Feature: I’m on the Phone!

Chief marketing officers often fall prey to the belief that others are ahead of the queue in staking claims in new media. Two years ago, a CMO might have felt she was missing out on Second Life and hurriedly assembled a virtual storefront there. Around the same time, she would have raced a widget out on the market. In each case, the motivation seems to be able to say, “Yeah, we’ve got one of those,” and appear on top of things. That’s not to say checkoff items are inherently worthless. Circa 1995, it probably was a good idea to get one of those site things going on the World Wide Web.

The checkoff item du jour is an iPhone app. Made possible by the 3G-enabled iPhone that Apple introduced in June 2008, iPhone apps have greatly expanded the utility of the mobile phone.

Users can choose from hundreds of apps-many of them free — that do everything from play games to find local restaurants to act as a 21st century whoopee cushion (the infamous iFart app). It wasn’t long — only a few weeks, in fact — until a marketer, Bank of America, rolled out an iPhone app. Suddenly, marketers seemed to solve a major problem with mobile advertising: How to get users, the iPhone’s (and the iPod Touch’s) combined 17 million in this case, to opt in for advertising messages.

As a result, talk to just about any agency or marketer in February 2009 and most of them either have an iPhone app on the market or are contracting with someone to code one up. Why not? They only cost $50,000 to $100,000 to make and the upside is almost unlimited. Kraft even pulled off the feat of getting consumers to pay 99 cents for its iFood Assistant app, which provides recipes for shoppers on the go, usually with a preference for Kraft-created ingredients.

Was iFood a fluke? There are now about 100 branded iPhone apps out there, industry watchers say. They can’t all be hits, but are the marketers who are staking their turf now doing so effectively? We looked at a few of the most popular branded iPhone apps that have hit the market. We wanted to see whether they were genuinely useful, if consumers seemed to like them and, in the end, if they had anything to offer other than bragging rights for the CMO. –Todd Wasserman

• Will Apps Mean Apple Forever? Don’t Bet on It!
• The Audi A4 Driving Challenge
• Bank of America Mobile Banking
• Gap MerryMix It
• Kraft iFood Assistant
• NikeWomen Training Club
• The Snow and Ski Report by REI
• Seventh Generation Label Reading Guide

WILL APPS MEAN APPLE FOREVER? DON’T BET ON IT!

By Mike Shields

Apps are virtually synonymous with the iPhone (apps even sounds like Apple, which no doubt makes the corporate marketing folks quite happy). But, it turns out that Apple has no complete lock on the mobile-application phenom; it’s not even the only company with its own apps store.

For the time being, though, iPhone apps might as well be the only game in town in the minds of most consumers. Research In Motion — the company that produced the BlackBerry — has long encouraged outside developers to create mini apps for its handheld devices, according to Tyler Lessard, director of independent software vendor alliances.

For example, business travelers can download apps produced by publishers like Zagat and Lonely Planet along with travel e-tailer Orbitz. There are also functional apps from Bank of America and Fidelity, as well as apps produced by media companies like ESPN and The New York Times.

One difficulty has been that BlackBerry has lacked one central place in which to aggregate all these mini-software programs. That should change this spring with the introduction of the BlackBerry Application Storefront — RIM’s answer to Apple’s iPhone Apps Store — that will be available on all BlackBerry devices with a trackball or touch screen (the company reported 21 million subscribers overall as of last November). “From day one, BlackBerry has been open to developers,” said Lessard. “We’re excited to put all that stuff together in one central place.”

BlackBerry’s storefront will arrive just a few months after Google’s Android Market, which debuted last October as an apps store serving the new line of G1 phones, the first of which launched with T-Mobile. Microsoft, also a major producer of mobile software, is said to be working on an apps store of its own.

