Commentary

Apps Potpourri: Brands Climb The Learning Curve

My home screen runneth over. My iPhone deck is starting to look like the merit badge sash of an overzealous Eagle Boy Scout. As I download app after app in order to keep track of all the brands I plan to critique, the famously navigable iPhone home screen is feeling like my old RAZR. Instead of clicking five times to get to an app, I have to swipe five times. Is there a difference there? Just like the old days, I find many apps just become invisible over time.

And so it is time to do some mid-summer cleaning and get these apps off the deck finally by saying something about them. It turns out that a number of brands have learned from the missteps of their predecessor in the App Store. There are some promising signs that marketers are leveraging the platform more effectively (or just less stupidly) than they have in the past.

Barclaycard's Waterslide Extreme is the new darling of the branded app set (if there is such a thing as the branded app set), and deservedly so. This first-person sliding game recreates the brand's TV spot, but it is actually a fun time-killer. You slide through a cityscape, sometimes through transparent tubes that reveal the streets below. Sitting atop the free games chart for weeks in the App Store, apparently Barclays' media company did an extensive ad campaign to fuel the fervor.

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I am left wondering, however, if the company actually took some of the best practices for branded apps a bit too far. The game reiterates the TV spot, but for those of us who never saw the TV spot it has much less of a brand impact. Including a link to the video might have been a good idea. Apart from the Barclaycard logo on the main menu screen, there is not a lot here to communicate much of anything about the product or brand identity. I like the game, and the good will alone may be worth the effort. Certainly the PR effect has been strong. But I am still curious about the goal here.

Pizza Hut's iHut app is a clever twist on ordering pies. It lets you drag and drop items to add to your pie order. Anecdotally, some people in the industry have told me that while mobile is catching on as a pizza-ordering mechanism, there is a tendency for users to keep it simple and order a lot of plain cheese pies. This app clearly is designed to upsell the mobile customer. It even saves your favorite orders for easy reuse.

Pizza Hut tells me that as of last week it had surpassed 100,000 downloads and that performance has exceeded expectations. My main gripe with this creative approach to m-commerce is the front end registration system. The app forces unregistered Pizza Hut customers to go on the Web from their desktop to sign up and manage their account. This adds a frustrating layer that makes the project seem only half-heartedly mobilized.

I have been a fan of Best Buy's mobile executions for a while now. Even the company's earliest mobile Web sites seemed to understand that users wanted clean and fast access to their nearby store's inventory. Unlike other retailers, Best Buy wasn't afraid to slap a very simple interface on a deep database and let the user decide how much he wanted to drill.

The same is true of the iPhone app. It is themed for gamers, so there is a special section for the retailer's video game recommendations and deals. But overall the app is a direct drill into the inventory. I like very much that Best Buy includes a deep trove of user reviews on its items, inventory status on a nearby store and a click-to-call link. The interface manages the voluminous search results by letting you apply price, brand and category filters to winnow the lists.

The Gamers Club area is where we see some nice merchandising kick in. A carousel of featured titles sits beneath links to special offers and top new and upcoming releases. This is where a retailer might partner effectively with a content provider. Screenshots, expert reviews, recommendations, etc. would really blow this out to be the kind of gamers' resource it aspires to be.

Barnes & Noble takes a similar path to Best Buy, in that it keeps the front end of its retail app very simple, but each successive screen offers a more dense layer of click-through opportunities for greater depth. In some ways this one beats the very good Amazon app. The book product page is nicely condensed, with a few sentences of overview, selections from critical reviews and author background. There is just enough detail here to tell the user if she wants to drill deeper into the full text. In other words, Barnes and Noble strategists have thought through each layer of the experience so that every screen could satisfy a certain level of curiosity. It seems nicely calibrated to the way one browses on a phone.

BN also has one-upped Amazon's image search of items. While Amazon lets you snap a picture of an item, you have to wait for the system to send you a notice later that it IDed your product accurately. BN fully integrates image search so that a camera icon is next to the query box. You can snap a picture of a book you are perusing in a bookstore and get instant results with all of the user and professional reviews you like.

It seems to me we are starting to see developers think through the mobile experience and create apps that feel less like stripped-down Web sites and more like tools that are calibrated to the mobile situation. On the retail side, most of them are recognizing the user is close to a purchase and needs a seamless path to the final conversion. Users want access to the entire inventory, but they also need more intelligent paths into it. On the branding side, it is good to see at least one major brand find a way to give us an advergame that doesn't feel like a crappy advergame. What next? A branded app that doesn't feel like a branded app?

2 comments about "Apps Potpourri: Brands Climb The Learning Curve ".
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  1. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, August 7, 2009 at 1:53 p.m.

    I have mentioned this problem before. Clutter. Clutter. Clutter. Sigh. We need monster display screens 15 feet tall that can collapse into the size of a sugar cube by pressing a button so we can have a better view of everything.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, August 7, 2009 at 2:41 p.m.

    Howie. OMG, we'll all look like Inspector Gadget whipping out a cell phone.

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