LOS ANGELES - Pawan Murthy’s work at BMW Financial Services dispels the notion that captive finance companies are full of bean counters.

As general manager-online business for the subsidiary, he oversaw the development of BMW Ultimate Drive, an industry-first social navigation platform for smartphones and Facebook.

The app allows users to locate, rate and comment on favorite driving roads. It quickly became the No.1 navigation app on iTunes.

“Hundreds of thousands of downloads later, we realized we had enthusiasts with an affinity towards BMW,” Murthy tells WardsAuto at the 2013 Automotive Social Media Summit here. “It is a unique thing for a captive to be doing. Internally, it wasn’t a hard sell because it ties into our strategy.”

That strategy focuses on using modern communication channels such as social networking to engage with customers, foster relationships and build loyalty.

“As a captive, we have underpinnings of constant communication with customers,” Murthy says. “They are thinking of the brand at least once a month when making a payment. While that is very transactional in nature, we are trying to find ways to enhance their ownership experience and keep the brand top of mind.”

Social media and app development aid that cause, he says. “We have a customer data base, touch points with customers and know a lot about them based on their financial information. The question became, 'How do you leverage the underpinnings of that community with something that is fun and top-of-mind?’”

Non-BMW owners can obtain the Ultimate Drive app for free. But a recently introduced version tries to encourage existing BMW owners to become repeat buyers.

BMW Financial Services customers can link their accounts with the app and use it to schedule dealership test drives on roads that might be near a dealership.

If people take those test drives and afterward are photographed with the vehicle, the app unlocks a voucher good for up to $700 off the first payment on a car. Photos appear on BMW Financial’s Facebook page with customer consent.

“Rarely does a captive finance company get to see the face of the customer at the point of purchase,” Murthy says.

Several BMW dealers have embedded Ultimate Drive on their Facebook pages, he says. “Part of this was for dealerships to use the app. A lot of dealers use it to put in roads they consider best for test drives.

“Obviously, some dealership locations are closer than others to great roads,” he says. “But dealers use the app to enhance the test-drive experience.”

About 70% of the app’s users are male. They tend to recommend and comment on roadways that bring out performance-driving dynamics. Roads are rated based on characteristics such as twistiness, scenery and traffic.

A future version of the app will include more scenic routes and destinations. Those additions may attract more female users, Murthy says. Demographically, the app users are ages 35 to 50, similar to the core age group of BMW buyers.

Before joining BMW Financial, Murthy owned a startup Internet company. He graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in molecular genetics. “Half of my family are scientists, and the other half are musicians.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com