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BMW's Brand on the Line

by Roger Lanctot | Jul 30, 2018

A colleague of mine questions why I drive, or rather why I own, a BMW. I own a BMW because the company and the brand stand at the crossroads of connected and disconnected cars. BMW's brand bears Porsche panache infused with OnStar safety and security.

I drive BMW because it delivers performance and high-tech credibility in a single package. BMW has long embraced the concept of connectivity and has been laboring for the past decade to translate connectivity into a new kind of driving experience ultimately capable of autonomy.

This pursuit of autonomous driving means leveraging connectivity for sensor data collection and aggregation and map and other forms of software updating. But sometimes the brand promise comes undone when the blocking and tackling of basic connectivity protocols are not observed.

By connecting cars companies like BMW are creating an opportunity to connect with consumers like never before. But there is something contradictory about connecting cars. In a world of ubiquitous surveillance and privacy violations, the car offers an emotional payload of escape, freedom and refuge from prying eyes and preying marketers.

Car companies know this, which is why car companies have been and continue to be ambivalent about connecting cars. It isn't just the expense of connecting cars - which is considerable - it is the violation of a sacred trust: "When I am alone in my car I am truly alone and I will be left alone."

It is hardly a surprise that radio endures as a dominant source of content in cars given the fact that listening to the radio remains a largely confidential, anonymous activity. While smart TV's may be snooping and smartphones may be tracking, smart cars are often off the grid with wireless modules that haven't been activated (or for which the service has expired).

But BMW long ago embraced connectivity in the form of Teleservices and BMW Assist. Teleservices is for vehicle diagnostic data collection and service scheduling. BMW Assist is for roadside assistance and automatic crash notification. These two services, like their precursor at General Motors, OnStar, are intended to provide piece of mind.

More importantly, these services are intended to reinforce and redefine the brand promise of BMW: The Ultimate Driving Experience. Now, the ultimate driving experience is connected.

Connectivity is important these days because of the need for over-the-air software and map updates, twin solutions still in the process of being deployed across the industry. But connectivity is important for old school OnStar reasons as well: When a car breaks down, a car maker will want to be there to assist.

Herein lies another conundrum for car makers. The value of the car connection is far greater for the car maker than it is for the customer. When a car breaks down, which is a rare occurrence for any brand, it is a low point of customer satisfaction and a high point of customer defection. A car maker (and its dealer network) will want to be aware of the breakdown and will want to respond in a timely and pleasing manner to preserve the customer relationship.

This means that connectivity is essential for customer retention. By some estimates it is 5-7x more expensive to acquire a customer than it is to retain a customer. GM estimates that 1% of customer retention is worth $700M. That's 700M reasons the car maker shouldn't make the customer pay for the vehicle connection.

I do pay for my vehicle connection. I pay about $200 a year for BMW Assist. So, when my trusty 2014 328i died in the middle of a Washington, DC, intersection last Thursday evening around midnight, that connected brand proposition came to mind.

At that moment, the value of the BMW brand comes down to the push of a button.

Following that button push, the interaction with BMW roadside assistance, a service which is provided to BMW by Allstate, was disappointing.

  • The initial recorded outbound message advised me to call 911 if I was in a life-threatening situation
  • The responding agent asked me for my location
  • The responding agent did not appear to have any knowledge of my vehicle's condition
  • The agent required me to terminate the call so she could call for assistance - in my case police and a flatbed

In my ideal world of connected cars the operator answering the call would:

  • Know my location from data transmitted after the button push
  • Know the condition of my car from diagnostic data transmitted after the button push
  • Would have already begun the process of responding
  • Would handle the summoning of fire, police or ambulance services for me

The only positive thing I can say is that once the flatbed arrived - nearly an hour after my first button push - my faith in BMW was restored by the service provider (Able Towing) and, eventually, the dealer (all corrective measures covered under warranty). But shortly after midnight, stuck in an intersection in Washington, DC, unable to put my car into neutral it was BMW's brand that was stuck in reverse.

Connecting cars is all about retaining customers. Car companies shouldn't charge for this service. But if they do charge, the resulting service ought to be comprehensive and intuitive. BMW Assist was none of these things - which is not good. Although it does charge, OnStar remains the gold standard for safety, security and retention. BMW will do well to pay closer attention to this industry benchmark.

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