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RFID Enables Personalized Billboard Displays

MINI USA, the US division of the company that manufactures the MINI COOPER automobile, this week launched an innovative marketing initiative that relies on active RFID technology. The company will install roadside billboards that display personalized messages to MINI owners passing in their cars or on foot.
Tags: Privacy
Jan 31, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

January 31, 2007—MINI USA, the U.S. division of the company that manufactures the MINI Cooper automobile, this week launched an innovative marketing initiative called MINI Motorby that relies on active RFID technology. The company will install roadside billboards that display personalized messages to MINI owners passing in their cars or on foot.

The program is opt-in, meaning that those MINI owners invited by the company to participate must fill out a web-based questionnaire covering topics from the mundane (birth date) to the quirky (the car's nickname). Respondents are then mailed a key fob that uses active RFID to communicate with the billboards, or "Motorboards", at distances of up to 500 feet. When a MINI owner with such a key fob comes within range of a Motorboard, the LED readout displays a customized, often humorous, message that might relate to the owner's profession, name, or roof design. Examples: "Nice roof graphic, Rocket!" to an owner with a car nicknamed Rocket, or "Moving at the speed of justice!" to a lawyer. "These boards feature an ever-changing array of unique, personal, playful and unexpected messages targeted to and triggered by MINI owners," reads the announcement from MINI USA. See photos here. When no key fob is within range, the Motorboards display standard MINI advertising content.

Slated for installation this past Monday, only four Motorboards are planned initially, one in each of the following locations:
  • Chicago: I-294 (North Tri-State), 0.25 mile south of Wolf Road, south of Chicago O'Hare airport (faces southbound traffic)
  • Miami: Palmetto Expressway, 25 feet north of NW 50th Street (faces northbound traffic)
  • New York: 10th Avenue & 30th Street, just before the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel (faces northbound traffic)
  • San Francisco: I-80 Skyway at 4th Street (faces eastbound traffic)
The Motorboards are all controlled by a central server, which updates the messaging hourly, but can do so on-demand if necessary.

For the RFID industry, the MINI campaign is significant because it is perhaps the highest profile deployment of RFID-enabled dynamic marketing. One of the long-expected applications for RFID is the ability for marketing signage like billboards to read information from the RFID tags of passers-by and seamlessly deliver highly personalized messages. This is also the type of application that bothers privacy advocates, who are loathe to facilitate consumerism at the expense of indiscriminately broadcasted personal data.

The MINI Motorby program will likely be insulated from accusations of carelessness about privacy because its opt-in process requires so much effort on the part of would-be participants. Furthermore, the key fobs do not contain any user data, according to the company, and the information communicated between the fobs and the Motorboards is encrypted.

What will be interesting to see is if and how MINI leverages the technology to do things beyond deliver quick, customized messages. While the company clearly deserves credit for this first-of-its-kind program, the novelty of Hi Bob!-type messages will not last forever. Creating reactions on billboards is a starting point, and at this early stage serves as validation that RFID-enabled dynamic marketing can be done. As the technology is refined and advanced over the coming years, we will likely see RFID applications designed to more profoundly impact consumer behavior.

Read the announcement from MINI USA
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