The advertising model that we've known for the last 100 years or so may be on its way out. That model went something like this: You try to complete some task — read the paper, watch a TV show, drive home from work — and the ad will interrupt what you're doing.
That framework has been uprooted by the digital-media revolution. Back in the days when desktop was the only game in town, marketers never figured out the equivalent of the 30-second TV ad. Banner ads were small, but no one clicked them. Do a page takeover, and you'll annoy readers so much that they might not come back. Yet the sheer growth of the Internet propelled Internet ad growth.
Then mobile came along. Here, consumers bristled even more at banners. And interrupting someone on their phone? Bad idea.
In early 2009, about 18 months after the first iPhone arrived, advertisers figured a way around this: branded apps. Nike, Target and Coca-Cola (remember its mobile "spin the bottle" game?) all launched such apps, but pretty soon, every brand had one. And pretty soon, most consumers realized they didn't need one.
That brings us to 2014. If a consumer wants to download your app, it better be good. Unfortunately, most aren't.
"Unless it's giving real utility and value and person reward, it's a complete waste of time," said Rob Feakins, chief creative officer and president of New York-based ad agency Publicis Kaplan Thaler. In Feakins' view, Charmin's Sit Or Squat app fits the bill. Created by PKT on behalf of Charmin, the app points out nearby restrooms, and has received more than 100,000 downloads on Android. (Apple's App Store doesn't provide comparable figures.)
Reality check: Think about the apps you use every day. Chances are that unless they're games, these apps provide some sort of useful service. The only branded apps on my phone are for Citi (where I do my banking) and several restaurants (e.g. Chop't and Chipotle) that I occasionally patronize. I could see a situation in which Charmin's app might come in handy, like if I'm traveling in a strange city, but I don't need to have it on my phone every day.
I have 36 apps on my phone; this number is a bit higher than the maximum of 30 that most people use, according to a recent survey from Nielsen. The report said there may be an "upper limit to the total number of apps users are willing to access within a given month" — and that sounds about right. After taking a closer look, I realize there are a few apps I almost never use (Map My Run and Pinterest, I'm looking at you) but have been too lazy to delete. There are are also other apps, such as Citi Bike and Foursquare, that I only use on special occasions.
Then there are a handful, such as Citi and New Jersey Transit's app, which I use practically every day. In both cases, the apps do make me feel better about the brands — after all, they make my life easier.
Branded apps as defense
Since every bank has an app these days, however, Citi's app seems more like a requirement rather than a novel part of the brand experience that gives it a boost over competition.
Consumers don't have that many basic needs. It's hard to see how a new app could address one that they didn't even know existed. Creating new wants is what marketing's all about, of course, but this seems to be impossible for even the industry's top minds.
"For a marketer, it's almost like creating a new business in itself," said Sarah Hofstetter, chief executive officer of digital marketing agency 360i. "You've got to make it sticky enough for people to use, and then you have to pay for the cost of distribution — there are so many apps out there — you've got to think long and hard before making that decision."
There's one exception to the utility rule: As Feakins noted, people want to be entertained. In some cases, consumers have been willing to download a branded app that's part of an elaborate joke. 360i's Wake Up and Smell the Bacon alarm-clock app for Oscar Mayer, for instance, is worth a shot if you also have the iPhone dongle that emits the smell of bacon. Jell-O's Jiggle-It app, which shows a mound of Jell-O that dances in sync to songs, is also good for a laugh.
Novelties aside, though, branded apps these days are much more about customer retention than customer acquisition, as they go from something that surprises and delights to something that's expected.
Tags: BRANDED APPS, BUSINESS, MARKETING