27 Mar 2013

“Hi VW. I’m in traffic and my ‘Smileage’ is zero.”

It’s Monday morning and you’re stuck in traffic, inching forward at a snail’s pace and cursing the imbecile with the flat tyre who has brought an entire lane of cars to a halt.

Now imagine there was an app called Smileage that could turn this experience into a happy one. It allows you to tag passengers, share photos, virtually ‘punch’ other cars, and lets friends keep track of your journey. When you reach your destination, it calculates your “smileage” – a happiness quotient that takes into the account distance traveled, weather and social interactions.

You’re still stuck in traffic, but suddenly it’s fun because you’re social networking, and you have a way of measuring your feelings.

Smileage is the first cab off the rank in Google’s Art, Copy & Code project, and for this reason alone it’s worth watching this introductory video.

Created by Volkswagen, Google and agency Deutsch, LA, it was inspired by the insight that millions of Americans spend a lot of time alone in their cars. Why not create an app that makes boring car rides more sociable?

As Winston Binch, chief digital officer at Deutsch, explained: “Automotive manufacturers can’t just be in the business of manufacturing cars, they have to be part of the whole experience of travelling.”

Strategically, Smileage works happily with Volkswagen’s ‘Get in. Get happy’ campaign.

But do we need an app to tell us how we feel?


There are a few reasons ‘Smileage’ is a worthy conversation starter.

Most interesting is its association with Google’s Art, Copy & Code, a series of experiments to “re-imagine advertising”, which launched in March 2013.

Art, Copy & Code is about “connecting the real world to the web, telling more personal stories with data, and using this stuff to make our lives easier, and more fun”.

Smileage is also interesting as an example of branded mobile utility – an area that a lot of brands are dabbling in with varying results.

Strategically, Smileage builds on Volkswagen’s ownership of ‘fun’, which began in 2009 with ‘The Fun Theory’, followed by ‘It’s not the miles. It’s how you live them’ in 2012, and ‘Get in. Get happy’ in 2013.

So how does ‘Smileage’ perform in these three areas?

As the first experiment to kick off Art, Copy & Code, it’s a little underwhelming.

For one thing, social networking while driving is dangerous and in many countries, illegal. (The app features two modes, ‘passive’ and ‘active’, to limit driver distraction, but it still seems a bit strange contextually).

For another, Smileage ignores the fact that many car rides are spoiled by heavy traffic, breakdowns, road rage, screaming children or inclement weather. In these conditions a helicopter would be helpful, not a ‘smileage quotient’.

It’s not fair passing judgment on an app that hasn’t yet launched, and I reserve the right to change my mind when it does. (Volkswagen unveiled ‘Smileage’ at SXSW in March, but to find out when it officially launches you’ll have to sign up here)

Still, Smileage doesn’t feel like an app that’s going to change the world. There are positives: the app can be used by anyone, it will help VW target Millennials, and it shows Volkswagen is now in the business of manufacturing experiences, not just cars.

But as an example of branded mobile utility, it just doesn’t feel very useful.

Smileage is interesting when considered as part of Volkswagen’s global storytelling strategy, which plays out on all kinds of platforms in all kinds of places.

Volkswagen is not the only brand to stake its claim on fun and happiness, but it’s one of the leaders in this area. In 2009 its ‘Theory of Fun’ made commuters in a Swedish subway station smile by installing a musical staircase, an idea that went viral.

This year’s Superbowl commercial featuring a white man with a Jamaican accent is hilarious, despite its racial stereotyping.

Volkswagen is a brand that knows how to entertain. Remember ‘The Force’, starring a pint-sized Darth Vader? AdWeek selected ‘The Force’ as its #1 commercial of 2011, describing it as a “triumph of fun, unadorned storytelling’.

But Volkswagen knows it has to do more than entertain. In a transmedia world, telling stories isn’t enough – technology can be used to facilitate experiences, too.

And that’s where Smileage gets interesting. As a standalone app, it promises happier driving experiences, but more importantly it shows that Volkswagen is a brand that’s willing to experiment with its storytelling, with technology, with mobile applications and web services.

Volkswagen has some hits and misses. Some campaigns work better than others, but overall it is a brand that is using technology and mobile platforms in interesting ways, moving from being brand-focused to becoming experienced-focused.


Time will tell if Smileage is the game-changer that Volkswagen and Google claim it is, but as a component of Volkswagen’s ‘Get in. Get happy’ campaign, it’s kind of cute.

  • I give this 3 stars. 



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