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App-solutely Awesome Branded Apps – And What Makes Them Work

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It’s an app world, and we’re just living it. Last month, Apple announced its two billionth application download. More proof of the surging interest: Apple doubled its number of downloads in about half the time it took to hit the one billion mark.

Apple’s advertising claims that there’s an app for everything. In fact, the world’s more than 50 million iPhone and iPod Touch users can now choose from more than 85,000 apps available in the App Store. But with such a crowded playing field, it’s hard to stand out. What ultimately determines the success of an app?

To find out, we looked at some of the hottest branded apps – those garnering substantial buzz in terms of downloads, ratings or pure word of mouth hype – and noted some common features that make them so effective.

  1. Value – Does it enhance consumer experience with the brand?
  2. Innovation – Is it unique in terms of creativity or functionality?
  3. Purpose – Does it solve or address a specific challenge? Or, if the objective is to entertain, does it hit the mark?
  4. Cool Factor – Would someone tell a friend about it, or tweet about it?

This post is not intended to be a definitive listing of the “best apps” out there, but rather a closer look at a handful of apps that work – as well as our assessment of why they do.

1. MLB At Bat 2009 (MLB)
Downloads to date: 400,000+
App Store Rating: 4+ stars

What it does: MLB At Bat will set you back $9.99 (though there’s also a free “lite” version), but it’s worth every penny. For baseball lovers, this app is the tool to keep up-to-date on the latest scores and highlights. You can check out league standings, view box scores and pitch-by-pitch updates and even see a summary of a game’s latest plays (you can even filter to see scoring plays only). Perhaps more impressive is the ability to watch live game video or listen to radio broadcasts directly from the iPhone using a Wi-Fi or 3G connection. The Web version of MLB Radio costs $15, so at $9.99 this app is a steal.

Why we love it: MLB At Bat provides tremendous value to iPhone users with serious appetites for baseball stats, facts, figures and highlights. For under $10, MLB delivers an organized database of real-time information and multimedia content (including access to video and radio) to super-fans on the go. It stands out from other information-based sports apps in both its breadth of content as well as its access to proprietary multimedia feeds – not to mention it’s super-easy to use.

Marketer Takeaways: MLB leveraged its strongest assets to make sure its At Bat app stood out from other (perhaps less expensive) apps that strive for similar functionality. It is also constantly improving the product. Case in point: Bob Bowman, president & CEO of MLB.com, recently announced a new feature called Quad View which let’s users watch four simultaneous views of the same game.

The popularity of this app shows that iPhone users realize that the best things in life aren’t always free. The MLB At Bat app is a “must have” for baseball fans. It delivers content fans can’t get anywhere else.

2. CNN Mobile (CNN)
Downloads to date: N/A
App Store Rating: 3.5 stars

What it does: Earlier this fall CNN launched its $2 iPhone app that pundits say “puts to shame” similar products by other news outlets. The CNN app delivers live video of breaking news (introduced via push notifications) and on-demand content to mobile users via a Wi-Fi, 3G or Edge connection. It also transforms users into citizen journalists by providing them with a platform from which to submit news stories in their area. This integration of news consumption and news production is what makes the app stand out.

Why we love it: This app capitalizes on iPhone technology to deliver a unique and highly useful product to people seeking to stay on top of current events as they happen. CNN also wisely takes note of the parallel between the growth of mobile usage and the rise of citizen journalism by allowing users to upload photos and videos via iReporter. This is a huge asset to the network, as it has effectively put to work thousands of people around the world who can deliver breaking news content directly to CNN.

Marketer Takeaways: CNN’s app covers all of the bases – it offers up customized headlines (based on region, interest, etc.), breaking news, a breadth of multimedia content and an easy tool for uploading iReports. As mobile usage continues to rise, CNN will be able to continue to engage people no matter where they choose to spend their time, whether that is in the living room, a computer or with a mobile device. Brands like CNN that are able to diversify content for mobile – while also leveraging the technology to create a valuable user experience – will be able to engage with consumers on deeper levels.

3. Chipotle Mobile Ordering (Chipotle Mexican Grill)
Downloads to date: 250,000+
App Store Rating: 4+ stars

What it does: The popular Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle has an app that lets you order food from your iPhone. Users can browse Chipotle locations, customize orders and save their favorites so they can order quickly while they’re out and about. Orders can be personalized based on fillings, sides and drink – and you can also include custom instructions (e.g. “Hold the guacamole, please.”). The app itself sports a sleek design that’s both user-friendly and smart.

Why we love it: What’s not to love about an app that lets you order a burrito on the go? Writes Gizmodo, “Every food ordering app needs to be this good.” This app is one of the first mobile food-ordering tools of its kind, though other brands such as Starbucks are starting to follow suit. It’s user-friendly and useful, not to mention it’s pretty sweet to be able to order a burrito just the way you like it from your phone.

