Auto-Mobile: The potential of smart dashboards and connected cars for advertisers

Las Vegas is an exciting place at the best of times, but as it played host to CES earlier this month, much of this excitement centred around newly formed alliances between tech giants and automakers and their advancements in in-car operating systems, leading many, including GroupM’s Irwin Gotlieb, to proffer that ‘the car is likely to become your most powerful mobile device”. But what does this mean for the ad industry, and what new opportunities could it represent?

Connect Car

Jason Harrison of global media agency Maxus explains that automakers’ efforts in onboard entertainment systems were particularly interesting this year. It is an area that the worldwide chief information officer says offers lots of opportunity for brands, “due to the nature of the audience in being both captive and mobile”. Some of the highlights from CES included Google using the platform to announce its Open Auto Alliance (OAA), a hook-up with Audi, GM, Honda and Hyundai which would bring its Android operating system to the dashboard of each of these marques, while Apple revealed it has been fraternising with both BMW and Mercedes to bring its iOS into the car.

Technology integrations Automakers were meanwhile showing off their latest in in-car connectivity, such as Audi’s subscription-based 4G LTE connection which provides the data flow to feed its onboard entertainment and info apps.

Harrison explains: “For brands hoping to take advantage of the new car tech ecosystem, there will be many options. Location-based retailers, quick service restaurants and any brand with a reason to make a product or service recommendation based on physical location would be able to do so, in context, via integration with onboard navigation and entertainment systems.

“If a car does indeed become the next critical mobile device, advertisers would – in theory – have the same branding opportunities as currently available via mobile devices. I predict technology integrations and a host of content partnerships.

“Entertainment companies in particular might find an entirely new distribution channel for streaming programming that appeals to kids; as the father of a five year- old, I can vouch for the fact that having an episode of a much-loved show continue streaming from Wi-Fi to iPad after we leave the garage would go a long way toward maintaining a placid in-car environment.”

MEC UK head of mobile Jide Sobo is similarly receptive to the tech giants bringing their familiar Android and iOS ecosystems into the car, saying that as more devices are being added to the internet of things, smart dashboards from Google and Apple are a welcome addition.

He explains: “This offers enormous opportunities for marketers as all of these connected devices create digital signals that offer a much deeper insight into their owner’s context. If we can interpret these signals then we can deliver marketing experiences that are truly relevant to the consumer, and that can deliver real value.

“Knowing that somebody is driving in a city that they haven’t visited before, we can serve ads that help them find shops and attractions that they might be interested in, whereas locals could be served ads for offers at their favourite coffee shop, or film times for their local cinema.”

Carat’s Lexi Brown, meanwhile, argues that the car epitomises convenience, “especially for the hard to reach, busy consumer”. Connected cars give marketers the potential to reach this notoriously difficult audience with a personalised and immersive experience, she says, adding that marketers could “offer value to the consumer by providing relevant localised updates and offers allowing for more targeted communications”.

“The connected car with multiple screens will also allow brands to target not only the driver but other passengers such as children. Many will be concerned with the obvious dangers of the connected car, but smarter cars will have ways to make us safer, from heads-up displays to in-car sensors that can alert drivers of dangers ahead or road conditions.”

OMD head of innovation Toby Gunton warns about getting too carried away by the possibilities of connected cars just yet, pointing out that there will likely be safety issues around building apps for cars. With the OAA saying that it is working with the National Highway Safety Agency in the US, and that the approach is about making sure that mobile services are accessed in a way that doesn’t distract from the road, “traditional marketing isn’t likely to have just found another channel for disruptive ad formats,” he says.

Gunton also acknowledges that cars have “captive audiences with long dwell times, so there’s no doubt this offers new opportunities for marketing”. And it seems likely, he says, that this will involve brands adding a layer of experience to journeys, “so whether that’s providing seamless integration of utility or entertainment, it will ultimately be about how brands can augment the experience of driving”.

Carl Uminski of Somo calls the smart dashboard “another great leap forward in Google’s overall connected strategy” following the early success of Google Glass. “Utilising the power and diversity of the Android OS, Glass has been an early prototype success and now, moving into the next big connected opportunity, the car, is an obvious move for Google,” he says. “As an over-the-top application provider, Google is well placed to bring a new wave of opportunities for developers and advertisers.”

Teaming with Audi, GM, Honda and Hyundai is exactly what’s needed in order to scale quickly, says the Somo co-founder, adding that he expects the alliance and the standards to enable applications on all operating systems, including Apple’s iOS. “Google has already been powering in-car media systems with Street View and Places of Interest (POI) for a number of years,” he says, “therefore it can apply this usage data to bring more personalised options to drivers and passengers alike.”

Maxus’ Harrison points to what could prove a pot hole on the seemingly smooth road to car tech future, outlining that many of the automakers on show at CES insist on maintaining their own proprietary applications for in-car entertainment. “Most have developed proprietary ecosystems that enable owners to port their own music into the car’s entertainment system via proprietary hardware interface,” he says, “but accessing that content takes place via the automakers’ proprietary apps.”

He goes on to explain that this is fine in theory, “as long as that content exists in a place those systems can access,” such as an iTunes library on an iPhone. That isn’t always the case, however.

“The only automakers whose in-car tech currently integrates with Spotify are Volvo and Ford. Ford’s Sync AppLink was well ahead of the curve when it launched in 2007, and remains, in my view, the most sophisticated of the major automakers’ in-car tech systems – certainly the closest to open architecture we saw at CES. It’s little wonder that Ford declined to join the OAA. I’d say they’re holding out for Sync to compete with OAA for standard supremacy, at least for now.”

Having to integrate to individual automakers’ proprietary ecosystem could prove a big issue for brands looking to take advantage of opportunities offered by enhanced on-board entertainment systems. Harrison leaves us with the thought that, if the industry can embrace a more open architecture, “ad delivery into this very desirable new audience would be greatly simplified and considerably more scalable”.

This feature was first run within The Drum Magazine 22 January edition.

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