Almost immediately after Apple opened the floodgates on its App Store, developers, investors, and brands began gravitating toward the platform with a speed and interest that's unmatched in the history of mobile phones. Brands -- large and small -- see the iPhone as a unique mobile outlet that can help them connect with consumers in a way that's more crafty than overt.
Some brands have opted to downplay their presence on their applications by delivering some utility, be it snow reports, recipes, or some other functionality. But defining branded iPhone applications isn't all black and white -- there is plenty of gray area when it comes to their categorization.
Michael Tchong, trend analyst at Ubercool, says that he defines a branded app as a "standalone application that's distinct from your normal touchpoints." Under his definition, the larger group of applications from companies like Amazon, eBay, and Hotels.com wouldn't qualify. "It's not just another window on your business," he says.
Tchong's research into branded apps led him to eight examples: Audi A4, Carling iPint, Chanel, GAP, Hooters Slider, Kraft iFood, Oakley Surf Report, and Zippo. Other branded iPhone applications include Coca Cola's Magic Bottle and SpinTheCoke, and REI's Snow Report.
"There are not enough branded apps," Tchong says. "What... about 10 out of 16,000? Marketers need to get in on the game, like now."
According to Tchong's research, Chanel deserves kudos for being the first brand out of the gate with an iPhone app on July 16. Carling's iPint came less than a week later, followed by Audi's A4 Driving Challenge in mid August.
The iPhone came as a late entry to the smartphone game, but it's quickly gained relevancy and earned the not-so-closeted jealousy of its incumbent competitors in the mobile phone space. And brands quickly took notice. For brands that were already making their mobile presence known on high-end operating systems from BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian, the iPhone came as an obvious extension of their wireless strategies.
Many others, however, saw the iPhone as their first opportunity to make a big splash in mobile by harnessing its unique characteristics -- namely the user experience and feature set of the device -- for marketing purposes.
The brands that came earliest out of the gate have built a loose roadmap for others to follow as they look for smart and crafty ways to make an impression with an iPhone app. Above all, marketers looking to dive into the iPhone race should make sure that their app maintains their sense of cool and usefulness long after that initial download.
In this article, iMedia provides some insights into what resonates with today's iPhone users by taking a deeper look at some of the companies that are dabbling in the branded app arena.
Eric Perez, the group creative director at Blitz Agency, says there are plenty of opportunities for brands to achieve marketing objectives with an iPhone application. What's particularly interesting about the platform, he says, is that brands can anchor themselves onto a device that stays with consumers almost every waking minute (and sometimes the sleeping minutes) of their life.
"I think it gets into the actual brand and what's the perception that they want to have when someone downloads the app," Perez says.
Take the Kraft iFood application, for example. "Ideally, it was tying back into some Kraft products, but not overtly. It isn't sell, sell, sell," Perez says. "There's a nice utility there." Yet, Perez notes, there's also a subtle reminder to users that the app was created by Kraft.
Although it hasn't come to pass yet, Perez anticipates that entertainment companies will make an especially powerful iPhone play in the future. After all, theatrical releases could make use of iPhone apps by teasing fans with key aspects of a film's story line, while targeting the demographics they covet the most.
Still, not everything that makes its way onto the iPhone will reap the marketing rewards offered by the platform, Perez says. There is a flipside. Some apps appear to be more of a joke than anything, he notes -- and they tend to overlook the brand almost entirely.
For example, Carling built an application for the iPhone that was essentially a virtual pint glass, but Perez sees very little marketing value in the application. "The brand sort of falls to the background," he says. Regardless, the Carling application is no longer available through the App Store. A drawn-out legal battle forced the company to pull the application because a company had already developed a strikingly similar application at a $2 price point. Like most branded iPhone applications, the Carling application was free.
Staying true to itself, Zippo developed an iPhone application that performs a single task and performs it well. The free Zippo Lighter application enables users to customize the look of their virtual lighters and simulate the reactions an actual Zippo would have to movements and conditions. Users can quickly jerk the iPhone to the left to open the Zippo and shift it to the right to close it. Lighting the Zippo requires a simple flick, and the application can recreate flame movement by recognizing bursts of wind blowing into the microphone.
The application was originally launched at the beginning of September as a brand-building effort with the goal of eventually driving sales. But as it stands now, there is no direct link to a site, says Brent Tyler, Zippo's event marketing and promotions manager.
"What we can track and what we can look at is the number of iPhone and iPod users who go to Zippo from those devices," Tyler says. "There's been a tremendous increase in traffic from those devices, and it's pegged around the release of that app."
Because the application was "strictly a brand-building effort out of the gate," Zippo hasn't tracked sales relative to the application, Tyler says, adding that, "It also gives them some idea of the breadth of the product line."
Still, by any measure, the application has been a marketing success with 2.5 million downloads to date. And online sales have spiked in the past couple months.
"Short of them having the product in their hand, this is the next best thing," Tyler says.
The iPhone was an obvious choice for Zippo because it carries significant weight in the 18-34 demographic. "There are a lot of people using the iPhone in that target audience," Pat Grandy, Zippo's marketing communications manager, told iMedia.
"iPhone is far and away one of the most preferred platforms right now," Grandy says. "We've had some initial discussion about other platforms. I think what it comes down to is seeing what rises to the top. I think the iPhone has a cachet that maybe the Zippo has, and we share that cool factor.
