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Can You Get Your Brand Into GM's In-Car Marketing System? (Yes)

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OnStar Go, the auto industry's first 'cognitive mobility platform.'
 OnStar Go, the auto industry's first 'cognitive mobility platform.' Credit: General Motors
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In-car advertising is about to take a leap forward as General Motors and IBM roll out a new system to deliver personalized brand messages to drivers inside GM vehicles, using location and vehicle data.

The system -- which was announced Wednesday -- combines IBM Watson's cognitive abilities with GM's OnStar service, which provides services like navigation and vehicle maintenance assistance. GM is targeting brands in retail, fuel, hospitality, media and entertainment, restaurants and travel. ExxonMobil, Glympse, iHeartRadio, Mastercard and Parkopedia are the first brands to join the program, according to GM. Here is a closer look at what the initiative might mean for advertising and marketing:

How big of a deal is this?
Up until now, ads targeting drivers have been concentrated in one-way, mass channels, like radio or billboards, said Joanna Pena Bickley, global chief creative officer for IBM's interactive experience. The new "OnStar Go" system is that "transformative moment where we go from mass communication to individualized experiences."

But don't Apple and Google offer car infotainment systems?
They do, via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which translate smartphone apps to in-car display units. But advertising is limited. "Android Auto does not offer advertising opportunities for brands. The priority is providing a seamless and integrated connected car experience," said a Google spokeswoman. And not all smartphone apps are available. Apple CarPlay, for instance, makes audio and messaging apps available -- but not Facebook or Twitter. So you won't see sponsored tweets or posts while driving, at least not on the in-car display.

Is GM's system pay-to-play for outside brands?
Yes. Advertisers will pay an undisclosed fee and revenue will be shared by GM and IBM. GM and IBM want to lure as many brands as possible, so they are not offering category exclusivity. The goal is to create "an open marketplace where brands can compete with each other," said Joanna Pena Bickley, global chief creative officer for IBM's interactive experience. "We don't want any one brand to come in here and say this is how it is supposed to be."

Won't this cause driver distraction?
Mark Lloyd, GM's consumer online officer, said that "GM is very conservative around what we put on the dash. We take things through quite a bit of testing," adding that the goal is to build "simple interactions." GM is also exploring incorporating detailed voice commands, although that will not be available immediately.

What kind of data will come directly from the car?
"The number one thing is location," Mr. Lloyd said. "Number two is how many people are in [the car] and you can tell that through various sensors." Other examples include fuel level. Data contributed by IBM includes weather information that comes via its acquisition of the Weather Company, which closed in January. So the in-car system could recommend retailers or CPG brand purchases based on the weather, Ms. Pena Bickley said.