Thus far, Amazon, Skype and MySpace are among the more recognizable brands in the Android Market, though bloggers have bemoaned the lack of big names. Neither BlackBerry nor Google has seen much interest from companies like Kraft and Gap, which have led a recent wave of consumer brand apps appearing in Apple’s store. According to Julie Ask, vp, principal analyst at Forrester Research, there are a few simple reasons for that. The iPhone is perceived as being extremely cool right now, and extremely easy to work with.

“With Apple, it’s one device, one platform, and you instantly reach 20 million iPhones,” she said. It’s a different story with competitors like BlackBerry and Google. They work with numerous carriers (Apple uses only AT&T for now) and they don’t necessarily own the devices their mobile software runs on. “Both have a very fragmented base, and right now that’s not an attractive platform for app developers,” Ask added.

Then there’s the unalienable marketing truth that aesthetics matter. “Stuff looks good on the iPhone,” Ask said. “And that’s what attracts brands.”

But Lessard expects that BlackBerry’s customers will be very attractive to brands in the near future. He pointed to recent apps created by Facebook and MySpace (not sites many people might associate with BlackBerry) that have been very successful. “Over time, you’ll see a number of brands in the mix,” he said. “It won’t be different for different devices.”

   

AUDI

Name: The Audi A4 Driving Challenge

Developer: Factory Design Labs, Denver

Date launched: Mid-August, which makes Audi’s A4 Driving Challenge among the first branded iPhone apps to hit the scene. Being that the 3G iPhone was introduced nationally on July 11, that was pretty quick work on Audi’s part; in fact, Design Labs claims it built the app in two weeks.

What it does: It’s a driving game that features a tiny version of the A4 wending its way through a range of courses. To steer, you merely tilt your iPhone left or right, much the way you would turn an ordinary steering wheel. The gas pedal and brakes appear as touchable icons on the screen.

The target: When it was released, Audi CMO Scott Keough praised the automaker’s customers as “smart, sophisticated and technically savvy,” and said the driving game underscored Audi’s commitment to “progress and innovation at every turn.” (Pun, presumably, intended.)

Metrics: Despite some so-so reviews, Audi claims the app has been downloaded 2.7 million times worldwide since it was introduced and has resulted in about half a million referrals to the A4’s iPhone Web site (which is linked from the game). That trumps the 400,000 or so visitors to Audi’s A4 iPhone Web site that weren’t referred by the game.

BANK OF AMERICA

Name: Bank of America Mobile Banking

Date launched: July 2008, meaning it may have been the first branded app on the iPhone.

What it does: Mobile banking stuff. You can check your balance, make a transfer and even see where the local ATMs are. True, other banks offer pretty much the same functionality via their Web sites, which are accessible on the iPhone’s Safari browser, but putting all this in one app makes the process a lot quicker. Additionally, because many banks need to tweak their interfaces in order to perform well on the iPhone screen, the performance of their sites is, at best, clunky. According to people who have done it, transferring your Web site experience onto the iPhone isn’t all that easy, but a developer kit for the iPhone that Apple plans to roll out this week should help.

The target: BofA’s existing customers, though the app could also be seen as a draw for new customers who like the idea of an easy banking experience from their iPhone. Doug Brown, svp of mobile product development at BofA, has said that most of the bank’s 1.7 million active users have smart phones.

Downloads to date: About 2 million, according to Bank of America.

GAP

Name: Gap MerryMix It

Developer: AKQA, San Francisco

Date launched: Nov. 21, 2008

What it does: Make that did. This limited-time app, launched for the ’08 holiday shopping season, included videos of celebrities like Selma Blair and Rainn Wilson belting out Christmas carols. The video was a rehash of Gap’s “Merry Mix It” Christmas campaign, but the app featured value-added options like a template that let shoppers mix and match various clothing combos. There was also a gift list for holiday shopping and, of course, a Gap store finder.

The target: Typical Gap shoppers, who tend to be in their 20s and 30s.

Takeaway: While other iPhone apps appear to be designed for use in perpetuity, Gap’s app had a more ephemeral plan in mind. Could iPhone apps be thought of as merely extensions to ad campaigns?

