Brand Apps Need to Provide a Utility to Stay Visible

And it isn’t all about coupons

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Janette Yauch, Charmin’s brand manager, is meeting this week with marketers for sister Procter & Gamble brand Duracell to brainstorm how to charge up popularity around the battery’s smartphone app. In the packaged-goods world, Yauch’s word might as well be gospel since her brand’s SitOrSquat app found a strong female following among seekers of clean public rest rooms. A basic tip Yauch plans to share: “You have to think like your users.”

More importantly, you have to have a hell of an idea, agreed industry observers. Nearly every CPG brand rushed to create a cool smartphone app a few years ago, but there currently isn’t a single CPG app on the Apple Store’s Top 200 list—not even SitOrSquat, the five-year-old app that has grown to roughly 240,000 users. That one of the buzziest CPG apps hasn’t passed the quarter-million user threshold in half a decade underscores the challenge. That said, tech (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), financial (Chase, Paypal), travel (Expedia) and retail (Amazon, Target, Walgreens) brands are thriving. And yet Yauch remains bullish about her app’s continued role in Charmin’s broader marketing outlay. “We’ve seen a really strong return on investment,” she said. “We’re doing constant outreach with bloggers and influencers for events.”

Charmin also hyped SitOrSquat with paid mobile banners and search ads. Steady promotion is key for a CPG to make any kind of mark, said SessionM CEO Lars Albright, who adds that scores of brands have created apps only to neglect them. His firm recently surveyed 4,000 Walmart shoppers and found only 20 percent knew the retail giant had a smartphone app at all. “The worst-case scenario is to spend up to $300,000 and then get little traction,” Albright said. “You don’t get any scale without marketing behind it, and you’ll get a lot of one-and-done users.”

Joe McCambley, co-founder of digital design firm Wonderfactory, elaborated that the branded apps movement has hit a wall “because discoverability is a huge problem. Traditional advertisers are struggling because they aren’t helping consumers get things done.”Ultimately, it’s all about providing utility like Charmin’s, McCambley said. (The Nike+ exercise app is a perfect example.)

But when asked what interactive tools other packaged-goods firms should supply—beyond coupons, shopping lists and recipes—mobile industry watchers seem stumped. “It’s tough for CPGs to create a use case that can’t be easily found through a website,” said Tamara Gaffney, senior marketing manager for Adobe Digital Index. “Hey, it took the airlines quite a while before offering boarding passes on their apps.”

One thing is for sure: As consumers roam the pavement, smartphones in hand, CPGs could use more street cred.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.