How to Build the Perfect Branded App

Many conversations that I have with both brands and advertising agencies start with the dreaded words 'we want an iphone app'. Why dreaded? After all as a mobile agency we just love to build apps. Unfortunately, any conversation that starts with those words shows that they have not thought about meeting their brand objectives, or their customers, let alone a great creative idea. Ultimately anything that starts from that position is doomed to failure. Some agencies will feel that creating an iphone app will reach 'an important group of opinion formers', but that approach can be misguided. The idea that iphone users will spread the word to everyone else just doesn't fit. After all the mobile phone is one of the most personal technology devices we have, we rarely share them with anyone. Ultimately there is no evidence that it is a particularly viral medium.

There are three key things to keep in mind with the app development process:

  1. Apple's app store (and other app stores for that matter), are increasingly busy places. The simple existence of your app is not enough to get it downloaded.
  2. 95% of downloaded free apps are opened once or never at all. To put it another way, 95% of free apps are not in use after a month.
  3. With a highly active user base, developing a poor app is worse than not developing one at all.

So what is it that makes the perfect branded app?

In my view the perfect branded app is one that meets the brand objectives, works on their customers' handsets and at the same time it provides a good, engaging user experience. Barclaycard have had a great deal of success for their Waterslide application. Nearly a million people downloaded the game. It is a simple, addictive and highly engaging game. So is this the perfect branded app? No, quite far from it. If you have ever downloaded it you will see that there is very little branding. Just a logo on the home screen. The game was developed to promote their contactless payment cards and network. You may well have seen the adverts on TV. Yet in the app there is no customer journey. No way to find out more or even open an account. So, vast spend on TV advertising and a million downloads later, how has this enhanced the Barclaycard brand? In spite of it being the most downloaded branded app ever, I would argue that it has given the brand very little value. As one cynical colleague said 'it's the kind of thing my teenage son would play'.

Getting it wrong

At least Barclaycard had some benefit in terms of a positive user experience. Look what happened when Audi put a poorly thought out driving game into the app store. Driving a black car on a black background was unlikely to work for anyone. However, the problem with apps is that users will make a real effort to share their poor experiences. These were some of the comments from users: 'Just like a real A4 - it's boring and tedious', 'I feel ripped off - even though the game was free!'

That is one extreme example. Many brands have developed apps which are much more engaging, and right on the brand message. The Cooperative for example developed an iphone app called Grown By Us. The concept is a good one: as a retailer who emphasises the importance of locally grown food, the app allows the iphone user to scan the barcode of any locally grown product and the app shows you which farm it came from. It will even tell you who the farm manager is. It is right on message for that brand, and it works well. So is this the perfect branded app? Sadly not. There are two big problems. For a start, has anyone ever heard of it? This is a classic case of failure to promote the app properly. Its mere existence in the app store is not enough to generate any significant downloads. The second and biggest problem is, how many of the Cooperative's customers own an iphone? Looking at their demographic, it is very few indeed. So why was it only developed for the iphone?

Not everyone has an iphone

This may be stating the obvious, but it seems that some brands, and many agencies make the assumption that the mobile world is split into to two categories: those that own an iphone and those that want to own one. There are approximately 3 million iphones in use in the UK at this present time. Whilst at 4% of the total UK handset market, it is a pretty big chunk, it still means that 96% of people in the UK don't own an iphone. In fact, many of them don't even aspire to owning an iphone. For starters the Blackberry with its free BBM has a greater appeal to the teenage market. At the other end of the demographic, older users are largely interested in using their phones for texts and calls. The idea that the iphone represents an important group of opinion formers is misguided. Some brands do well to target the iphone. Take The Guardian's iphone app. For starters its very good, and secondly that clearly meets their demographic. This is proven by the fact that 50% of those who pay for their app still use it on a daily basis, which now represents 5% of the newspaper's downloaded content. However, this is the exception that proves the rule, that most people don't own Apple's handset.

