iPhone Apps Put Brands in Hands

The iPhone is a cultural icon of the digital age. Apple’s “There’s an app for that” slogan in commercials is even repeated both as a punch line and a nod to the ubiquity of new applications on the so-called “Jesus phone” platform.

Many top brands have tested its waters. Coke has two iPhone apps, as does Nike. Procter & Gamble has several, including Tide’s Stain Brain, which helps consumers find ways to remove stains. All are searching for the secret formula that will unlock the promise of mobile marketing: a utility or piece of entertainment that is with consumers at all times.

Like any new channel, efforts have been a hit-and-miss affair. The mantra, however, has remained the same: “utility.” In the mobile space, brands, it’s believed, must provide something of value. Lancome and its mobile shop, Publicis Groupe’s Phonevalley, use the iPhone to help women in the aisle choose makeup. Last month, it rolled out an app that lets users mix and match makeup from its Aaron de Mey collection. Zippo scored one of the first iPhone hits with a dead simple application that offers utility through entertainment. The Virtual Lighter simply gave users a digital representation of a lighter, marking a new way to signal for an encore at concerts. The app is still one of the platform’s most popular selections.

Brands face an uphill battle getting noticed in the iTunes App Store, which now boasts over 100,000 applications. It’s similar to their challenge on Facebook, only worse because brands do not have a beachhead like they do with their Facebook pages. That’s meant few non-digital brands have cracked the most popular apps (ranked by number of downloads). These include Target, Disney and Walmart, which rank in the top 50 free apps.

One mistake brands make is thinking they can, in essence, create their own media properties, said Eric Litman, CEO of Medialets, an iPhone analytics and mobile ad platform. It sees the average brand app get between one and 2.5 uses, with engagement times between 2.5 and 5 minutes. “There will be a group of apps that sit at the top, a fair number in the middle and most will be in the tail,” said Litman. “It’s hard to build a business in the media industry.”

That’s meant some brands have chosen to go to mobile app networks. MasterCard released a new app this month, but it’s also running a miniature version of it as a banner ad on The New York Times’ application. And REI partnered with mobile media company Zumobi to create the REI Snow and Ski Report. Unlike most brand apps, REI does not own the intellectual property for the app, which reports conditions on the slopes and now includes Tweets. Instead, it sponsors the application that Zumobi built. The payoff: Zumobi can promote it through its other popular apps for MSNBC and the Today show.

But too often, said Ken Willner, CEO of Zumobi, brands hire an outside developer to build something that’s little more than a glorified ad. “There are a lot of snow globes and novelty-type ideas,” he said. “They don’t sustain usage.”

Here is a list of the successful brands and apps we feel best fulfill the promise of utility — as well as some prominent missed opportunities:


Amazon Mobile

It should come as no surprise that the forward-thinking retailing giant leads the way in mobile. Its wildly successful app is a compulsive shopper’s dream. It includes a new experimental feature called Amazon Remembers that could end up being huge: Users snap a photo of a product seen on the fly and Amazon then tries to match the photo to something in its store.  Amazon, as always, gets that convenience is king. Well over half of reviewers give the app four or five stars.  

• Released December 2008.
• Ranked No. 9 in App Store lifestyle category.

Missed opportunity: Gap’s StyleMixer. The idea is sound: Give consumers a tool to help them mix and match Gap fashions. Yet reviewers pan it for its paucity of options. Over 5,000 users have given it just one star since its August release.

Financial Services:

Bank of America Mobile Banking

Out of the many consumer banking apps, BofA sets the bar with an easy to use banking tool. It offers balances, bill paying and an ATM finder. Competitors Chase, Wells Fargo and Citibank have similar apps, but BofA edges them out. The simplicity of the user interface wins raves from fans.

• Released July 2008.
• No. 1 in App Store finance category.

Missed Opportunity: MasterCard’s Priceless Picks. This app uses user-generated content, which opens a can of worms because the content is moderated. MasterCard’s app, released in July 2009, gets panned by users for censoring their own “priceless” selections and its overload of ad offers.

