Monday, December 17, 2007

What does it all mean?

Hugh MacLeod, the first blogger I ever started reading and ever subscribed to, drew this carton which makes me laugh first, then consider the implications:

Hugh MacLeod Gaping Void brand experience cartoon
What are your meaningful brand experiences? What brands get you going? Does it make you feel icky to be asked that question? I think it is a natural human reaction to recoil a bit from the idea of a "Meaningful Brand Experience" making us feel better but I also think it is not a waste of time to consider what it means.

Since we're sharing, I'll start. I have had meaningful brand experiences with Apple, for sure. Listening, organizing, and sharing the music that gets me through my life... also yelling, swearing, and threatening when I realize Apple's conspiracy against PC users (this has not been officially substantiated). Despite it's recent and mysterious demise, I've always had a love affair with Canon digital cameras. The 4+ gigabytes of pictures I obsessively and repeatedly back-up show a long trail of friends, relationships, and experiences, all of which I relate back to my two Canon cameras. On a smaller scale, I also have a strong affection for the BreakBeat Science record label. They were my drum&bass mecca and visiting the shop in New York was a big highlight of my trip out east. Their logo still makes me smile...

BreakBeat Science logo
Today, I'm faced with a different kind of brand experience, a distinctly sad one. Stumbling through alternative energy news on Google News (I know, surprise surprise, a Google product), I came across a few stories mentioning the potential demise of Ballard Power Systems, a fuel cell company in Vancouver, British Columbia that I always fancied myself working for.

Here's one sign:

Peter Stickler, vice president of human resources at Ballard Power Systems Inc. sold 19,180 shares at prices ranging from US$4.90 to US$5 on Dec. 13 and Dec. 14, 2007. His total company holdings after these transactions was 115,440 shares.

And another (with a particularly morose headline and picture):
Ballard -- the Canadian fuel-cell company that once hoped to be the "Intel Inside of the hydrogen car revolution -- has sold off its automotive fuel-cell business to Daimler and Ford.

[Analyst]: [Ballard] would never contemplate such as move if it thought it had any chance of making good on the millions it has poured into that research -- and the vast financing it has been able to raise with promises of the hydrogen highway, a route to the future that has never materialized, but seduced investors with visions of cars that spewed only water from their tailpipes.

The above article takes much of its content from here, BTW.

From the horse's mouth:
Ballard Power Systems (TSX: BLD)(NASDAQ: BLDP) today announced that it has agreed to sell the company's automotive fuel cell assets to Daimler AG and Ford Motor Company. Payment for these assets will consist of all 34.3 million Ballard shares held by Daimler and Ford. These shares will then be cancelled. Ballard expects to record an estimated gain on the transaction of $95-to-$105 million.

"This transaction will enable Ballard to concentrate on growth in fuel cell applications which provide clean energy solutions in commercial markets," said John Sheridan, Ballard's President and CEO. "It also lowers Ballard's risk profile by addressing the realities of the high cost and long timeline for automotive fuel cell commercialization. At the same time, a new private company will be established and will be positioned for success in automotive fuel cell technology over the longer term, with management and funding provided by Daimler and Ford."

So what does it all mean? I have two perspectives on the matter...

If this does, in fact, point to hydrogen's eventual demise as an automotive fuel, so be it. If you know me then you know I love the idea of hydrogen and I feel like it is a viable option. A lot of my optimism is simply a general belief in scientific progress and an overall "never say never" sentiment. I know there are problems with a massive hydrogen economy/infrastructure as it stands; if you follow the industry at all, you'll know this. But the storage problems are, in my opinion, minute and easy to overcome. The hydrogen production problem is the big one but even that has some promising technology .

Regardless, if hydrogen is not meant to be, I'm not going to be the lone voice screaming against all reason for the fuel to be adopted simply because I like it and think it is neat. I'm seeing a lot of this going on with ethanol and I refuse to be counter-productive in the search for sustainable transportation simply because my pet technology didn't work out.

Enough said on that.

The sad part - i.e. my second perspective on this news - is the death of an icon representing something very important to me. Ballad Power Systems was the second company I attributed to clean energy and sustainable vehicles. The first was GM. In fact, GM was the whole reason I started pursuing this industry as a career. It was a Wired article about their fuel cell technology that made me perk up, get my crap together, and go to school (no joke). As I learned more about the technology and what kind of promise it held, Ballard ousted GM as my dream company for employment (after GM declined my generous offer to move out to Detroit and help them pursue green technologies... also no joke. Apparently they have my resume on file). I imagined myself living in Vancouver, making a name for myself in the transportation world. It was a perfect dream but, of course, just that... a dream.

It turns out, all of that dreaming actually lead somewhere. I'm in school with a goal in sight, I'm building valuable contacts in the field, and I'm working hands-on with chemistry that might just be the hydrogen storage silver bullet (there's that bright and shiny optimism). The loss of my "corporate role-model" certainly doesn't indicate the end of the road for my quest but it is symbolic. Ballard's name comes up in almost every hydrogen fuel cell story simply because they build the best fuel cell available right now. The were THE name in fuel cells and, for a while, represented a pretty solid investment.

BLDP Ballard Power Systems stock price
So is this the "end of the road for hydrogen?" Will Ballard Power's symbolic loss of their automotive sector really lead to the demise of this technology? It's a bad sign but, really, who can say? All it really means is that hydrogen will not be profitable in the very near future and Ballard, certainly a company that has shouldered huge financial burdens to try to make this technology come to fruition, needs a break. I will add, however, that having a buyer (Daimler Chrysler...not expected) ready and able to step up and take over the technology is a good thing. Ballard will continue to develop fuel cells but in a different sector (hopefully a profitable one). Who knows, maybe this is exactly what hydrogen technology needs. Ballard can concentrate on different markets and leave the automotive stuff to an automotive company. Win-win? I guess we'll see :)

As for me, I'll have a little moment of silence for the company that symbolized progress and altruism despite obstacles but I will also revisit the big picture reason why I'm pursuing what I'm pursuing.

1) I'm for safe, clean, scalable, and sustainable transportation for the most people possible.

2) I'm not a cheerleader for anything except the greenest, most feasible technology available.

3) It will be hard but not impossible for us to achieve a long-term, valid replacement for petroleum.

I wish great karma and financial success for all the people involved with Ballard Power Systems. Thank you for my meaningful brand experience...


Anonymous said...

i'll be perfectly honest.. i got a liiittle misty at the end of that posting :(


Josh C said...

Never took you for the sappy type!