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What brands need to consider before developing mobile apps

Let’s go mobile‘, could vie for top place with ‘Lets create a Facebook page‘ when it comes to brand manager requests in recent times. In the US and other developed countries, brands have featured in the Apple iTunes store for years now. For some, it is a necessity – banks, airlines and hotels for example. Since consumers and their mobile devices have become inseparable, its natural that brands wanted to become a part of it. There are a slew of banking apps and travel apps from airlines and booking & loyalty apps from hotel chains. Automobile brands too have placed several gaming apps, utility apps and catalogues for consumers on mobile app stores. Shopping on the mobile has been on the increase and so retail stores like Target and even e-commerce sites like eBay have had a strong presence on mobiles. Ironically, mobiles have led to the concept of ‘showrooming’ where consumers visit a brick & mortar store, check out the merchandise that interests them (maybe even browse online using the store’s WiFi network) and then go ahead and buy it online where they are likely to get a better price deal. And then there are brands from categories which have ‘relatively’ weaker need for mobile: food brands for example. Kraft Foods has had a strong presence on iOS for a long time now with their iFood Assistant. Even a toilet paper brand finds place among mobile apps: P&G created the out of the box Sit or Squat mobile app for their brand Charmin – it helps consumers find a restroom online.

In India, a handful of brands (not including magazine titles for whom the need for a mobile presence is obvious ) have created dedicated mobile apps: banks, airlines, hotels, sporting events, sports teams, some e-commerce brands come to mind. Should brands consider mobile apps? What can a native mobile app do that other elements of a mobile strategy (banner ads, web-based app, a Facebook presence etc.) cannot do? Without getting into the debate of web-app vs. native mobile app (some good reads here and  here), herewith some thoughts:

In my view, consumers interact with mobile devices for 4 broad reasons:

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There could be an overlap of these activities depending on individual preference. For example, a consumer might surf products available on an e-commerce brand’s mobile app just for a lark or with an express intent of buying an anniversary gift. In a study done by BBDO and AOL, 7 primary motivations for mobile usage were identified, the most popular one (with the largest amount of time spent) being ‘me time’.

But merely choosing to go with an app that fits into any one of the above groups isn’t the starting. Firstly, one needs a clear indication that a significant portion of the brand’s audience (need not be the majority necessarily but an influential one) is actively spending time on a mobile device; coupled with that one needs to figure out if such consumers are seeking information, interacting with the category in any manner on the mobile. And then ask yourself if a brand presence on the mobile can dovetail into the overall marketing & business strategy. Naturally, it wouldn’t make sense for say a scouring powder catering to the lower SEC’s (who may spend a lot of time on a feature phone) to jump to a conclusion about the need for a mobile app.

Secondly, ask yourself: ‘what value can the brand’s mobile app deliver that another platform (say TV or Radio) cannot’? It is certain that unless the brand’s mobile app adds some value to the user there is not a chance that the app will be noticed, downloaded and used. The value that the brand brings depends upon the category, the brand’s business & marketing goals, its brand positioning and so on. Thirdly, (and this is more a job of your mobile app development company) provide a strong reason-why for your consumers to use your app again and again. This is pretty much similar to the days of brand websites and microsites – many of them do not provide a reason for consumers to keep visiting the site again and again.

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photo credit: corebasis via photopin cc

Now let us look at the 4 broad categories I outlined above:

Entertainment: If ‘entertainment’ is to be defined as casual games that help a consumer kill time or ‘zone out’ at leisure, this is perhaps the most difficult category for  a brand to make a breakthrough. Consumers are already spoilt for choice and besting Angry Birds or whatever the latest craze is, is not easy. But thee is a way out. If the game can be anchored on a unique property that the brand owns or advertising has created then there is a chance of the game being a hit. Barclay Cards did it with their Waterslide Extreme game, which was a visual reference to their popular TV spot. In Australia, SC Johnson created a game for Raid pest control spray. The integrated campaign, created by UrsaClemenger, features a 30-second TVC featuring three different householders in a game-styled mission against domestic bugs. The iTunes store blurb says ‘the game educates you on the Raid One Shot range and lets you practice your insect control skills in a fun, virtual environment’. And then there are a host of racing games from Volkswagen for their various sub-brands including Polo and Touareg.

Productivity:  defined as apps which help the consumer make the most of their time and getting things done, these typically offer convenience.  Apps from airline brands come to mind immediately – they offer flight status, booking of tickets, checking in and so much more. Some take an ‘elevated’ positioning – Forbes magazine for example, offers the Lifetime Financial Planning app. Mostly, brands in this category stick to their knitting and offer a benefit related to their category. A tax planning app from a financial services brand or a pizza ordering app from a pizza brand could be examples.

Utility: yes, there is a definite overlap between this category and ‘productivity’, but I define this as apps that consumers refer to for ‘instant’ information, at a glance. So typically it could be a currency converter or a weather app – these would be referred to often (or when the need arises) but the interaction is ephemeral. A reward points app from a hotel chain, a first aid app from a hospital brand or an ATM-finder from a bank could fall into this category.

Information: if one were to define it as apps which help consumers find information that empowers or equips them or hep make a buying decision, then catalogs, price comparison apps, calorie counters, recipe apps and such like could come under this. Again, it could have an overlap with other categories as defined here.

The features of an app that you finally put out could serve any of the above interactions or a combination of a couple. The critical aspect is to add some value to the consumer. The Harvard Business Review stresses upon the unique value of an app, in the article, ‘For Mobile Devices, think Apps not Ads‘. So what unique value will your brand’s mobile app provide?

Disclosure: I am a Director at CodeConclave, which creates mobile apps for brands.

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