August 30, 2012

Apps: The New Billboards

There’s a long-standing mantra in advertising that you need to have people see or hear your brand in some capacity several times a day in order to achieve brand recognition. It’s the reason why billboards exist, and why you see Coke and Pepsi signs on restaurants and on high school scoreboards. 

But momentum has shifted away from traditional advertising, as the return on those investments cannot be as easily targeted or measured as online advertising. It still works for the biggest of the big, but anyone past the top ten or twenty brands is looking elsewhere for customer engagement.

Naturally, recent smartphone growth has become mightily attractive to these brands (as it is to thousands of entrepreneurs).

The approaches to mobile engagement varies widely. While brands like Dole and Heinze rush to stick QR codes on everything, which take you to horribly lame mobile games and trivia, retailers like Target (and most others) try to make it as easy as possible for you to buy more from them through native apps. Perhaps the most successful app building brand is Nike, which has a suite of apps (I count fourteen) to get you more active, and hopefully using more of their products (like the FuelBand).

One approach, however, is particularly interesting. Japanese clothing brand UNIQLO has built four different iOS apps. Only one of them has anything to do with clothing.

One app is an alarm clock that changes its tone depending on the weather. One app is a “fun clock” that tells time with singing and dancing. Their most popular app is a calendar app, which showcases beautiful video images of Japanese seasons and music from Japanese musicians, alongside date, time, weather, and your personal calendar.

Their least popular app? A social app geared at sharing the way you (and others) wear UNIQLO clothes.

How could this be true? Well, it turns out people are looking for value when they download apps. And they don’t particularly care what brand is attached, as long as it adds value to their life.

UNIQLO recognized this, targeted the most common utilities used by their broad audience, and added their own brand flavor to them. As a result, they have brand engagement on a minimum once per day basis (alarm functionality) from everyone who has downloaded the apps. And, perhaps most importantly, their cost of development for all the apps was probably less than a single billboard for a month.

If you have an offline brand, apps are an efficient marketing tool for extending your brand relationship, when done right. In the music world, Bjork’s Biophilia apps allowed fans to explore themes from the album more deeply, when most other musician apps are merely condensed lists of tour dates and YouTube videos. Nike’s most downloaded and top rated app is Training Club, which offers anyone personalized exercise routines without the need for a gym or trainer. It vastly outperforms their apps that tie directly to Nike+ and FuelBand products, but is just as free.

While they often require more thought, well done apps may just be the new billboards. Your attention used to be a plentiful commodity, which could be exploited easily by brands with big budgets. Now they need to find ways to catch your attention on the regular, and the best place to do that is the phone. The key is adding enough value to make it worth your download.


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