The quick hit, brand engagement

One approach to developing the perfect branded app is to accept that users will only open it once (or twice if you're lucky) and focus on a neat bit of branding. A great example of that is one of the earliest branded apps: the Carling ipint. This was based on a US version, and the concept was simple. Play a game, fill your viral pint, then drink your virtual pint by tipping the glass towards you. It was fun because no one has seen the iphone do that before. It was a great bit of brand engagement, because the only reason you would download the app was to show off to your mates. You're not going to sit on the sofa at home on your own and drink your virtual pint. The brand value was enhanced further by the fact that iphone owners could show it off to their mates who didn't own an iphone.

Being useful

The success of the ipint is hard to repeat. Many brands have approached apps in terms of developing utilities that will encourage repeated use and through that, better brand engagement. Whilst some companies have simply reinvented the wheel with their apps, Lastminute.com have developed some useful and engaging utilities with their NRU and FoneFood apps. They have also looked beyond the iphone and developed them for other platforms such as Android. The AA have taken a similar approach, but unlike lastminute.com, they have focussed on their products such as the traffic information, or their B&B guide. Ironically, as well as their 'successful' Waterslide game, Barclaycard have also produced some good utilities, but rather than creating stand-alone apps they have used the Layar Augmented Reality browser to deliver the functionality. Their Layar utility allows users to point their camera down the street and from there it shows Barclaycard retailers, contactless payment retailers and ATM machines. However the fact that they have this app as well as the Waterslide game demonstrates a lack of consistency in their approach to mobile. It is not unusual that different departments of large companies develop apps in this ad-hoc way.

Uplifting Apps

Some brands have been much more on message with their apps, by developing ones that actually allow users to browse and buy products. Unsurprisingly, Amazon and Ebay are two companies that have done this well. However it is not simply restricted to online retailers. At the end of 2009, the noodle chain Wagamama produced an iphone app which he allowed iphone users to both order and pay for take-away food within the app. For many brands, this kind of approach represents the future. The mobile phone is increasingly becoming a transactional device: why not let customers browse, order and pay for stuff through their phone?

An App for All

The high street retailer, Marks and Spencer, focussed their offering on the transactional side of things. Their development allows their customers to browse and buy from 24,000 of their products. Already within a few months of release they are seeing mobile orders of up to 1000 from customers. What's more it's not just for the iphone it can be used on almost any handset. That's because M&S haven't developed an app, but rather have focussed their attention on the mobile web. It has all the features you would expect from an app: find my nearest store, remember me and a quick purchase button. For a brand such as Marks and Spencer, this is the perfect 'app'. It also shows the problem with many of the brand app developments: very often they can do the same job with a good mobile website. The rush to develop something for the iphone can seems to be little more than vanity on the brand's part.

Well Rounded

Perhaps the brand with the best strategy towards mobile and their apps are Nike. Starting with utility apps, such as their Training Tools, the sports company took app development to the obvious next step with NikeID. The app allows users to customise the colour of their trainers, store different versions of the shoes and order them. Although the company has only developed it for iphone and Android, they have taken the concept out to everyone in the street. Quite literally. Nike put up a 23 storey interactive screen in Time's Square, to which users could text in their shoe preferences creating their own, giant shoes to other New Yorkers.

Apps for Ever?

Whilst apps certain seem to serve a current need, there is an argument to say that they are a temporary solution. As better web-based technology arrives, such as HTML 5, then the need for apps will wane. Google are very much of the view that almost all mobile computing in the future will happen in The Cloud. At the moment, I am not convinced and I see apps as being here to stay for a while at least. That is due as much as anything else to the issue of data connections. HTML 5 generally assumes a good, constant data connection, but in reality that isn't the case. Apps can store a good amount of info and many can run well without any data connection.

Well Targeted

Developing the perfect branded app means not just meeting the brand and campaign objectives, but also being where your users are, which is not necessarily on an iphone. One great advantage of mobile is that one can target specific demographics through the mobile handset itself something that could not be done through other digital channels. The demographic data is available through research companies such as Comscore M:metrics. A typical iphone user represents one of those groups. However if you are a high street retailer in clothing or food, then your demographic Is more likely to be represented by users with more basic Nokia or Sony Ericsson phones.

If we consider brand values and delivering to your customer's handsets then the perfect branded app may not be an app at all. It may just be a very good mobile site.

Article: The Business Case for Mobile

Written By: Paul Norman (First Tutors)