Driving is about to get a lot more social with the upcoming release of Volkswagen Smileage, a new app powered by Google.
The app, which will be released in beta this spring before its official launch in early summer, is the first product born out of Art, Copy & Code, Google’s latest foray into reimagining advertising.
Last year’s advertising initiative, Project Re: Brief, had Google mining the past, working with the creative minds behind some of the most iconic ads from decades ago, including Coca-Cola’s "Hilltop" and Avis’s "We Try Harder," to create new iterations of the work.
Through this year’s Art, Copy & Code, Google remains in the present, teaming not only Volkswagen but also Adidas and Burberry to create products using Google tools like Chrome, Google+, and Android, which support the goals of current advertising campaigns. "We wanted to get much closer to the work and challenges that our brand partners face on a day-to-day basis," explains Google project lead Aman Govil. "So we’re working with new briefs and current projects and really partnering with them from the start of the process."
In the case of Volkswagen (the projects for Adidas and Burberry are not far enough along to be discussed at this point), the decision was made to build a product based on a Deutsch LA-created campaign launched last fall with the tagline, "It’s not the miles, it’s how you live them."
With that tagline in mind, members of the Google, Volkswagen, Deutsch LA, and Grow Interactive teams gathered at Google in Mountain View last November to collectively develop the app that would become Smileage.
Deutsch LA is a famously tech-savvy agency, with an in-house staff of creative technologists. But Deutsch LA partner and chief digital officer Winston Binch couldn’t pass up the chance to collaborate with Google. "Everyone knew about Project Re: Brief last year, and of particular interest to me was the work they did with Coke—the interactive vending machine. I just thought that was really innovative," Binch says, "and I think the industry is still in much need of productized marketing inventions that really push brands and advertising more into the service space because more and more we’re competing with Silicon Valley and startups."
Out of those Mountain View brainstorming sessions—and months of further development—came Smileage. Essentially, the app, which will be free, connects to your car and seamlessly records details of road trips—everything from the route taken to the average speed driven. This information can be shared via the app’s underlying social network Google+, allowing friends to follow your drive in real time. Photos and comments can be added along the journey by the driver as well as passengers, and drivers are rewarded at the end of trips with data visualizations indicating the amount of fun had and digital bumper stickers for various achievements. Adding to the amusement is a digital version of the classic car game Punch Buggy—drivers will get smacked with digital punches whenever they pass Volkswagens on the road.
This app is by no means a utility, Binch acknowledges. Users aren’t going to be able to search Smileage for the best routes to avoid construction, for example. Rather, it’s all about good times and will likely be used to share the details of weekend excursions and longer road trips with friends. "It’s the first social app to maximize fun on the road," says Binch, noting, "We wanted to make the app usable and fun for passive use so you don’t have to work hard to do it."
Smileage is available for all drivers, by the way, whether or not they drive Volkswagens.
Deutsch LA has long-term plans for the app. "We’re moving from a launch and leave mentality to launch and iterate," Binch says. "What I’m excited about is what this will look like next year and what it will look like beyond. We want to cocreate with our drivers, and this is the kind of platform that will allow for a lot of innovation."
Google Creative Lab executive creative director Iain Tait is hoping that other agencies and brands will look at the Volkswagen app—as well as the Adidas and Burberry projects that will emerge from Art, Copy & Code this year—and be inspired to take advantage of Google’s suite of tools. "Although Google is involved in helping these agencies figure out how to do these things, anybody out there can do it themselves. You don’t have to be involved and engaged with Google to do these things. There isn’t any sort of special access," Tait says. "Having been on the agency side [Tait joined Google last year from Wieden+Kennedy], you suspect that if you can get really close to someone at Google, they’ll give you the key to the magic door where all the secrets are, but that’s not really the case. All of these platforms are there and ready for people to use and engage with whenever they’re ready to do that."