I still can't tell whether many of the branded apps I see even now were built with some real marketing objective in mind -- or simply to look good at the next company board meeting. The line between utility and brand vanity seems like it should be an easy one to discern. But the latest run of branded apps for the iPad are tough ones to call. In just the last few weeks we have seen ambitious releases from Victoria's Secret, Gucci and Coca-Cola. They all have their charms. Humility is not among them. In each, the brand paints itself large and constructs its audience as inevitably drawn to its luxe luster, its nostalgic glow or its unabashed sexiness.
The Gucci app is a weird melange of content pieces. There is a voting mechanism for picking the favorite looks from the 2011 fashion show, though it isn't clear why you are voting. There is a strange music-generating thing that I am still struggling to make work. Then there are just piles and piles of examples and sneak peeks of Gucci marketing efforts. It is hard to tell who the app is for, consumers of Gucci or distributors and partners the manufacturer is trying to impress with its master marketing plan. There are nominally useful tools in here, like a "Little Black Book" guide to local hot spots and shopping in upscale locations around the world. OK, but this is not really a brand experience. It feels like a massive brand Web site, and so it inadvertently makes the point that an app shouldn't be a Web site. An app should have some more convincing cohesion to it or a flow.
There is no mystery to Victoria's Secret's reason for piling on its own commercial assets. The company has successfully made its marketing success part of its brand image. Its very own fashion show is a prime-time special, for God's sake. It is the Madonna of brands: famously famous. The app's lush style does effectively communicate something about the brand. The oversized images literally float across a background that is itself moving. Dare I say flesh on silk? But again, I'm just not sure what story it tells about the brand or how it does more than serve the fan base -- whatever that is. It still feels like an elegantly done media kit attached to a catalog.
The most reserved and ultimately most effective branded app in the bunch comes from the people who probably have the most to crow about when it comes to brand power. The Coca-Cola Heritage Timeline is a simple sideswipe through the history of the soda brand. Much like a modestly interactive coffee-table book, the app slides us through artifacts, from tin Coca-Cola signs to line-ups of the iconic bottles. To be sure, Coke simply is a brand that can carry the weight of "heritage." This app is visually attractive insofar as it recreates some of the brand's marketing style. There is some history embedded in the captions. Coke literally accompanied the country through the last century, and there is a case to be made that its changing styles reflected our own self-view.
The high point of brand hubris of course comes in 1971, when a tribe of young people (as countercultural as "Up With People" singers) deliver "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" from a hilltop. It takes balls to try to align a multinational corporation with the ideals of a generation. I am not sure Coca-Cola ever fully pulled it off. Do any of these self-styled celebrations of one's own brand really register with users?