Branded Apps Need to Get Their 'Stories' Straight First

“Look, honey, I made you into a Heineken Christmas card.” Actually, I’d used the company’s new holiday app to plant a Halloween photo of my wife into the Heineken Star logo, so it was a ghoulish Christmas card.

She was making a rare appearance in my home office to retrieve the reams of exams she was printing out for the students in her college CompSci class.

“Ew. What is the point?"

“That's what I'm trying to figure out.”



“This is what you do up here all day? I just slaved over an exam to teach hundreds of bright young minds the basics of programming, and you are up here diddling with a beer app on your iPhone?”

“Your kids are going to need something to program someday, right?”

Whether we want all those bright young minds coding branded apps is another question entirely. You have to wonder how effective all of these branded app tchotchkes are in the end. But ‘tis the season when companies start pouring into the app stores a range of nominally functional smartphone curios designed to keep their products top of mind while we go about the usual holiday planning and buying.

Heineken is one of the earliest entrants into the mix, and its app has all of the usual elements. Like the 12 Days of Christmas, you can almost hear the check boxes getting ticked at mobile agencies around the land.  Clever use of mobile technology? Check. The Heineken Holiday app makes it easy for card-averse dudes to send a quick greeting card via mobile using the template and heavily branded solutions in the app. Match a headline (“The Next Round Is On You” et. al.) with an image that looks much like a print magazine branding campaign. Add a personalized headline of 160 characters or less to give a semblance of personalization. Let the user position the text on the image for a custom feel and to engage the touch mechanics.

Social media component? Check. Send to friends via email Twitter or Facebook. In essence, use the social nets to redistribute a print ad.

Be useful. Kinda-sorta check. There is a party invitation maker in here, so you can say there is a sort of solution embedded in here. Because you all want to host a Heineken party, don’t you?

Content. Check. If mobile utility was the first-gen mantra of branded apps (remember all of those tip calculators?) then content is this generation of apps’ marching order. Give the user something of value to absorb, brands are learning. Be a publisher. In this case, Heineken has party recipes from a hip chef --like Swedish Duck Meatballs -- that can also create a shopping list. Because the same guy who can’t be bothered sending holiday cards is going to host and plan a party, go shopping to make home-cooked snacks, and whip something up in his kitchen as elaborate as Swedish Duck Meatballs. Who the hell is that guy?


I honestly don’t know what sort of job apps like these do for a brand other than give them executive bragging rights (“look at our app!”) and just fit into that larger carpet-bombing a beer brand just has to do around the holidays. To its credit, Heineken has so many of these little thingies in the app store it appears they just are determined to have a persistent presence on the platform: a virtual toast maker, a number of apps around Rugby, virtual games, and many different entrants from their regional units. There may be a stronger brand affinity in Europe between the beer and sport.

The brand has a tendency to be pretty heavy-handed in its messaging, with stars, bottle and green pretty much everywhere. The level of branding in the holiday app is a turn-off, if only because it so overtly presumes that the user is a brand sycophant.

And herein lies the problem still with too many mobile apps. They continue to maintain the brand marketer fantasy that there really are armies of loyalists who gain a sense of identity and value from associating themselves with your product. This is so rarely the case that I wonder why so many brands act as if it is.

Brands that achieve that rare level of real customer identification generally have identifiable stories that simply are reiterated or enriched by an app. BMW’s Mini brand has developed a style and a narrative for itself that flows naturally from the car’s notoriously go-kart look and driving style. It has an excellent app called Mini Link that crowd-sources some of the best places in your area to drive your Mini with its famously tight steering.

There is GPS, mapping, crowdsourcing, social sharing, image input, etc. but it feels more like a service that grew organically out of the needs and tastes of its target rather than just another beer coaster looking to be passed around. Mini Link even has a unique look on the home screen, turning a top-down view of the iconic car into the app’s icon. 

A branded app makes sense when it is an element in an ongoing narrative. No story, no app.



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