In two weeks in New York we convene a special edition of OMMA Mobile that calls attention to the promise and pitfalls of the emerging mobile app economy. A year ago, most brands were starting their agency meetings asking when their very own iPhone presence would be ready. Scores of failed and forgettable branded apps later, we are already moving into a more mature second stage of an app-centric mobile world. Many brands now recognize that the mobile Web, sponsored apps and leveraging in-app ad networks can be more effective than putting themselves out there as content publishers, mobile services, or (worse) wits.
At OMMA Mobile, the strategist behind one of the most successful branded apps in the iTunes App Store, Ed Kaczmarek, Director of Innovation, Consumer Experiences, Kraft Foods, will open the day. He will be joined later by executives from Coca-Cola, Zippo and Fandango to discuss how truly well-executed branded apps really can get you closer to the consumer.
But for the most part, branded apps have tended to cry for our attention. There is a kind of cloying tone to many apps, as if they are trying just a tad too hard to get us to like them as something more than disembodied corporate entities that really just want to plump up their profit margins. Oops, did I just say that out loud?
They don't come any more earnest or desperate in their need to be loved than the new NBC Universal "MacGruber" app for iPhone. You can't envy this app. Few apps come with such an obvious mission. It needs to convince us that one of the least funny ongoing bits from SNL's bottomless pit of unfunny premises will make a winning movie.
To be fair, I have to say that some early buzz suggests the film may be funnier than we think. The hapless government operative who can't help but blow himself up with his own makeshift devices enjoys only one major advantage in its slot at "Saturday Night Live" -- it is always blessedly short. The idea of extending the one joke for 90 minutes seems daft on the face of it. Someone must know what they are doing, we hope.
And that is the mindset that a user of the app must bring to it. Can you make me laugh? Or can you convince me that I will laugh?
To relieve the suspense, the answer is... no. The app has an unconventional task that it meets with mobile conventions. There is a "MacGruber" puzzle game where you fit objects into blank space to diffuse the bomb. There is a mullet hairdo makeover to apply to your own photos. There is a soundboard that actually serves to convince us all the more that the movie could be witless. And there are the requisite wallpapers, ringtones and trailer. I am not convinced in the least that this movie will be funny.
But inadvertently the app raises an interesting point about the potential of mobile apps to take on a sensibility that can personify a brand. An app is a variegated thing. It is capable of many facets and features. In the way it chooses to present itself to me, to use my mobile phone resources and my time, it tells me something about itself and its attitude toward me at every turn. It is much more than a message. It has a voice and a temperament. It allows us as users to take the measure of its creator in ways that an ad cannot.
I came to this app with a remarkable set of questions and expectations of the brand. Is it smart, really? Is it knowing about its own stupid premise and clever and resourceful enough to vault beyond it into some other kind of entertainment? How does it regard and construct me as an audience?
Arguably, all media do all of these things in some measure. In a mobile app, however, we have a more complex experiential encounter with the user, where much more nuanced kinds of indirect communications take place. When branded apps start acting a bit more like a contact, then they really are talking with us, not to us.