Commentary

Brands Who Think We Can't Wait to View the World Through Their Silly Mobile Apps? Priceless

For the benefit of those consumer brands that weren't listening the first few hundred times this has been said, consumers do not wake up in the morning thanking the lord they live in a country where they get to worship your brand and see life through its narrow self-serving lens. That only happens in the retro-fantasies of Don Draper and the households of top executives at many of these major brands. The only people who really should or would "love" a brand the way many brand managers think we do (or could) are the vested upper-level managers whose stock in a shoe, beverage or apparel company paid for the summer house and the McMansion. For the rest of us, you know what? We really don't spend a lot of our time wishing we were Nike/Victoria's Secret/Coke/CBS/Bud/Ford or even (no, really) Apple kinds of people.

We are a year into the mobile application cycle now, and scores of branded apps have cluttered the App Store. The first wave of apps, mainly the gift giver guides from last Christmas and the this-and-that finder apps, made stupid freshman mistakes. Most of them had such a narrow utility to them that was so bolted to their own product that only slobbering brand name acolytes could be enthusiastic about using them. And as we covered in the graph above, there really aren't as many of those Tide detergent sycophants around as you may think. Earlier this year we really did start seeing laudable efforts like the Kraft iFood Assistant and a couple of helpful bathroom locators. I already sang the praises of the Absolut app that appeared last month, because unlike the overwhelming majority of branded apps I have seen, it is both useful and entertaining.

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The brand app du jour now is MasterCard's "Priceless Picks," which aspires to crowdsource the "priceless" stores, deals and eateries in your immediate vicinity. The app uses an entertaining 3D isomorphic view of your surroundings (GPS located) and pop-up bubbles highlight vendors, sales, and notes about locations that users submitted.

MasterCard did some things right here. First, unlike a lot of social apps, they pre-populated the database with local listings from third-party partners, so in relatively populous areas, you will get something to peruse. Most of these listings from merchant partners and from the Not for Tourists directory are innocuous and unhelpful, however. Walking around downtown San Francisco this week, I found the listings sporadic and random, but there were some delis and offbeat bars listed that I might have missed. I am not sure that a $19.99 offer for Minoxidil at the Union Square Walgreens constitutes a call to action, however. Other entries, much rarer, come from the Amazon Mechanical Turk and its pool of humans who get paid (sort of) to make entries for MasterCard. I have only come across a handful of actual users posting items.

There are some nice filters on the 2D and 3D map views, where you can hide or show the Entertainment, Dining, Shopping, Other and "Priceless" categories. I can't say exactly what "priceless" signifies in this pocket universe of MasterCard's, although I guess we users are supposed to attach it to the products and places we feel passionately about. The connection between the familiar branding campaign and this app is tenuous although not completely detached. In most of the ads, "priceless" suggests moments or sentiments that transcend the material. The campaign has this knowing wink-and-a-nod charm, especially since it comes from a credit card company we know at heart doesn't believe a word of its own drivel. And here is an app that uses the same terminology but really is looking for us to find "picks," things, deals. One can imagine a real missed opportunity here, where an app actually did try to crowdsource "priceless" moments, memories, thoughts, but, ya know, that ain't gonna push up those debt loads, will it?

Neither will this app push your credit card bills higher, however. It fails to close the loop in so many ways. I will be interested to follow it over time, but I have a hard time believing many people want to contribute the content that is necessary to make it valuable.

While superficially clever and well made, the Priceless Picks app demonstrates where branded apps really are in a tough position. MasterCard's app just doesn't give us enough in the way of information, listings or features to be of real use. The listings don't have precise addresses. They don't tie to directions, and there isn't even a click-to-call link. Users can input places, but there is so little room for text that other readers can get no detail. They don't even allow a rating system.

I imagine that some of these restrictions are imposed by the brand to avoid any damage user-gen content might do to partners. After all, MasterCard doesn't want to open up a graffiti wall of user-generated sniping in an app that is supposed to serve the merchants. But it is precisely this kind of necessary coyness and restrictiveness on the part of most brands that put natural limits on what they can do with an app. They simply don't have the freedom to be publishers. Unless they can put the user's needs above brand management, then there always will be someone else who will offer the same functionality in a better, deeper way.

I called up the social app Yelp! for the same downtown area of San Francisco and was overwhelmed with listings that had scores of user reviews, addresses, call links, even photos. Other than cute pop-up bubbles, what did MasterCard just give me that Yelp! and others don't offer already and in a more complete way?

Are these brands looking at the competitive set for these apps, or are they just presuming that their brand will float them to the top and leapfrog superior products? Does it all come down to a silly fantasy that despite all of its myopia, limited utility, and restrictive interactivity, a user would prefer to use a "trusted brand's" app?

Well, Yelp! doesn't give me the opportunity to exercise a bit of empty subversion in quite the way the Mastercard app does. Users of Priceless Picks can go to the downtown San Francisco map at Columbia and Broadway to see my puckish addition of City Lights Books. Standing in the upstairs Beat Poetry Room, a shrine to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs, and their countercultural vibe, I couldn't resist adding the listing to a directory provided by the very symbol of modern consumer excess.

