NEW YORK -- For years, OnStar has told consumers it would be the first to connect them with emergency services or police in case of a car accident or theft.
Now, with the help of a new ad campaign, it wants to convince consumers it's also there to connect them with friends on social networks.
The General Motors-backed brand is attempting to redefine the meaning of in-car communications: It's now beta-testing voice-texting features, as well as audio Facebook updates that would let OnStar subscribers verbally update their Facebook status or listen to recent news feed messages through the OnStar Virtual Advisor service.
OnStar has for some time been building out new services. Through a partnership with Google Maps, drivers can send a destination to their vehicles and retrieve directions by the push of the OnStar button.
"You wouldn't need a portable device like a Garmin or Tom-Tom, or even a factory-installed device, you can do it OnStar," said Sam Mancuso, who has held several marketing posts at GM and now serves as general director of OnStar Marketing.
Its subscription model is getting some tweaks too. Some services, such as a mobile app, will be a free enhancement for subscribers who use a Droid or iPhone.
Longtime ad agency Campbell-Ewald -- led by their newly promoted Chief Creative Officer Mark Simon -- was behind a new push to reposition the OnStar brand as more upbeat and innovative. The new work, which begins rolling out this week, carries the theme of "Safely connecting you in ways you never thought possible" and shows young people in coffee shops connecting with their OnStar service from their mobile phones.
With the support of CEO Dan Akerson and Chairman Ed Whitacre -- both execs have wireless industry roots -- it appears the automaker will increasingly be leaning on OnStar as a selling point for its four remaining car divisions, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC.
Earlier today, Akerson told reporters in Detroit that Onstar will go beyond its roots in safety to interactivity and social media.
"It used to be kind of the automotive version of 'I've fallen and I can't get up,' " he said.
More ad dollars
The effort means more ad dollars supporting the brand. According to the Advertising Age data center, GM spent $37.4 million on media for the OnStar brand in 2009, down from $95 million in 2008. That's still more than triple what rival Ford Motors devoted to its in-car communications system last year; it spent $10.7 million in media in 2009, down from $38 million in 2008.
Advertising Age is an affiliate of Automotive News.
Mancuso spoke to Advertising Age Wednesday about how the company plans to use technology to evolve -- and not because it needs to catch up to Ford's Sync -- to meet consumers' changing needs, and possibly take the brand beyond the automotive industry.
Advertising Age: The new campaign and services seem to be a bid to modernize OnStar. Why now?
Mancuso: I guess you could say modernize the brand, but I'd characterize it more as evolve the brand. We've always tried to sense what consumers needed and valued and developed our technologies around that. That led to automatic crash response -- because what's more important than that if you're in an accident.
Then we built on that, with things like directions, and if you don't know where you're going we can help you with your way, and things like vehicle diagnostics, for when you're driving down the road and your engine light goes on. As technology has advanced, consumers in the marketplace have greater needs and wants -- and a lot of that driven by the cellular industry and the connectivity that provides.
We're stretching the brand according to our original mission, which is keeping people connected via their vehicles. In the past, OnStar was depicted as you knew it was there and you didn't want to have to use it because that meant there was an accident or your car stolen.
You'll see in the new campaign uses of OnStar with everyday circumstances that are bright, energetic, positive and optimistic. We want to convey services that you want to use every single day that help you enable your interaction with your vehicle versus having a service you love but you don't want to have to use it.
Are you prepared for backlash from consumers who may view OnStar's moves to bring Facebook into automobiles as a safety hazard, and what will you say?
Mancuso: Today people are texting while they are driving. It's not legal and it's a very bad idea; 47 percent of people who are texting say that they have done so in their vehicle while driving. To do a normal text message takes 4.6 seconds, and at the speed of 55 miles an hour, someone can travel the length of a football field.
We know that people want to use technology, but we are working on using it in ways that they don't have to be distracted. Our goal is to minimize that distraction to virtually zero.
The litmus test we use is "Keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel and your mind on the drive." If we find that the texting service or Facebook audio update capability causes people to be distracted we're not going to do it. We'll vet those things out internally...We'd be very proud to talk to you, others in the media or family and friends and say we tested it, developed it and it's not safe.
How soon will we see Facebook integration in GM cars?
Mancuso: We'll be evaluating over next few months, but I can't give you a new date... It depends on how the testing goes and the high bar we set for it.
Is part of the plan to sync with Facebook's new geolocation feature "Places," so a driver could maybe make an audio status update on his or her way to "checking in" at a restaurant or store?
Mancuso: That is something that will need to be determined, as to what features of Facebook we bring into play. But it's all possible.
Is OnStar's rollout of new services a response to Ford Sync? And what are you doing to differentiate what GM vehicles offer from what Ford does?
Mancuso: Absolutely not. Ford Sync is a response to OnStar. Our system is embedded and theirs is not, it is dependent on someone bringing their phone in, and having it paired up with Bluetooth. If you brought your phone into the vehicle and neglected to pair it to the vehicle and you got into an accident, the system does not help you.
If you drive a car with OnStar, sensors in a vehicle automatically [know you've been in a crash]; it doesn't depend on a cell dialing out to a 911. In the 15 years we've been in business, we've responded to 150,000 automatic crash signals calling for help. I challenge anyone at Ford or anyone else to say how many they've responded to.
We have a differentiated system of being always on, with an automated system plus an adviser who is well equipped to deal with emergencies. We have delivered 60 million routes to give people directions in our history. We have delivered 150 million e-mails giving a complete diagnostic report to our customers, letting them know whether their vehicle needs an oil change. Everyone else is following, we've been doing it for years. What we're about to do with the new campaign is address how people's needs are changing.
Will we see OnStar come outside of cars at some point?
Mancuso: I would say that we are constantly exploring opportunities about how we can provide value to consumers. We have nothing to announce at this point, but everything is possible. Stay tuned.
It's interesting to imagine cars as media. Three years from now, what will OnStar mean to us? Will it be an advertising platform where other marketers might actually buy media from you?
Mancuso: Three years from now, OnStar will still stand for safety and connectivity. There are many things that are technically possible. Whether it becomes an advertising medium depends on what our customers desire and value.
Is it safe to assume your new ad push means you're making a much bigger investment in marketing OnStar, and will you be targeting consumers in new ways?
Mancuso: Historically we've been primarily in television and radio. We will have both -- and the radio will primarily be focused on our "Real Calls" campaign -- but we will also have outdoor, digital, social media and magazine and newspaper executions. In New York City we have the Reuters board in Times Square and we have newspaper ads in USA Today. You'll see an expansion of the mediums of where the message has been in the recent past. We are in relaunch mode, essentially, so spending is significant, but I won't divulge how much. But you will see our ads.
Peter Brown of Automotive News contributed to this report