Beware what you ask for. The apps I have seen thus far continue to leave me wondering how earnestly marketers will embrace the concept of the branded app. As I argued in this space last month, it may be harder for brands to be of use to mobilistas than to be simply disposable but fun.
AKQA issued iPhone apps for two retail clients last week, to which they apply the dubious mobile moniker "utilitainment." My tongue hurts just thinking about saying that word. The Gap app repurposes some fun online celebrity videos ("Merry Mixes") that are nice enough to drive by and share online but not quite deserving of an app download. It extends the theme with a "Mix Not Match" device that uses a dress-up doll approach to mixing Gap scarves, hats and such for him or her. The problem here is that the gift list you create goes nowhere -- not to your email box to a store location, or even a price. I am mixed up.
The Target app is more entertaining but also limited in the payoff. A snow globe interface lets you set the age and gender of a gift recipient, while shaking the iPhone brings up a short series of suggested items with prices. A favorites list and links to store locators and online order actually complete the loop in a way the Gap app did not. This one comes closer to "utilitainment" -- but it has such a limited catalog that my father (25 years older) and I apparently like the same things. In an app like this, less is not more. Make good on the promise with a deeper catalog.
Two Universal Music apps from EpicTilt games leave me puzzled. Both programs are artist-specific (Akon and L'il Wayne) and they take the interesting approach of charging a nominal 99-cent fee for the download. I gather that charging for an ad is meant to convey a sense of value to the app, but my natural response was, this better be damned good. Oddly, one is and the other isn't. The app featuring the dashing and stylish Akon is a throwaway promo piece of the baldest order. It tries to be an enhanced album cover, with samples of the songs (that wouldn't play for me), videos, discography, bio and a lot of Akon looking very cool. Where is the fan service or the interactivity, the fun or utility? This is just a Web site on my phone, right? Okay, I break my own rule. It needs to be more utilitaining.
The L'il Wayne app comes just a bit closer by letting you import a photo and apply the rapper's style and bling to yourself. The cute idea works because it lets you load the image and see the images others have created. Then you also get the requisite promotional material and links to buy via iTunes. That link to a hard transaction in both of these apps is one of the promises of branded tools on a well-integrated platform like the iPhone. But the Li'l Wayne app earns its keep with the user, while the Akon app does not.
Ironically, this new school of branding gets its best lesson from the oldest player in the schoolyard. Kraft wrote the book (several, probably) on delivering brand messages within information you can use. Anyone else recall those Kraft-sponsored TV hours punctuated by food demos? The disembodied hands made the dish, as a soothing you-can-do-this voice narrated. They were a bit cloying, but they worked by mixing sponsored content, real information, and a brand message that had value. Kraft's 99-cent iFood Assistant is just such an old-fashioned recipe file with all the newfangled digital tricks: searchable database, lush food images, video, shopping lists, direction to the nearest store. It is superb. Yes, all of the Kraft-produced items in the shopping list are prominent, but otherwise there is no hard sell, just a real tool that does not promise a utility and depth it can't deliver. Old school!