NIO vs. Tesla: The race for Chinese consumer perception

Author: Adrian de Riz

When Tesla entered China in 2014, it didn’t have any serious competition and quickly became the leader for high-end EVs. Today, with electric vehicles in China reaching 5% of total sales, not only OEMs, but also a range of fast and innovative startups are aspiring to challenge Tesla’s position. In this article, we compare Chinese customer perception of Tesla with NIO, the best-known Chinese startup in the EV space.

Which attributes do Chinese netizens associate with the two companies?

Figure 1 shows that design and quality are the most prominent attributes for the two EV makers. Tesla is mentioned more frequently for design, quality, usability and price. Compared with the mentions of NIO, Tesla has a very good customer perception for usability. The strong prominence of price for Tesla can be expected to play a lesser role in 2019, because of Tesla’s Model 3.  (1)

Figure 1: Frequency and sentiment of brand characteristics for NIO and Tesla in e-mobility discussions

Tesla and NIO are mentioned equally often for performance and innovation.  Therefore, these are still potential areas where both companies can become top of the consumer mind.

Let’s consider some original quotes from Weibo to illustrate these points. This Weibo user praises Tesla’s remote climate control functionality especially during the summer season:


…Tesla’s features are great. It is possible to remotely control the air conditioner before getting onto the car. Otherwise the weather would steam you…

This visitor of the Beijing Auto Show positively highlights NIO’s AI-based voice control:

“ …车内自带的nomi智能系统实在是太有趣了,不但可以识别语音命令,而且可以识别发出这个命令的乘客所在的位置,比如坐在主驾驶的人和坐在后排座椅的人分别说“nomi,打开车窗”,nomi会分别打开这两个位….“

…The NOMI intelligent system not only recognizes voice control, but also locates the person talking to it. On the command “NOMI open the window” the car opens the window next to the person talking…

Based on the quantitative post comparison in Figure 1 and the original data from Weibo, we can conclude that Tesla had a stronger brand awareness in the Chinese Web during 2018. In addition, the battleground for car usability will be decided by driving range and charging solutions. New connectivity features like remote control and voice control play a major role in the differentiation of the two companies.

Getting down to soft facts: image perception of NIO and Tesla

Figure 2 further depicts the design and image of the two brands. Tesla leads in frequency for strength and sportiness, which underlines Tesla’s driving performance – an attribute it is looking to further exploit with the 2020 release of the Tesla Roadster. NIO also worked hard to appear sporty and strong by competing in the Formula E and releasing the EP9 supercar as the world’s fastest electric car, setting the Nürburgring record in 2016. However, by limiting its mass-market releases to SUVs, the company seems to stay behind in strength and sportiness when compared to the sporty Model S from Tesla.

Figure 2: Frequency and sentiment of brand characteristics for NIO and Tesla in e-mobility discussions

Attributes in which Tesla and NIO are similar in terms of mention quantity includes luxuriousness, premium, exquisiteness and fashionability. Remarkable is the more positive sentiment for NIO luxuriousness posts compared to Tesla. The areas were NIO was mentioned more often than Tesla are elegance and openness.

Let’s look at some original quotes to illustrate these points. This Chinese consumer, who had no previous access to NIO cars, judged the car interior as elegant by his impression from an online picture:


…The setting and appearance from the interior is very elegant…

This user points out Tesla’s ability to appear sporty while offering comfort:

“车身很大,很舒适,像一辆商务车,可是打开车门,会像跑车一 ​​​”

The body is very large, very comfortable, like a business car. But driving the car gives you the feeling of a sports car.

The racetrack goes beyond China

As shown by the analysis, NIO is not perceived as a challenger to Tesla in the sport car segment by Chinese consumers. However, it does compete with Tesla for customer perception on fashionability, premium, luxuriousness, exquisiteness and elegance. With both brands undertaking bold moves on the Chinese market in terms of product, marketing and strategy, we can look forward to an exciting year of developments in the Chinese e-mobility space. It might well be that the winner from this EV race in China will become the future global champion.


[1] Huang, Echo. This Chinese EV startup could end the year remarkably close to Tesla on sales in China. [Online] Dec 3, 2018. [Cited: March 4, 2019.]