KRAFT

Name: Kraft iFood Assistant

Developer: Genex, New York

Date launched: Nov. 14, 2008

What it does: Just what any harried homemaker needs: It gives advice on how to prepare quick and satisfying meals. The iFood Assistant boasts a database of more than 7,000 recipes. That’s enough to furnish three nonrepeating meals a day for 19-plus years. The only catch is — surprise! — many of them call for ingredients that just so happen to be manufactured by Kraft. The recipes are presented in step-by-step fashion, sometimes with video demos. The app also has features like “Recipe of the Day” and “Dinner Tonight” that suggest meals for consumers who have no idea what to put on the table that evening.

The target: The lucky family member who does the shopping and the cooking. These consumers tend to be females aged 25-54 and are often consulting their iPhones when they hit the supermarket a few hours before the chow bell. To reach such consumers, Kraft worked with AdMob to advertise on other iPhone apps like Urban Spoon that targeted those in food-gathering mode.

Downloads to date: Kraft declined comment, but sources said it’s now in the seven-figure range.  

Footnote: When the iPhone first came out, its user base was mostly male — the ratio was around 3:1. But now, industry watchers say, the margin has narrowed, and we’re close to an even gender split.

NIKE

Name: NikeWomen Training Club

Developer: R/GA, New York

Date launched: Jan. 15, 2009

What it does: It helps with shedding that pesky holiday-season poundage. According to a survey conducted late last year, 45 percent of Americans said losing weight would be their New Year’s resolution for 2009. But it’s a good bet that many of those reformers don’t feel like dropping the cash for a gym membership. Enter the NikeWomen Training Club app, which helps female users develop an exercise routine and employs video to show them just how the exercises should be done.

The target: Though Nike has other iPhone apps on the market now, this one was aimed at women and is accessible from nikewomen.com.

Downloads to date: Nike declined to say, but the app made No. 5 on Apple’s “What’s Hot” section for iPhone apps in January.

Footnote: Nike’s app seems to be the only branded one that allows for significant customization. Users can create their own workout programs on NikeWomen that take everything into consideration, from workout intensity to skin tone.

REI

Name: The Snow and Ski Report by REI

Developer: The Zumobi Network

Date launched: Dec. 15, 2008

What it does: Gives skiing reports for locations in the U.S. and Canada. With the app, users can “quickly select a slope and access information, including temperature; new, top and base snow depth; snow conditions; and number of open lifts,” according to a statement that REI and developer Zumobi put out at the time of the intro. The app also includes a link to “Shop REI,” for when you decide that you can’t live without a new set of K2 skis or a two-man HooDoo tent.

The target: REI’s hardy and well-heeled customers, people who can still drop $679 for a 7-day lift ticket

Downloads to date: REI declined to say.

Reception: Overall positive, but some complain that you can only program three mountains at once.

SEVENTH GENERATION

Name: Seventh Generation Label Reading Guide

Developer: 180LA

Date launched: Not out yet. Supposed to hit the iPhone Apps store this week

What it does: Lets you look up ingredients you see listed on Seventh Generation and other competing products while you’re shopping. Once you enter an ingredient, the program will tell you what it is, why it’s in there and what its known effects are. The Label Reading Guide also welcomes shoppers to submit ingredients to have added to the list if they can’t find the one they’re looking for. Yes, you could do all this with Google, but here’s everything in one place, and described with scientific authority that presumably outweighs Wikipedia.

The target: Consumers who are hyper-aware of organics and earth-friendly products.

Why this makes sense: On first impression, this app almost seems contradictory. If organic products contain no fishy, synthetic ingredients, then what’s to explain anyway? But household cleaners are still a realm of mystery. Seventh Generation is running a digital campaign called, “Show the world what’s inside,” that’s designed to reveal the scary chemicals found in regular household cleaners (you know, the ones dubiously labeled “safe when used as directed”?) With the help of this app, the campaign educates consumers about what they’re really spraying on that greasy countertop.