Consumer Packaged Goods:

Kraft iFood Assistant

Brands drool over this recipe app. Not only has Kraft nailed its audience by providing real utility thanks to its recipe and shopping tools, it’s developed — as have other brands with paid apps — a side business, charging users 99 cents. That so many shell out for it puts the iFood Assistant in a league of its own.

• Released November 2008.
• Over 7,000 recipes.
• No. 53 in App Store lifestyle category (paid apps).

Missed opportunity: Budweiser’s Bud American Ale Finder. The King of Beers has a dud of an iPhone app, released March 2009, which gets just two stars from users. Many panned its buggy performance and its dubious proposition that a Bud is hard to find.


The North Face Snow Report

The ski apparel maker knows what its active target demo wants: the location of good powder — without having ads shoved at them in the process. North Face takes a subtle approach with its robust weather app, relegating its logo to the corner of the screen, which has earned it a loyal following.

• Released December 2008.
• No. 5 in App Store weather category.

Missed Opportunity: Puma’s Puma Index. There’s no doubt the idea behind Puma’s first iPhone app, released September 2009, is sound. At a time when people are worried about their portfolios, why not entertain with female models that remove clothes if the stock market falls? But the devil’s in the details. Puma made a gargantuan 200mb download and neglected to add indexes other than the Dow.


Pandora Radio

The ad-supported music business is seemingly imploding, but live-streaming service Pandora might have hit on a workable formula with its wildly popular iPhone app. It ports over online preferences to do exactly what it promises: create a personalized radio station. Its ads aren’t alienating users — yet. But this isn’t surprising since the value it brings is worth the price of some ad messages, including mobile campaigns for brands like Dockers.
• Released July 2008.
• No. 1 music app in App Store.
Missed Opportunity: The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ app. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch is hell-bent on having consumers pay for digital content, but he’s missing out with this app. WSJ makes users pay an additional $1 per week subscription fee to access content — even if they already pay for Web site access. That and the app’s buggy performance has garnered it a torrent of critical reviews.


Pizza Hut

The fast-food restaurant bills its effort “a killer app for your appetite.” That might be going too far, but it does point the way towards the possibilities of mobile ordering. The app uses entertainment — users shake the phone to add sauce to wings, for instance — to make ordering a fun experience. While not without its detractors, the app boasts hard-core fans and has generated over $1 million in sales for Pizza Hut.

• Released in mid-July.
• No. 17 in App Store lifestyle category.

Missed Opportunity: Burger King’s Burger King Now. Back in April the fast-food giant introduced an iPhone app for ordering food in Flushing, N.Y. (which is in Queens). The problem: it still only works in Flushing, N.Y. For a national brand, BK could act faster in rolling this out widely.


Virgin Atlantic Flying Without Fear

Virgin is testing the limits of its brand with a $4.99 app targeted to fearful fliers. The content comes from a course Virgin has taught for years. It answers common questions like, “What is that noise?” and includes relaxation exercises. Released earlier this month, Flying Without Fear is Virgin’s first stab at a mobile app. It doesn’t hurt sales that the app, with its high price point, got Virgin coverage in dozens of blogs and news outlets.

• Released November 2009.
• No. 27 in App Store travel category (paid apps).

Missed Opportunity: Lufthansa has yet to create an app to complement its nifty MySkyStatus Web tool, which the German airline released in October, and which lets a user auto-update Twitter and Facebook with his or her flight status. Considering how often people use social networks on the go at airports, an iPhone app would seem the perfect fit.


Volkswagen Real Racing GTI

Time will tell if VW is savvy or silly in launching a new car model solely on the back of an iPhone app, but the game itself is a smash hit. The realistic graphics get rave reviews and the brand integration has had little backlash. Over half of Real Racing GTI’s ratings are four or five stars.

• Released October 2009.
• Over 2 million downloads in a month.

Missed Opportunity: General Motors’s GM Mobile. It feels as if we’re piling on the beleaguered auto company to point out its iPhone app, released last January, is a bad idea case study. But rather than provide utility, it takes the fuddy-duddy brand approach of pumping out corporate news. More than half of its 600 ratings were one star.