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.