It 's easy enough to spank some of the branded apps we have seen thus far, and I have done my share of it. But if you drill down into the comments sections around even some of the low-rated apps, you see that some have generated minority support.
Marketers of all stripes like to praise the feedback loop that the various app stores provide them. But what do we make of the fact that this feedback does not always (if ever) really level an unambiguous verdict?
The Coleman Lantern, for instance, generally suffers from a common criticism around branded apps; there are better alternatives. I am not a big fan of flashlight apps myself, but apparently there is a group that uses their phones to grope around darkrooms at night or find their keys.
The Coleman Lantern seems like an innocuous branded answer that is no worse or better than others. But of 6,900 ratings, 3,200 rate it one-star, many complaining it's "just an ad" or resenting that it tries to sell you lanterns from the iPhone. But there are nearly 3,000 people who also rate the app three stars or above. Is this a success or a failure for Coleman? It found some sort of audience, although we have no idea how much reach the app ultimately achieved. If an app can locate a niche and serve it even as it leaves everyone else unimpressed, what do we make of it?
The Gilette uArt app, which lets you test facial hairstyles on your own portrait, also got the proverbial mixed bag of reviews. Its 2.5-star average broke down to a heavy collection of one-star ratings but a relatively even spread of other kinds of response. It isn't a ridiculously irrelevant app, and can provide a few minutes of fun. What is the right metric to apply here? Even if you play with it for a minute or two and delete it as forgettable, then something was achieved, wasn't it?
As for that poorly received Mastercard Priceless Picks app, I have to give the company credit. It's trying to improve the app by giving users more options for adding local listings. But according to the App Store rating system, which arguably is skewed to the negative, more than twice as many people give this app two or one stars as give it three or above. Are there shopaholics who love seeing other shopaholics' shoutouts about great deals? Apparently so.
But my best advice to Mastercard is to lease a truly cool LBS/augmented reality execution like Layar. Here you can layer onto a camera view of the world a growing series of databases that locate everything from eateries to hotels. It seems to me that if a brand wants to align itself with the coolness of a device, it should really be looking to partner with the people who actually make the device cool, the most thoughtful developers. Augmented reality done right -- brought to you by Mastercard. My guess is the company would achieve more for its brand this way than struggling to improve an app that makes the user feel as if she is a craven, obsessive consumer who only sees the world through the myopic lens the sponsor wants to provide.
And as we work our way down to the truly unfortunate apps -- the ones we wish those mobile agencies had talked their clients out of making -- that is the nub of the problem. Too many of these apps are unintended barometers of just how out of touch advertisers can be with the consumer they say they want to understand.
The overwhelmingly negative App Store response to the Gap StyleMixer seems to me well-deserved. Critics argue there just isn't enough here either to mimic the shopping experience or even the experience of the Gap Web site. While there actually are people here who claim they use this virtual paper-doll program to think through apparel choices, it still strikes me as some Gap marketer's outlandish fantasy of how the company's ideal consumer should interact with the brand rather than the way a consumer really wants to.
The Gap seems to have made the same mistake that Target and other retailers made last holiday season with the first regrettable run of "gift finder" apps. Channeling a user's behavior down a series of self-serving paths is just asking for a revolt. CBS comes to the same sad fate in its TV.com app, which, like its Web site, has a stingy selection of full current episodic content and a lot of promotional clips. Its loose confederacy of brands (CBS, CNet, CW, Showtime) makes sense to CBS corporate but not to a consumer. Oddly, the crappy parts of TV.com get in the way of the real treasure here, a fair selection of classic TV episodes. Maybe it is a good app hiding behind a mediocre one.
Perhaps I am overreaching based on the evidence of branded apps. But after hearing mobile marketers last week lament the pig-headedness of clients, it seems to me that the app stores are reflecting something deeper about the corporate mentalities that force these miniature mediocrities upon us. Who are some of these apps for, consumers or the company CEO and board? Is the goal to connect with customers in meaningful ways, or convince someone else at the company that this is what its strategists are trying to do?