Taking Your Brand Mobile with an App: Notes from SxSW

One of the standing room only panels at SxSW was called, “Extending Your Brand: There’s an App for That.”  With mobile and mobile social growing in popularity, the appeal for brands was obvious.  For this, panelists include:

There's an app for that

The panelists noted that the iPhone and Android are just the beginning, and Windows 7 Phone is actually a major step forward. Singh expects that platform, combining so many elements of your lifestream into a functional mobile device, from lifestreaming to phone to Xbox live and more, happening all at once.

Adrian Ho pointed out that the same money spent advertising can be as effective if deployed to really connect with your consumer. For example, Nordstrom learned that teen girls will take pictures of themselves in the dressing room, to either send to their parents for permission to buy, or to make better pictures for their social profile without buying the clothes. Nordstrom helped them by letting them create an app in the dressing rooms to facilitate that. While not mobile marketing, it’s useful, which is key. Here’s a video explaining it.



When Girling pointed out that you have to make a deep connection with your brand, Singh disagreed, saying, “I don’t want a relationship with Colgate.” And all Colgate needs is to be recalled at the time when someone is making their toothpaste purchase. A valid point.

Ho noted that the appeal of Foursquare to the user is to connect with their friends, and brands are trying to figure out how to get in the way of that. But a wise strategy on Foursquare would be for brands finding ways to facilitate that, instead. Singh believed that you can’t be into social media and not be into mobile, because mobile is intertwined quite heavily with social.

Each panelist was asked to share one app that they felt has significantly missed the mark, and one app that has been done very well. If your brand is called out below, we’d welcome your input.

Apps that Suck

  • The New York Times app: Singh surprised the group by listing this very popular app as one that sucked, saying “it misses a couple of things.” Specifically, “I wish they asked me for money for this app. Use it to help your business.” But it can be improved in these ways: (a) it has no local awareness feature, which could serve up local news; (b) it doesn’t have any social features, like commenting, or seeing top rated articles. There’s no way to mash up the content. “It’s a glorified news reader.” Finally (c) I can’t filter the news based on my social graph.
  • Mercedes AMG app: The app contains a link to a video of the car, a sound effect of the car starting and a list of pictures of the car. The app offers no utility, is unlikely to be used more than once, and is just an extension of the website. Ho pointed out that an app that made driving/owning a Mercedes better would be more likely to increase sales, as repeat purchases are a significant source of income. 
  • VW GTI Driving Game app: While this app got a lot of play, and it’s fun, this app is unlikely to be an effective driver of sales. Lots of players, very little marketing of the GTI.

Apps that Don’t Suck

  • Vice Tracker: Singh shared an app his company built in which you share things that you’ve purchased. What’s interesting is that the app doesn’t replicate the website. The app tries to encourage a change in behavior when it comes to spending. You can see which of your friends has purchased the most tequlia for example. While it sounds almost punitive, the game mechanics built around it are designed to make it fun instead.
  • ShopSavvy: An app that includes a bar code scanner (works in iPhone and Android), it allows you to find the cheapest price on the web for the product you scanned, as well as where you can buy that object cheaper locally. Similar to RedLaser, it’s a highly useful app for the end user, but also includes actions that can be sold to marketers since they are identifying people ready to buy.
  • Amazon.com app: Rather than running an ad that tells people to buy online, they created an app that lets you take a photo of a product (which they then identify for you) and put it in your cart to buy that better.

Build or Utilize Existing?

The question was raised about whether a brand should build it’s own app or should jump on others, such as ShopSavvy that have developed their own following. Singh offered the following criteria:

  • Is there a lot of passion around the brand?
  • Does it have a lot of great content or a lot of utilitarian use?
  • Does that content or use change on a frequent basis?

If it meets all three criteria, then it’s a great time to build an app. Otherwise, you should be careful.


It’s not about CPM and people need to know that the hockey stick for app usage is often inverted. While a company likes Facebook has a hockey stick curve that shoots up and to the right, most apps (even successful ones) have a hockey stick that shoots down and to the right, where users fall off month after month. If that’s what’s happening, even for successful apps, then the question about ROI becomes harder to answer. And genunine utility over buzz becomes critical.

Since we’ve long passed app saturation, the ability to really stand out is only getting harder.

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1 Comment
  • CoryOBrien
    Posted at 03:53h, 22 March

    I was surprised by their reasoning for saying that the “VW GTI Driving Game” sucked, since the game was just a limited, free version of an otherwise paid app, so there was little to no development cost to get the game into the hands of 1000s of consumers. Sure, it wasn’t exactly driving millions in sales, but it was a leader on the download charts for a few days, and in terms of extending the VW brand and linking the manufacturer with the idea of being a ‘fun’ car to drive, I can’t think of many ways to do the same for less.

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