The joke was on me, of course. As I checked out, and got ready to pay for my oh-so-outre underground comix graphic novel, you can already guess how I paid for it. City Lights takes Visa/Mastercard. Priceless.

5 comments about "Brands Who Think We Can't Wait to View the World Through Their Silly Mobile Apps? Priceless ".
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  1. Maya Mikhailov from Slifter (a GPShopper Company), July 31, 2009 at 11:25 a.m.

    Patrick, I certainly agree with your point that iPhone isn't the only mobile platform that brands should be focused on, but one issue brands need to solve right now is that of connecting consumers to their products offline - especially since their traditional avenues of doing so are in the decline. The value of that on-the-go local consumer is extremely high and, considering the cost of mobile programming, is fairly inexpensive when compared to other mediums (and certainly more metrics driven).

  2. Antony McGregor Dey from Link.Me, July 31, 2009 at 3:59 p.m.

    A seriously great post Steve, "That only happens in the retro-fantasies of Don Draper and the households of top executives at many of these major brands." Love it! :)

    I would suggest that a brands iPhone stratedgy is much better executed by aligning themselves with an existing app that suits their campaign objectives.

    There are so many good apps out there now that are looking for monetisation through advertising, built by passionate people who have a vision and put their blood sweat and tears in them them rather than half hearted Ad Agency Dev "sweat shops".

    Rather than creating their own somewhat lacking app, Mastercard should have simply approached Yelp and gotten them to create "Priceless" sponsored listings. It would have been cheaper, easier, quicker and delivered a ready audience looking for that "Priceless Experience"

    http://twitter.com/antonymd

  3. Thorsten Rhode from marqueteer, July 31, 2009 at 8:05 p.m.

    As with so many other products / services, it comes down to 1) adding value, 2) providing solution to a problem, and 3) not necessarily being too brand-centric. Sounds to me MC was on the right track, but took a detour -- and was beaten to market by another, more comprehensive offering.

  4. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, July 31, 2009 at 9:16 p.m.

    I'm going to offer an alternative that many people agree with.

    The Mobile Web ~

    I'm at the stage where I'm bringing a new mobile e-coupon site to the market.

    Its sites: www.GripOffs.mobi and www.GripOffs.com

    It's a very simple concept, yet it's very sophisticated.

    I'm very interested in feedback on my project and am taking the opportunity here because in another article by Max Kalehoff we we're talking about the importance of feedback.

    Here's a summary of what the patent pending site represents:

    It is an instant interactive dynamic software system comprised of a computer site and a mobile site serving as a central platform where businesses can upload full color advertisements complete with descriptions of any offers, click-to-call, web-links, or videos and commercials, featuring bar coded e-coupons.

    Consumers (all of us) can access the mobile site on their (our) internet enabled mobile devices and redeem the mobile e-coupons at the point of purchase at the businesses for instant savings while earning loyalty points for use.

    Advertisers see real-time results and can edit offers instantly.

    The system is designed for local advertising to complete global campaigns.

    While other mobile advertising sites are available, none offer a complete system of third party instant posting of ads, offers, and e-coupons with all of the features of links, click-call, videos, and with barcodes at one site, making real-time changes anytime, instantly, being able to be seen and redeemed by anyone with an internet enabled mobile device, locally to globally, while having instant analytics available to the advertiser.

    With 70% of search touted as 'retail' and we're all about retail and search (I'd rather search for all of the restaurants offering deals on GripOffs then searching on google for the restaurants and just finding out where they are - no deals involved, just basic info), offering valuable deals such as two for one dinners at a local upscale restaurant, its intent is to have all of the local deals available at one site on your mobile (without downloading or waiting for something to be sent or having to go to each restaurant site in the area to see if they're offering deals on their site - probably have to print them out if they do) for use while you're on the go.

    If you can literally double, or at the least save your money on most purchases, would there be any reason you wouldn't use a site like this (it's free to the users as it's completely advertiser supported)?

    I can be reached at jim@gripoffs.com

    I know that this can come across as a way to promote my site, but since we're talking about the significance of listening to feedback, I decided to see if I can get any significant feedback and the volume.

    Will one person offer feedback on the site? Will 100?

    One last point: In his article, Max, used 'feedback' as people use 'criitique' nowadays and it seems that they only have negative implications.

    Let's keep in mind that there is positive feedback and negative feedback as there is 'constructive criticism'.

    We all benefit from feedback if we see it for what it is:

    Somebody is interested enough to offer the feedback, which is basically their interest in offering their ideas to make something better. That's a good thing.

    No matter what the feedback, I think Max hit it on the head - 'the best outcome is provision of feedback . ." and we all need to realize it for the importance it plays in our businesses.

    There are other alternatives than being one of thousands of apps!

  5. Antony McGregor Dey from Link.Me, August 2, 2009 at 9:31 p.m.

    @jim - You want feedback?

    I guess people can get patents for anything these days huh?

    I'm tired of people using the comments section for "comment spam" your post has little to nothing to do with the article in question and in my opinion should be removed.

    Let me give you a tip Jim. You want to promote you product in the comments section? Then leave something thoughtful, insightful and relevant, showing your expertise in the space, your only reference in the comments to your business should be in your sign off, like so...

    Antony McGregor Dey
    CEO - QMCODES
    http://twitter.com/antonymd

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