"There's another synergy there too," Grandy adds. "At concerts, there's a tradition we call the Zippo moment when people hold up their lighters. If they're going to be holding up their cellphones, they might as well be holding up their Zippo app on their iPhone."
REI isn't only a retail giant in its own sphere of the world; it has also worked to gain the respect and admiration of outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists for its work outside of the for-profit world. Part of that comes from delivering information that's important to its customers who make it their goal to spend more time off the beaten path than on it.
In that vein, REI developed the REI Snow Report for the iPhone to give users a free way to check ski and snowboarding conditions throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and parts of the Southern Hemisphere. The application also makes use of the iPhone's internal GPS to find resorts closest to the user at any given time.
"At REI we pride ourselves in providing friendly expertise as well as the tools and gear that outdoor enthusiasts need to get outside," says Natalie Crain, REI's online marketing manager. "The REI Snow Report application is an extension of our brand in that we are providing a tool for snow lovers to get mobile accessible updates on snow conditions to fully enjoy their outdoor experience."
As for the marketing value, she said "the benefit of providing this tool is increasing our brand engagement in the time that users are spending with the application."
To date, the free application has been downloaded at least 54,000 times. "Over time this has translated into 750,000 minutes spent using the application and with the REI brand top of mind," Crain says.
As with many marketing pushes, measuring success can be a slippery slope. For its part, REI is sticking to basic metrics and social media buzz. "We are gauging success through the number of downloads, monthly unique visitors, referral traffic to the REI.com website, and viral discussion of the application," Crain says.
The REI Snow Report is also available on Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices. "We chose these three platforms, as they are the most highly adopted smartphone platforms on the market," Crain says.
Kraft's application, iFood Assistant, stands out in the field of branded iPhone apps because it's one of the few -- if not only -- applications that comes with a price tag that's handed down to the consumer.
"They're probably one of the few brands that can pull off a paid app," says Steven Rosenblatt, vice president of ad sales for Quattro Wireless.
The application carries more than 7,000 recipes (most of which include Kraft products), a suite of instructional cooking videos, meal shopping lists, and a store locator feature.
"We're able to make our content come alive on iPhone," says Ed Kaczmarek, Kraft's director of innovation and new services, in a promotional spot on Apple's App Store. "It provides the best consumer experience available."
Kraft is currently enjoying a rather prominent promotion on Apple's website and in the App Store, which features video interviews with executives involved in the app's development. You can learn more about Kraft's strategy behind the application and the characteristics that led the company down the iPhone path in this video.
Not only is Kraft delivering its brand through the application, but it's also driving new revenue streams from its cut of sales on the App Store -- a rarity in the field of branded iPhone applications.
Microsoft spin-off Zumobi has been focused on the concept of branded applications on phones since day one, says John SanGiovanni, the company's co-founder and vice president of product design. In particular, he notes, Zumobi has fielded a growing number of requests regarding iPhone app development.
"As you can imagine, we're really leaning into the iPhone opportunity," he says. "All of our applications have some kind of an advertising or marketing tie-in."
An application typically takes four to six weeks to develop, and then Zumobi can help clients who choose to monetize the application by tapping into its relationships with ad agencies.
As for the REI Snow Report application that Zumobi helped create, he said there's a balance brands have to strike when it comes to utility and brand marketing. "We really try to encourage our brands not to do an app as an ad," he says. "Like great, now I can watch your commercials on YouTube."
In the case of REI, the company wanted to create more brand loyalty and attention in the winter months, says SanGiovanni. That's what led to the snow report. "The reason why it's free is that REI is paying us per user," he notes, adding that it's a pure marketing spend for REI.
Mobile ad network Quattro Wireless has been tracking tremendous growth in the iPhone application market as well. "We're seeing more and more explore how to reach the consumer through an application," says Quattro's Rosenblatt.
"A couple months ago, I have to admit, I misread the trend," he adds. "I didn't think it would explode as quickly as it did. I think Apple made it incredibly easy for the developer, and you had this sort of viral explosion of app developers."
Advertisers came on board once they realized the iPhone was attracting a large number of users, and they rightly saw a new opportunity to connect with consumers, Rosenblatt says.
"We have no shortage of demand from publishers, so I wouldn't say there's a limiting factor," says Lars Albright, Quattro's vice president of business development. "We're seeing growth across the board. It's been pretty amazing to see the explosion of app inventory." It's not the company's largest area of business yet, but it's been the fastest growing over the last three months, he adds.
"The demand (for ad inventory) is increasing," Rosenblatt says. "The demand for premium apps is tight, there's no question. That's where we're seeing even more interest from the ad industry."
He says a half million downloads seems to be the threshold an application must overcome before it starts generating any significant steam with advertisers. The best performing categories for Quattro and its clients have been in financial services, entertainment, games, information, and travel.
Albright said advertisers are looking for opportunities within three areas when it comes to iPhone apps: branded applications from a major media company, leaders within any application category, and applications that deliver a mix of scale and performance.
"Performance will, at the end of the day, be extremely important," he says.
Rosenblatt adds: "Brands are saying, 'If we don't figure this out, we're missing 10,000-plus people that are engaged in this app.' Creative minds like to do things that are creative, and this gives them all more room to do that."
Matt Kapko is deputy editor for iMedia Connection.