2012-01-17

Co.Exist

What Brands Can Learn From Automakers' Failures To Go Electric

After years of waiting, car companies are now rushing to catch up to a world where they need to make electric cars. Their failure to see these trends coming, and their scramble to catch up, hold important lessons.

The internal combustion engine is one of the few remaining things most carmakers actually make. In many cases, the powertrain is the only real "fingerprint" that sets one manufacturer apart from the other.

With the incipient rise of the electric vehicle, it’s bye-bye, fingerprint. Carmakers are scrambling to partner with manufacturers in other sectors to stay competitive under the hood.

Volvo and Daimler are among the companies reaching out to companies like Bosch and Siemens, according to Paul Hockenos in the The New York Times. And it’s forcing them to question their individuality at every step.

Hockenos writes that the carmakers are struggling to put a positive spin on the new alliances, characterizing the ventures as "exploiting synergies" rather than subjugating their mojos.

Incorporating electric powerplants is clearly a necessary innovation for carmakers. The dominance Toyota achieved by pioneering hybrids was a clarion call that even GM heard. But is partnership with electric motor manufacturers going to threaten the individuality of existing car brands? Hardly.

Following Apple’s Function Units

Most companies rely on business units to manufacture and innovate. These units are charged with taking a specific product and perfecting it to stay relevant, dominant, and profitable.

Contrast that with Apple, a company organized around function units. Instead of organizing teams to perfect the iPod or iPad, they focus on perfecting the experience of listening to music or reading.

Logically, a business unit charged with perfecting an internal combustion engine would be loath to jettison it in favor of an electric motor. But a function unit charged with more effective mobility would have no such qualms. It would be much more technology agnostic.

Indeed, if you look at the original iPod, there was hardly any "fingerprint" technology in it. It was simply an amalgamation of existing tech repurposed to create the ultimate listening experience.

The Apple vision and belief system—to challenge the status quo at every step—was the unique secret sauce. And the iPod only reinforced that uniqueness.

Fingerprint Vision, Not Technology

My business is brands. I’m often called in to work with technology companies who have reached a dead end believing their technology is what sets them apart. Brand and vision are the only unique elements any company can create today. And that comes down to building a belief system that resonates with the beliefs of your fans.

Of course, that belief system, that brand, helps chart the course of your innovation.

A wonderful example is BMW’s iProject. With it, the carmaker staked its claim in future mobility. That means electric cars, certainly. But it also means venture partnerships with companies that help us simply get around in the most exciting way possible. Guidance systems, mapmakers, public transport companies…the list of potential partners and innovation opportunities is endless.

Innovation Lessons That Will Give You Traction

If you’re an innovator, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself in the same position as our hand-wringing car manufacturers. Here are some thoughts that should help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  1. It’s about function, not technology. Don’t get protective of a technology. In today’s world of instant copies, technology has a brief "best-before" life. Instead, focus on an imperfect consumer experience, and how you can bring technologies together to make that experience better.
  2. Partnership equals progress. Hybridization brings new thinking, evolution, and great leaps forward. Sure, it also brings friction and culture clash. But no friction means no fire.
  3. Become the platform, not the solution - Cars are an imperfect platform. So was the Internet. The trick is finding innovators who can build greatness on your platform. That could be electric motor manufacturers, or eBay.

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