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CEOs Barra, Rometty Rejuvenate Tech Brands by Partnering Them

When it comes to two of their oldest tech brands—OnStar and Watson—both General Motors CEO Mary Barra and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty face the challenge of optimizing platforms that haven’t been delivering the results they could.

And in the way they are reinterpreting and redeploying their respective technologies together, the CEOs may be sharing a road map for how other chiefs can revive their own brands in a digital era where new becomes old more quickly than ever before.

Both GM and IBM recently announced that they’re pairing OnStar, the original in-vehicle connectivity brand, with the Watson artificial-intelligence system to create a new opt-in platform called OnStar Go. The goal is to use data generated by the vehicle to create a customized stream of insights and suggestions—many of them offered by OnStar brand partners such as retailers—to the driver about what to do next.

“OnStar Go will “create experiences that allow drivers and passengers to achieve greater levels of efficiency and safety.”

OnStar Go will “create experiences that allow drivers and passengers to achieve greater levels of efficiency and safety,” the companies’ press release said, including “avoiding traffic when you’re low on fuel, then activating a fuel pump and paying from the dash; ordering a cup of coffee on the go; or getting news and in-vehicle entertainment tailored to your personality and location in real time.”

But for the companies and their CEOs, OnStar Go is about freshening tech brands in which they’ve invested heavily. In the fast-moving digital-tech world, a five-year-old brand like Watson is a codger. And OnStar, a 21-year-old platform, might as well be a centenarian.

How the paired technology will work
After several years of OnStar being talked down because rivals such as Ford’s Sync system brought smartphone connectivity into the vehicle, Barra wanted OnStar to continue a resurgence of relevance for the hard-wired connection to the car that GM has always touted with OnStar. Watson provided a means to do so.

OnStar Go will use “the power of Watson to understand [the] consumer and make sure what we’re putting in front of them is timely and relevant,” Barra told the Wall Street Journal. Added Rometty, “This is the first one of its kind, a pervasive platform that has to do with making your life more enjoyable, safe and convenient in your car.”

Since Watson famously entered the scene in 2011 when it beat two human champions on Jeopardy!, IBM has used the AI brand in a variety of ways. But now, it’s relying on Watson for what Financial Times called an “outsized role” in the company’s growth prospects, particularly with much of the company’s traditional business shrinking.

Watson increasingly will be used in healthcare, for example, such as in IBM’s new relationship with Quest Diagnostics, in which Watson will help analyze the results of genetic sequencing of tumor samples in cancer patients. In that case, IBM increasingly is breaking down the Watson brand and capabilities into different components, each of which can be rented to solve a particular business problem, the Times said.

Similarly, Barra has welcomed a more dynamic path for OnStar as it competes with other automakers’ newer connectivity brands. She used OnStar to pioneer GM’s installation of the fastest connectivity speed, 4G-LTE, on millions of GM vehicles beginning last year, way ahead of rivals.

And now, with the introduction of OnStar Go, GM is trying to leverage data and features that relate specifically to the vehicle to which OnStar is hard-wired. That is something that can’t be replicated by third-party connectivity providers such as Apple’s CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto. This includes information on owners, as well as on real-time vehicle particulars such as fuel levels, tire pressure, the number of passengers and—of course—location.

Together, the CEOs are forcing evolution of OnStar and Watson in new and promising directions, in part so that they avoid the fate of other once-promising digital brands.

Remember Vine, for instance? Twitter bought the app for six-second videos a few years ago and just shuttered it. And Twitter itself is in rough shape.

By directing that new life be put into the venerable Watson and OnStar brands, Rometty and Barra are smartly making the most of brand equity in a digital space that can be very fleeting over time, even as it seems to be smashing in the beginning.


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