Encouragingly though, some brands have managed to get it right, Zippo's Virtual Lighter app (via Moderati, New York) being the most notable. Why does it work? Because it's fun. Because it lets you use your iPhone to do something pretty cool in a way that makes sense for the iPhone, and because it doesn't ruin the fun and the cool by trying to cram in a half-dozen copy points about why you might want to go out and buy a Zippo lighter -- right now. (It also doesn't make you register, give up your e-mail address, swear undying loyalty to Zippo lighters or many of the other ham-fisted techniques marketers use in the quest to "capture names.")
Coke's Spin the Bottle iPhone app (not yet out as I write this) also promises to deliver for all the same reasons. What's more, it's been clever enough to get some early PR buzz, so people are actually aware of and anticipating it. And Nike's Training Club, a free iPhone app aimed at women, also seems to be garnering many positive reviews and is the sort of utilitarian app we'd use even if it didn't have the Nike logo attached to it.
That is the alpha and the omega of success in this type of media: Make something people like and would want to use even if it didn't have a brand logo attached to it. If that sounds like an overly trite platitude and more than a bit obvious, that's because it is. But agencies and clients who assume a far greater degree of interest in and love for their products than actually exists often ignore this basic tenet of marketing. Not every brand needs its own iPhone app or desktop widget. It's a nice extra to provide if you can find a compelling reason for one, but it's certainly not a necessity.
And while a badly done TV commercial might not get a whole lot of recall, a useless widget or app gets zero. It's entirely possible that if you build it, no one will come.
Alan Wolk runs his own creative strategy firm, The Toad Stool. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.