Don't Shoot The Triscuit

In all of the enthusiasm I have heard from marketers about the prospects of branded apps, one of the most measured and skeptical views I have encountered comes from the maker of the most successful example of the genre I have seen. "A lot of applications are downloaded and not used," says Walter Schild, CEO of Genex, the maker of Kraft's superb iFood Assistant app. "I struggle with brands who think everyone cares about every brand and every product."

Schild thinks that a mediocre or pointless branded app may do more harm than good. Someone goes to the trouble of downloading and installing a mobile app, adding to the clutter of the home screen, and what do they get?

In just the first day of OMMA Global here in L.A., I have spoken to at least three marketers who bemoaned all of the clients who think they need an iPhone app. "I spend more time talking them out of it," one says. I think any agency that has built one of these apps, only to see it panned or ignored, sees how rarely the marketing stars align to make the platform a good fit.

Schild contends that a good branded app provides value when utility, technology and brand really come together -- which is harder than a lot of marketers think. Not only do brands have to prove their value to the consumer, but they have to get out of their own way in doing so, by not overemphasizing the marketing pitch. And they have to do all of this in an environment where scores of other apps may do it better. "Some CPG clients approach us and ask for trivia or some game," he adds. "Sometimes that works, but how much value is there in shooting the Triscuit?"

With the Kraft iFood app, he admits, "We lucked out." People want recipes. And while there are a lot of other apps out there pouring recipes online, the iFood app offers Kraft-kitchen-tested dishes that meet nutritional requirements. Even better, this app was able to leverage Kraft's existing online food site where users can synch their recipes and personal profiles across platforms. A diabetic or vegetarian registered with the service might be able to access more personalized mobile information, and the mobile use could drive registrations and use of the online site.

Schild has found that mapping user need with device and audience makes all the difference in a number of branded apps Genex has launched for major brands outside of the iPhone. One of the most unexpected big wins came with a Purina mobile Web site aimed at pet owners who needed pet-friendly places to stay. "Dogs are mobile," Schild quips, and their owners are hard-pressed to find places that accommodate Fido. Working with longtime mobile search and directory provider go2, Genex created go2 Pets, a site providing users with local resources when traveling with pets, from places to stay to playgrounds, beaches and emergency numbers. "We had a factor of two to three times goals for that campaign," says Schild. Two years after launch, the puppy portal still goes strong. The company created a genuine mobile resource that happens to be branded, rather than a branded application that is also of some use.

In both of these cases of successful branded utilities, the brands not only found a unique tool for the end user but were also smart enough to get the hell out of the way. Purina's presence is clear in a large banner at the site and a bit of branded mentions in the sub-sections. But mainly the content is clearly aimed at entertaining or informing pet owners. Likewise, the Kraft brand sits in the background of the iFood Assistant, slipped into individual recipes and specific product ads that are fed into some pages. It is not that brands have to shut themselves up in a branded app. But the utility or fun of the app has to be the central point.

Like Kraft, Betty Crocker is no stranger to the branded value-add concept. Its new app features a neat tool that lets the user input a couple of ingredients she already has on hand and get recipe recommendations. The functionality is not quite what it could be (I would like to enter more than two ingredients), but it is enough to spark the busy chef's imagination. The Kraft app also has a recipe of the day aimed at the 4 p.m. panic over what to make tonight. In fact, all three of these branded apps not only make sense for the brand but make sense for mobile. They are tuned to a need that is situational. Whether it is needing a dinner idea in the late afternoon or finding a dog park while traveling with a pet, the apps are not perfunctory. They are leveraging the spatial, temporal flexibility of the phone -- the always-there element.

I expect there are a lot of mobile marketers out there who won't succeed in talking their clients out of making bad branded apps. Over the next few months, I expect we will see even more crap on the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Symbian platforms than we already see previewed in the App Store. The best branded apps should serve as examples of just how many elements really have to converge to make the ambitious apps worth making.

Just as "jumping the shark" has become the tagline for TV shows that lost their creative edge and raison d'être, perhaps we need a similar label for all the bad apps we are about to see. I vote for "shooting the Triscuit."

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