Near-Brand Experiences

I am not entirely sure that after two years of experience under marketers' belts, branded applications are any smarter or alluring now than they ever were. While there are many examples of success like Zippo's Virtual Lighter and VW's driving games, the App Store is still littered with loads of brand-driven apps that just make me scratch my head and wonder what some of these marketers were trying to achieve.

From the beginning, all brands were urged to be of use. Taking this idea of utility seriously, Charmin issued a bathroom locator that some people seemed to like. Now Thermos has its own app to locate water fountains. Good luck. These tools seem to be dependent on crowd-sourcing, so you'd better use them in areas that are demographically predisposed to iPhones and folks who like to participate in such things. I ran both programs in my neck of the woods. The Charmin app gets decent coverage of my area, mainly by virtue of including the gas stations. Still the app comes with a tutorial (yes, a tutorial) that includes a legend explaining a lot of symbols. Kudos to Charmin (or its agency) for keeping up with the app, which is also on Android. The makers respond to criticism and keep updating the code.



According to the Thermos app, however, there are no drinking fountains in northern Delaware --or I am just using the app wrong? Maybe I need a tutorial. The app also makes you register in order to submit a new entry, but it doesn't tell me what I get in return. Wouldn't these crowds-ourced apps work best if the brands cultivated a genuine partnership with the user and engaged in a value exchange? I'm also not sure how many people actually remember they have these little one-trick branded ponies. I think Charmin has integrated its SitorSquat app with other marketing, which helps to keep it top of mind. But how many people really recall that they have an app for that?

Which leads me to a question about the new Mad Men Cocktail Culture app. What exactly is it good for? The game portion of the app has you mix a retro cocktail by choosing the right ingredients. There are small reminders of how the drink figured in the AMC series. There is also a cocktail guide that gives you the recipes and lets you virtually drink the mixture. You can even buy additional drink packs to play on.

I am trying to find the fun here. There isn't enough of the show content itself to be an entertaining extension of that series. The game is not very entertaining. And the Cocktail Guide reference portion doesn't have the versatility of a recipe app. And they want you to pay to extend the experience with additional drink packs. I will refrain from a Don Draper reference here, but I wonder if this was Pete Campbell's idea.

Wrigley's is also offering us a weird bit of branded app-ery. Their Sweet Talk app for Juicy Fruit has a series of personae uttering unfunny sweet-talking lines. The app leverages five social stereotypes in the most obvious ways. The app is at the top of the free entertainment section of the app store right now and is immediately forgettable. The sharing mechanism is disappointing. It can link to Facebook, but the email pass-along just prompts the recipient to download the app. I am not sure what the real purpose of this app was without liberal sharing that actually passed the media around. Arguably, the app is a novelty that serves the purpose of reminding people of the brand and communicating its main product feature, a signature flavor many of us remember. And the makers were smart enough to make this app exceptionally yellow. But like the "Mad Men" and fountain-finder apps, the content somehow feels half-hearted and less than engaging. 

In contrast, take the weird but highly usable Talking Tom app. This is not a branded play but just a mobile entertainment. You can soothe or torment a 3D cartoon cat. But the genius is in the recording mechanism that will have the cat recite what you dictate. You can then send the message off to someone via email, or post to Facebook or YouTube. I have already started answering my daughter's more infuriating text message with replies from a yelling Talking Tom. It is the kind of infectious trifle that people want to use -- and her first response was asking how she gets one.

Branded apps should aspire to the same indispensability or addictive silliness as the best apps available. But too many of the branded apps fell like half-measures or near misses.


4 comments about "Near-Brand Experiences".
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  1. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, August 10, 2010 at 4:32 p.m.

    Extremely insightful take on what to do and what to avoid when creating a branded (or any) smartphone app.

  2. Robbert Bos from Exicon, August 10, 2010 at 9:54 p.m.

    Steve, thanks for a great post. Unfortunately you're primarily highlighting the "gadget"-type of branded applications. Even Talking Tom won't stick much longer than a couple of days. In contrast, branded apps like the one from Nespresso offer true value (at least to me as a coffee fan). This app notifies me when there are new coffee tastes, nearby promotions and it allows me to order my coffee for home delivery while on the road. Indeed, branded apps that offer utility are the most likely to stick. And there are lots of them out there but somehow people always refer to the usual Zippo gadget type of apps that have a limited lifespan.

  3. Tamara Gruber from Crisp Wireless, August 11, 2010 at 10:56 a.m.

    You have me intrigued by Talking Tom but you never mention the brand it is associated with so while it seems like an interesting app, is it really any better at brand awareness or lift? I'll have to go look it up and see the tie in.

  4. Edward Hunter from Loop Analytics, August 12, 2010 at 10:13 a.m.

    It's taking brands a while to complete the marketing/agency dance of novelty versus usefulness in mobile smart phone apps, this article underscores that nicely. It's critical that mobile apps from large brands focus on utility and reusability if any long term communication with consumers is desired.

    Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the engagement with consumers and the ROI of these projects must be measurable an part of the going in strategy - not an afterthought.

    Another insightful article Steve, looking forward to meeting you at Mobile Insider.

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