they'd missed their end-of-2008 deadline, and worse, the first car wouldn't be going to a customer like planned. Worse yet, they were going to push volume production back to a new date, ten months off, of October 1, 2009. The email also offered a new "Lock-in Program" which would allow a someone who, like me, had already placed an order, to "voluntarily convert" my $500 deposit from a refundable state to a "firm, non-refundable" state. No thank you. I didn't sign up for the lock-in.

The next Aptera newsletter didn't get emailed until July 28, 2009. Sure, there was a blurb from the founder, and an interview with one of the execs, and a sneak-peek of the production car's interior, but as someone who put money down to buy one of the cars, what I wanted to know, first and foremost always, as soon as I got a newsletter, was WHEN? When will my car be ready? What is the latest? How is it coming along? Not a word on the subject.

The next newsletter arrived on November 23. Oddly, it as designated as "Vol 1, Issue 1". Not an encouraging sign for a customer who plunked down $500 for their car in August 2008, and who has been receiving newsletters since September 2008. Who's running the show, I was wondering. And sure enough: no answer to my question of WHEN. When will my car be ready? What happened to the much-promised October 1, 2009 date for official volume production to commence? No mention of it in this newsletter. Does Aptera think its customers are stupid? Or is Aptera stupid? Someone's stupid, and in this instance I don't think it's me.

Surprisingly, on December 31, 2009, Aptera sent out a new email newsletter. This one was Vol 1, Issue 2, and right up front, they explained "why we elected to restart the counter on the Newsletter." Apparently, "many of you had written us" asking about it. This time, the newsletter rattled on about how the car body is composite, how the DOE loan program is progressing, more detail about composites, and news about the X Prize. But no answer to my question of WHEN WILL MY CAR BE READY.

Blog Activity
Aptera's blog, called "The Daily Charge", started on March 2, 2009, was a hopeful sign: numerous blog posts on a variety of subjects all on the first day. Wow, if they keep this up, there could very well be hope! I love when a company is transparent and is telling their story and bringing their customers along in real-time. But then there was no news for three weeks -- the next blog post wasn't until March 23. Not good for a blog that calls itself "The Daily Charge". And then the next post was a week after that. And then there was silence until May 19.

And so it went during the course of 2009 -- what started out as an active blog, trickled down to an occasional new post, sometimes entire months skipped without an update.

Remember, in January 2009 they'd promised that October 1, 2009 was the date that the cars would actually go into volume production. That date quietly came and passed. Nothing mentioned on the blog.

The last Aptera blog post was October 27th. Since then: silence.

Twitter Activity
In February 2009, @aptera started posting on Twitter. Between then and October 12th, 2009, they posted 367 tweets. Since then, silence.

Meanwhile, In the News...
Eventually, news of what was really going on at Aptera started trickling out. In November 2009, WIRED News ran an article, "Aptera Founders Ousted in Boardroom Showdown.

It was a grim article for someone who'd plunked down $500 to buy one of these cars, expecting to take possession in 2009. At this point I was reminded far too painfully of the story told in the Francis Ford Coppola film "Tucker", about the revolutionary 1950s car that Detroit set out to destroy. I sent in a cancellation order on December 20th. It just wasn't worth it, and I told Aptera that I was no longer confident at all that the company was ever going to actually ship my car. They did respond and they did refund my money in full, so I have to credit them for that. It's a shame it came to this, however.

This weekend I have gotten two emails from Aptera -- both unexpected, and both basically the same thing: the latest newsletter. How's this for cheering up your languishing customer base, many of whom are I am sure still trying to get an answer, like I was, to the question of WHEN?: the first headline: "Aptera founder to lead from the boardroom while pursuing new ventures". Heh. I have to chuckle. Been there, done that. Translated, it means, company fires founder, founder manages to keep a board seat. The newsletter quotes the CEO praising the "vision" of the founder and how "we value" his "continued support." Right.

And then the next article is headlined, "David Oakley steps down". This is Aptera's VP of manufacturing. Heads are rolling.

Then a long article about Aptera's chassis. You know what? I don't care at this point about the chassis. What I cared about was when was I gonna get my car? And here you are, dicking around with your customers on the last weekend of January 2010, going on for dense paragraphs about the car's damn chassis ("if you didn't get it by now", the article ends, "we are really proud of our chassis") when the Aptera world seems to be crashing all around you.

So as we enter February, all one can say about Aptera is that Detroit bigwigs have swept in and taken over ("Tucker", anyone?), there is no date in sight for actual production, the blog is dead, the Twitter account is silent, and they love their damn chassis.

Aptera. How not to market a car.

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