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Coca-Cola Hails a Ride as Madison Avenue Works to Crack In-Car Advertising

Coca-Cola is joining the ranks of advertisers hoping to connect to consumers while they are on the road.

In decades past, that might not have been possible. A potential customer would not remain one, after all, if he or she were behind the wheel and contemplating a commercial pitch rather than the highway ahead of them. In 2018, however, more consumers aren’t hopping behind the wheel; instead, they are hailing rides via apps like Lyft or Uber. And there are expectations that U.S. consumers will opt more heavily for ride-sharing or self-driving vehicles between 2020 and 2040, according to Loup Ventures, a venture-capital firm that studies emerging technologies.

“People are spending more and more time in their cars and in ride-sharing vehicles, and we want to be there,” says John Carroll, vice president and general manager of e-commerce for Coca-Cola, in an interview.  “We look at this as a first step.”

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Coca-Cola has struck a partnership with Cargo, a company that specializes in selling products in rideshare cars. In Atlanta, the home of Coke’s corporate headquarters, rideshare drivers will be able to offer Coke’s smartwater along with other goods like Sour Patch Kids or phone chargers to passengers.  Passengers can order the products in the car through Cargo’s digital menu on their smartphone, entering their driver’s box code; selecting a product, and hitting a button. The driver can dispense products once the car comes to a stop.

“There’s this sort of third space emerging in rideshare vehicles. It’s not home. It’s not work. It’s something in between,” says Jeffrey Cripe, Cargo’s founder. “Consumers are spending so much more time here and we think they should expect more productivity and comfort.

Many automakers and other advertisers have been working to crack open the automobile and make it a haven for new kinds of commerce. The theory is that new developments in auto technology will leave consumers with a lot more time on their hands. “Perhaps in a couple of years the windshield in our car will be the new TV screen,” Lyle Schwartz, president of investment for North America at WPP’s influential GroupM ad-buying unit told Variety last year. “We will be able to figure out what movie we are going to see next, or what hotel we want to go to, or what trip we want to take next while we are on the Long Island Expressway.”

General Motors in late 2017 introduced a new in-car app that allows drivers to order food from Applebees or Dunkin Donuts, or find a Shell gas station. Ford Motor has figured out a way to allow drivers to order Starbucks coffee using Amazon’s Alexa.

Reaching consumers through an increasingly advanced dashboard is a relatively simple feat, notes Subodha Kumar, a professor of supply chain, marketing, information systems and statistical science at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “Most of the new cars have enough capabilities to store and transmit and receive data, as well as partially communicate with each other,” he notes. “In-car advertising can be much more powerful and accurate than any other mode because it not only knows the accurate location, but it also mostly knows the intended destination through GPS or other method.  Advertisers may even use information about the car driver and vehicle location to offer ads that are much more tailored and personalized, he suggests.

With ease of access, however, comes risk of annoyance. “You have to be cautious about invading someone’s space, “says Kim Saxton, an associate professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “It’s going to have to be short, action-directed, and will be much more effective if it’s location-based.”

As cars start to drive themselves, it’s clear marketers sees a captive audience riding inside. “Cars aren’t really going to be cars. They are just going to be mobile space,” explains Cripe.  “The experience of a passenger is going to be completely reinvented.”

If that’s the case, hitting the open road in the not-too-distant future might just mean running smack dab into Madison Avenue.

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