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.
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.