"You had to fill it up all the time?" she says in disbelief. "Like a car?" Yes, I explain, like a car. And it made your front jeans pocket smell like a gas leak. And it could get really hot. And there was always some jackass who tried to show off by lighting it one-handed and putting his pants leg on fire.
"I don't get it."
"You don't have to. You don't smoke, and you NEVER WILL! But it is still good for holding up at concerts."
"Oh, I get it. That's cool. Can I have it? You wouldn't get me an iPhone, so I can't use the app. So I should get the lighter." Since the age of three, every discussion with my daughter ends in a negotiation based on her Talmudic understanding of some cosmic fairness doctrine. She tells me what is fair.
But it turns out that my daughter is not the only one to glean the genius of marrying the Zippo brand to music. Jon Vlassopulos, CEO, Moderati, can envision spin-offs like a "Concert Edition" of the virtual lighter that might move the branded app into something closer to branded entertainment. "You pull out the Zippo and maybe it tells you what is good [playing] in the neighborhood." The possibilities here are endless. Imagine the partnerships and sponsorships Zippo and Moderati could cut with labels, events promoters and artists?
In fact, Vlassopulos came to Moderati, which is backed by Japanese talent rep and production company Yashimoto, with branded entertainment in mind. He ran those relationships for Endemol and has his sights set on developing alliances between brands and mobile content at Moderati. Zippo is not only a model of a branded app but could also be a scout into the new territory of mobile branded media. "We like to tell a story," he says. Zippo starts as a marketing services relationship -- but in the next version of the Virtual Lighter, we will see e-commerce incorporated, and Moderati and the brand becoming partners in selling users skins for their lighters.
The next logical stage could be full-out media, incorporating concert and music information with the app. This is the kind of evolution of branded apps he would like to see happen in this ecosystem. "We try to move our partners from starting with a service relationship, and now a partner, and then we would like to see new intellectual property."
It has always seemed to me that the real challenge for branded apps is that it is hard to occupy a middle ground between a clever little tchtochke and a full-bore tool that is backed by updates and fresh content. A cute little throwaway like the Coke Spin the Bottle app is a good-enough quick branding hit, as is the Zippo. On the other end of the spectrum ,the truly useful Kraft iFood app or Absolut Drinkspiration apps have real depth and content. They not only need to be built but maintained. Anything in between these two ends of the difficulty curve is too easily bested by a more serious app from a dedicated content publisher.
Zippo enjoys a special place among branded apps because it was a clever curio that became a gotta-have app. Eight or nine months since its introduction, and even after 5 million downloads, the thing remains high on the free app charts and gets downloaded hundreds of thousands of times a month. As the iPhone penetrates new markets worldwide, new users have to download the Zippo app. About 30% of downloads now are international. The typical user opens the app two to three times a month and the "pass along" value of showing it to others is about five per user. Right there you have a core reach of five million and an extended reach of 25 million.
Sounds like a media platform to me. In fact the PR on this app was so good that there was a reverse pass-along effect. Moderati got so much press and exposure via YouTube clips that people I knew without iPhones would ask me to download and show them the app.
The basic lesson is clear, says Vlassopulos. "It's a very simple application that does what it says on the can. It says Virtual Zippo Lighter -- and surprisingly, it actually is a virtual Zippo lighter." But the reason it may have evolved from curio to must-have is the way it leveraged all of the functionality of the phone itself, including the accelerometer and the superb display touch screen and now the microphone. The app became a way to show off the phone. The phone was a way to show off a cool creative idea.
The challenge now is to turn that basic marriage of brand with device into something that people will use more than a few times a month and at the same time maintain its core simplicity. "You don't want to go too quickly," says Vlassopulos. "You want to turn it into a utility or enhance the entertainment value," but it is important to know what to add and when.
This will be a model to watch. Can a branded app actually move to that next level of branded entertainment? Curiously, I wonder if that would have been possible at all if the applications started with such grandiose ambitions. Would the additional content have crowded out the simple fun at its core? Like the first iteration, the coming editions of the Virtual Zippo Lighter will demonstrate whether it is reconnoitering new territory for others, or remains more of an exception that proves the rule about branded apps: These things are hard to get right.