REI vs. The North Face in iPhone App Tactics

NEW YORK The North Face and REI compete for the hearts and minds of snow enthusiasts. Now they’re taking their battle to a new front: the iPhone.
The rival retailers are both out with competing iPhone applications that perform a similar function: tell skiers and snowboarders about the conditions at resorts. The Snow Report, released last month by The North Face, and the REI Snow and Ski Report, released a few weeks later, enable users to track weather forecasts and snow conditions. Both are free and available through the iTunes App Store.
The retailers, however, took different approaches in their attempts to reach consumers through the iPhone platform after confronting a dilemma many advertisers face in digital: build a property outright or partner with experts.
The North Face has chosen to go it alone. Denver digital agency Factory Design Labs constructed The North Face Snow Report app, which provides the current weather, forecast and snow base at up to 10 resorts, along with driving directions. The app is lightly branded, featuring The North Face logo in the bottom right corner.
“Having your own prop app is much more powerful than one you sponsor,” said Nate Bosshard, brand manager of action sports at The North Face. Having brand ownership in that space is extremely important, he said.
REI, on the other hand, went a more traditional route, buying placement on an app developed by mobile app company Zumobi. Like The North Face, the REI Snow and Ski Report offers conditions and weather forecasts at resorts.
So far, REI’s choice is bearing the most fruit: it is ranked as the No. 5 weather-related app. The North Face is not represented in the top 15, as compiled by Apple. Ken Willner, CEO of Zumobi, credits the company’s tech prowess and stable of apps for creating a distribution network that allows it to offer clients like REI performance pricing.
“There are over 10,000 apps in the App Store,” he said. “Two guys in garage can create an iPhone app, but it won’t get used or seen.”

Still, some brands have chosen to do it on their own with iPhone apps. Molson-owned Carling built iPint, which simulates a beer pouring. (The company is the subject of litigation over whether it ripped off the idea from an app maker who looked to strike a sponsorship deal with Carling.)

Other brands have targeted the iPhone with apps, including recent efforts by Target and Gap tied to the holidays.

The North Face decided to target the iPhone because of the technological possibilities of the advanced phone, along with noticing that its upwardly mobile, tech-savvy demographic overlapped significantly with the iPhone’s, said Aaron Carpenter, vp of marketing for The North Face.
“The advantage of having it on the iPhone is just that it’s mobile,” he said. “A lot of our end users are mobile and on the road.”
Brands underestimate how hard it is to build a useful mobile application, said John SanGiovanni, vp of product design at Zumobi. Zumobi has experience in building the earliest iPhone apps, including an Olympics tool sponsored by Lenovo and a National Football League app that garnered 150,000 downloads in just two weeks. What’s more, they lack distribution, relying on a “if you build it, they will download” mentality, he said.
“Many are just ads as applications,” SanGiovanni said. “You need something with real utility. It needs to be a compelling utility to the user first and foremost.”