A Tuna Salad Company, A Seafood Company or a Canned Goods Company?

That’s the old Branding 101 example of “you are what you say you are.” The idea being that Starkist or Bumblebee will be most successful expanding their product offerings if it fits in with a defined brand that people understand. You might be open to buying Starkist brand canned salmon or even Bumblebee fresh tuna steaks. Conversely, you probably wouldn’t want to buy tuna fish from a motor oil company, just because they branded themselves as a business that “makes things in containers.” So there are limits to everything.

We see a lot of that going on in our region. Boeing isn’t an “airplane company,” but rather an aerospace company and so you’re open to buying their tankers, and satellites and missiles. Microsoft is very much in the middle of defining themselves as a “platform company” that provides the tools upon which you create – whether that be word documents, video games, mobile apps or building energy management software.

These are the things that I thought of when I saw this article about BMW investing in IT start-ups as a way to facilitate defining themselves as a “mobility company.” Is this more Chicken of the Sea canned salmon or Pennzoil tuna?*

As some background:

Today, BMW announced the planned creation of a tech incubator in New York City to seed innovations in mobile and location-based services. The announcement follows the automaker’s establishment in February of a venture capital company, BMW i Ventures, with an investment fund of as much as $100 million, and serves as yet another indication that BMW is turning its eye toward the mobile startup scene…

“As a mobility company, we are focusing on mobility services that may not even have anything to do with cars,” says Joerg Reimann, a managing director of BMW Ventures…[H]e’s interested in new ways to look at traffic, parking, entertainment, the interlinking of different transportation modes, and places where “the digital meets the offline space.”

By the way, this story has at least three implications for our region. First, Microsoft and several other local companies are already in the automobile software space. Second, BMW is now a Washington company. And third, of course, is that we have a growing, thriving mobile app industry here in the region. So it would be very interesting to see about trying to get some of that $100 million from BMW Ventures to invest here.

But more broadly, I’m also very interested in this issue as we begin our work on the comprehensive economic analysis for our Regional Economic Strategy process. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m already concerned about trying to classify companies into clusters, and that was just trying to distinguish the lines between high tech industries like IT, life sciences and clean tech. When automakers are now VCs, incubators and mobile app developers, I might just have to give up all together.

Of course, my conclusion now is the same as my conclusion then: while the classification challenge is hard, the other aspect of it is tremendously exciting. On the Chamber’s Silicon Valley trip, we heard from several folks on our visit to Stanford University that they saw the next great innovations happening at the intersection of disciplines (i.e.-bioengineering). To the extent that cars are becoming more and more computerized, what we’re seeing is new possibilities to use insights from points of connection between the automotive field and the IT field to develop “interdisciplinary” innovations.

And so, while industry cluster classification will be important, we need to spend more and more attention on how we facilitate inter-cluster interactions. If only there were an app for that.

UPDATE: Local company Nintendo makes a different decision.



*By the way, there’s a Motorola joke in there somewhere…something about a mobile company that already sounds like a motor oil company…if you can think of it, leave it in the comments section.

One Response to A Tuna Salad Company, A Seafood Company or a Canned Goods Company?

  1. Alex Cooke says:

    Interesting post. At TIP Strategies, we’ve also been thinking about how convergent technologies complicate traditional cluster classifications, as well as industry recruitment, retention, and expansion. We look forward to exploring these issues with you as part of the RES.

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