With yesterday's fourth birthday of the iPhone, and about three years into the app phenomenon, it is a good time to see what lessons brands may have learned after so many of their branded apps crashed and burned. Thankfully, we aren't getting that same rush of pointless apps constructed at high cost mainly to satisfy the egos of executives.
There are so many things that are so obvious now about the format -- but weren't obvious even three years ago. While discoverability of apps quickly became the big early challenge (which also became a money sink for a lot of advertisers) durability was really the problem. So few marketers seemed to understand that an app turns a brand into a publisher. Some early winners at the form, like Kraft, understood that without a real plan for refreshing content and satisfying users over the long haul, a brand apps was just another disposable tchotchke.
A good example of a branded app that demonstrates the lessons learned from those first generations is the My Beauty Advisor app from P&G. North America Olay Brand Manager Jamal Muashsher tells me that P&G scoped the landscape of apps and focused on the core need in the market. "Women continue to tell us they need guidance to decide which beauty products to use -- and how to use them to get the look they want," says Muashsher.
The most successful part of the app involves piling on the content that gets the user there. The app uses a magazine motif that I expect many devotees of the beauty mags will appreciate. In fact, P&G has partnered with women's content providers to create an attractive splash page of thumbnails and headlines. New issues come out almost monthly, giving the app a regular schedule of content refreshes and a way to float itself back to the user's attention.
To be sure, all roads lead to a P&G-filled product catalog. You can use voice, bar code scan or search to find products, descriptions and reviews to compile a "beauty bag" of items to check out later. Among the strongest pieces of content here is a consultation tool that walks the user through questions about hair and makeup to provide product recommendations. Jonathan Glanz of Densebrain, which partnered on the app, puts it this way: "An app with a single message of providing marketing information or a concept that only drive product information throws a red flag up for consumers. What My Beauty App does differently is, it brings together several authoritative perspectives -- including bloggers and leading magazines -- and allows the consumer to choose the content she wants to interact with based on how relevant it is to her needs."
While obviously P&G is trying to sell its wares, the depth and utility of the content is often admirables The user reviews appear to be uncensored, for instance, with actual horror stories included. For example, one woman complains that Nice 'n Easy turned her hair green. Kudos to P&G for leaving the customer voices alone and taking the heat.
Which is not to say that the content piece has melded well with the utility piece. Functionally, My Beauty Advisor needs some work. There is a barcode scanner that seems to deliver scan "errors" when you try to add product into the Beauty Bag, but I can't tell if it just doesn't like non-P&G products. Instructions are badly needed throughout. The Beauty Bag, which is supposed to hold products for later perusal, doesn't say how you actually add products to it. It took me a few stabs at the catalog to get an on-screen prompt telling me to drag the object into the Beauty Bag tab.
To the app's credit, though, it provides clear value without users having to figure out its utility side. In fact, it excels best as a content play that positions the P&G brands as information resources. The app give the user the option at the opening screen to choose the experience: browse products, get advice or just read a magazine. It will be interesting to see whether this open approach offering multiple app experiences works over time, or if P&G will learn from usage metrics exactly what most women want to do with such an app.
Muashsher says that P&G will be promoting the app across the major brands with heavy emphasis on digital channels: social, search, mobile. It is interesting that P&B Beauty is bringing its many brands under the umbrella of this app that leads with content rather than a mess of individual product apps. Some aspects of My Beauty Advisor suggest a positive evolution in the ways in which marketers are conceptualizing an app and taking on the role of publisher, not just pitchman.