Mobile apps: not a must-have for all consumer brands

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Ad industry veterans said recently in an interview that brands should ‘think apps and not ads‘. I respect the two gentlemen a lot and the agency’s work but I would add a note of caution to that statement. Apps are not relevant for all consumer brands. Sure, it is the most obvious consumer utility or engagement tool for certain categories: airlines, financial institutions like banks and e-commerce come to mind. The statement to note and which should have been highlighted is this: the more brands can create useful apps the more effective and loved they will be. The operative word being ‘useful’. It does not mean that brands should not think ads anymore.

Some categories seem ‘just right’ for a mobile app but run the risk of poor utility value in no time – for example, hotel brands. A 5-star hotel brand may decide to offer a branded mobile app for its guests to manage their bookings, loyalty points etc. But travel aggregator apps through which one can book any hotel room across brands, render such an app useless. It could be true for airline brands too – today I manage all my airline bookings through CLeartrip and not an individual airline’s app. I am not a frequent flyer and the experience could be different for those who fly often on business – they might book tickets, check in and track loyalty points. For such an eventuality, it makes sense for airline brands to offer a stand alone mobile app. But it is not imperative that all consumer facing brands, say biscuits, floor cleaners and such like must offer a mobile app.

The critical questions to ask are:

– does my brand’s app meet a real consumer need and offers a solution or utility?
– what can the app offer or do different from the brand’s other digital platforms?
– is there a reason for it be accessed and used often? Can we make it so?
– if not utility value, does the brand offer an entertainment value which benefits my brand? Can we make it so compelling that it is used often?

The first question is a no-brainer for banks, e-commerce and such like. But for others, the answer is not simple. Let’s take a sanitary napkin brand for example. It may think of an app which helps consumers track their periods. There are many such apps already and hence the product and marketing challenges would be different: (a) why should a consumer download our app not one of the many such apps available already? (b) how do we ensure consumers discover the app (c) how do we ensure the app is used regularly – how do we make it delightful to use? If you are the brand manager of a biscuit brand you’d probably struggle to answer the first two questions. Which brings me to the question of priorities: if the brand’s business goals are met splendidly by mass media and digital presence (on Facebook for example), why ‘force-fit’ a mobile app into the marketing mix? It is like finding a solution to a problem which does not exist.

The second & third questions are more to do with app strategy and design. I have seen instances of brands creating apps for festive occasions like ‘Raksha Bandhan’ through which consumers can send greetings. I find such efforts to be a waste of time and money. Messaging apps are ubiquitous nowadays and consumers don’t really need a brand’s app for such; there are other platforms like Facebook for such. Movie brands often release apps which simply have music videos and wallpapers – content which can be easily accessed elsewhere on the web. Creating a branded app for the sake of it and finding it languishing in the app store un-discovered and un-used, is a pity and wasteful effort. For example this Close-Up app from 2013:

Get up close with Badtameez Bunny and Nerdy Naina in a whole new way! Watch the stars of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (YJHD) rock to Badtameez Dil on the special new CloseUp pack. All you have to do is download our CloseUp With Stars app on your phone and scan the crazy duo’s pic on the pack.

The likelihood of anyone downloading the app just to see the film stars dance to a tune on a mobile phone screen is low. But I guess those were the days when brands were experimenting with apps.

So for categories which seemingly cannot offer any utility or productivity value through apps (typically FMCG brands of everyday use – candies, biscuits, soft drinks and such like), bespoke mobile games which link back to the brand property in some way are an option. Mondelez, for example, has these:

– in Norway & Denmark, there is an AR game where a user has to catch flying Oreos a virtual glass of milk
– Stride gum’s Gumulon game is controlled by jaw movements


Unilever too has a set of mobile apps:


Automobile brands have the advantage of being able to offer games and utility apps seamlessly.

Volkswagen India app

Some of the branded games which caught my eye over the years – purely from the point of view of linking back to a brand property or offering some utility:

– Campbell’s Alphabet Soup: word scramble app from Campbell Soup Company
– Barclay card’s Waterslide Extreme
– The Scarecrow game for Chipotle which wanted to convey that the brand ‘cares’ to promote natural food

Not every consumer brand’s is suited for a mobile game either. It’s positioning, advertising proposition or property must lend itself well to a game. Also, with such games brands are fighting for attention with the best of the best – the Angry Birds, Temple Run etc., so it is a huge challenge in terms of matching production values.

There are several other developments which have a bearing on mobile apps:

– the digital world is changing so fast that several categories are getting disrupted in unlikeliest of ways through apps. Taxi service apps have gained popularity of late and are disrupting public transport in many cities. So a bespoke app for a brand mapping its retail outlets (some brands attempted that in the past) will be irrelevant in no time
– app discovery is a real problem which all apps grapple with. Brands should not assume that just because they built an app consumers will find and use them
– limited usage occasions is also an issue apps need to grapple with. A paint brand may offer an augmented reality app which showcases how a wall could look like in different colours but its usefulness is only relevant when the owner is decorating a house.

So when it comes brands and apps, there’s a lot to think about before putting pen to paper or shall we say moving from pixel to code.

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