Via RFID, these billboards know you by name
Barnaby J. Feder
Each day, it seems, marketers go further in their quest to deliver messages so engaging and personalized that one cannot help feeling special.
The latest step will be seen Monday in four cities when Mini USA begins delivering custom messages to Mini Cooper owners on digital signs the company calls "talking" billboards.The boards, which usually carry typical advertising, are programmed to identify approaching Mini drivers through a coded signal from a radio chip embedded in their key fob. The messages are personal, based on questionnaires that owners filled out: "Mary, moving at the speed of justice," if Mary is a lawyer, or "Mike, the special of the day is speed," if Mike is a chef.
The experiment adds a new wrinkle to the wrangling among marketers and safety experts over whether drivers might be dangerously distracted by messages flashed on the growing number of digital billboards around the nation. Some communities have forced billboard owners to modify or turn off such signs, and the federal government has said it will soon publish a review of the research on the subject.
The enthusiastic guinea pigs for the Mini experiment will be more than a thousand Mini owners in New York, Miami, Chicago and San Francisco who have signed up for what the company calls "an ever-changing array of unique, personal, playful and unexpected messages."
In addition to employment-related comments, the signs will affirm the driver's favorite things about their car and driving habits ("Turns are made to be carved"), urge them to treat themselves to whatever customization feature is on their wish list ("You've earned your spoiler") and wish them a happy birthday on the appropriate day. Since more than a third of Mini owners have named their cars, the messages will sometimes refer to the car by name.
Mini mailed invitations to 4,500 of the 150,000 Mini owners in the country. McDowell said that Mini would monitor reaction to the test signs for about three months before deciding whether to expand to other billboards in the first four cities, to more cities or to other applications, like using the tags to display personal welcomes when drivers approach their local Mini dealership.
Fun is the last thing generally associated with the technology that is making the experiment possible--radio frequency identification, or RFID. Researchers and entrepreneurs have labored for decades to extend the practical uses of wireless tracking using radio tags.
The technology is now widely used in chips implanted in pets and livestock, in cards that control access to buildings, and in devices for automated payments of highway tolls. Major retailers and manufacturers are investing in systems to tag and follow products as they move through the supply chain.
Along the way, though, RFID supporters have run into technical and financial roadblocks for many applications, and are also contending with strong opposition from privacy advocates concerned about the potential of RFID to track motorists and pry into consumer behavior.
But Mini executives say they are confident that even RFID skeptics will take Motorby, as the trial is called, in stride.
"There's no piece of this that's invasive," said Trudy Hardy, manager of Mini's marketing department. "It's a completely voluntary program, and there is zero confidential information in the fob."
On blogs where Mini owners congregate, the questions about Motorby have tended to be less weighty. What happens if several Minis arrive at the same time? (The sign picks up the nearest car, then switches after 10 seconds.)
Can the system be hacked so that unexpected messages appear? (No more so than a digital billboard with no RFID links.)
And what happens when a Mini is under a sign and traffic is not moving? (After running through three personal messages, the sign switches back to the standard Mini advertising).The program was first suggested to Mini a year ago by Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners, a San Francisco advertising agency that wanted to intensify the already strong "tribal" feeling among Mini owners and stimulate their desire to support the brand, according to Greg Stern, a partner with the firm.
"Building evangelists is the holy grail of marketing for a number of industries," said Michael Megalli, a partner in Group 1066, a marketing strategy firm in New York. "This is interesting because the marketing is integrated into the product."
McDowell declined to say how much Mini had invested in the billboard trial but characterized it as modest.
"Marketing is like a horse race," he said. "We want to start more and more horses down the racetrack and see which ones are winning."
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