Marketer Takeaways: Chipotle’s app could become an early paradigm for other restaurants seeking to boost sales via mobile technology. Additionally, the app builds brand equity by granting Chipotle valuable “real estate” on a user’s mobile device. This ensures near-constant cognizance of the restaurant for people choosing to download the app – while still providing them with a quick-and-easy way to get their food where they want it, when they want it and how they want it. Lastly, since it stores payment information, it’s even easier to use after the first order, helping address the retention challenge for apps.

4. I Am T-Pain (Sonic Mule Inc.)
Downloads to date: 300,000+
App Store Rating: 3.5 stars

What it does: People familiar with the music of T-Pain will instantly identify with the app that can make you sing just like him. For those of an older generation, the PBS show “NOVA” recently ran a segment explaining the phenomenon of auto-tune, or pitch correction software that turns awful singers into better singers – or singing robots if taken too far. The I Am T-Pain app brings auto-tune to the iPhone. Users can sing into the device’s microphone and hear their notes in a similar style to that of the popular hip hop singer.



Why we love it: Though simple and silly, this app is one of the fastest growing in the App store. Mashable reports that the app was downloaded more than 300,000 times in the first three weeks alone, largely due to significant media attention and an indisputable “cool factor.” It’s entertaining, fun and something you can share with friends. It’s also inspired many auto-tune aficionados to share their music on YouTube and other platforms.

Marketer Takeaways: Like many other successful apps, I Am T-Pain leverages iPhone’s unique technology in order to deliver an innovative product to consumers. Moreover, the tool is 100% interactive and encourages user-generated content, which can then be shared across social platforms to further both buzz and reach for the brand.

5. Nike+ Running Monitor (Nike)
Downloads to date: Pre-installed on iPhone and iPod Touch
App Store Rating: N/A

What it does: The Nike+ Running Monitor is an app that tracks the speed, average pace and distance of a runner. The app comes pre-installed on iPhone and iPod touch; however, users will need to buy a Nike+ running chip ($30) in order for it to work.

Within the app itself you can set goals, specify workout types and even select a PowerSong to fuel you in the final meters of a run. Runs can be uploaded to the Nike+ Web site, where you can view a history of all your runs, follow a specific training regimen, challenge your friends to a race, and share your workouts on Facebook and Twitter. From beginner runners seeking motivation to more advanced runners who’d like to closely track pace and distance, the Nike+ app has something for every athlete. I’ve been a fan of Nike+ for about three years now, and I use it everyday.

Why we love it: Though not an app for the masses, Nike does a great job of targeting the running community with its Running Monitor. It’s useful, fun and makes the running experience completely sharable across several social platforms, including the Nike+ Web site, Facebook and Twitter. In doing this, Nike’s app transforms the oft-solitary experience of running into a shared activity. For example, runners who synch their Nike+ with the Twiike Twitter app will have their runs tweeted automatically with the #nikeplus hashtag.

Marketer Takeaways: This app serves dual purposes. It not only provides value to runners by allowing them to easily track their speed, pace, distance and progress, but it also helps the Nike+ running community flourish in the social space. Runs are automatically uploaded to the Nike+ Web site, where the brand can then promote new products as well as publicize new events and initiatives. The Facebook and Twitter integration makes it easy for runners to connect online, and encourages new users to try out the app. Unlike some apps, the Nike+ Running Monitor is not a siloed entity, but instead serves as a key component of the brand’s broader marketing program.

6. Ochocinco Experience (Rock Software)
Downloads to date: N/A
Current AppStore rating: 4.5 stars

What it does: In the name of research (at least that’s what I’m telling myself), I threw down $4.99 to nab this completely self-serving and highly-entertaining app from “the Interesting One,” aka Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco. And for all you non-sports fans, yes – his last name is entirely made-up and entirely legal. Chad’s personality has granted him somewhat of a cult following, which he’s wisely leveraged across various social platforms. He has a hugely popular Ustream channel, 250,000 followers on Twitter and now his very own app.

Chad’s app includes Media (videos, photos and “jams”), Scoop (for breaking news), updates from his Twitter feed and “Other ‘ish,” which includes his stats and an interactive map so you know where he is at all times.

Why we love it: My love for this app might be biased, but I think Chad is on to something here. As one App Store reviewer wrote, “Why waste your time waiting for the latest Ochocinco news to break on CNN? Get it directly from the man himself.” Chad’s app is just one more element in his robust social presence that allows him to connect directly with fans. Sure he’s fun to watch, and always good for a sound bite, but why wait until Sunday afternoon or Monday night to get your fix? The Ochocinco Experience helps Chad engage with fans at all times. This app isn’t for everyone, but it’s a touchdown for devoted Ochocinco-ites.

Marketer Takeaways: Like many of his fellow twittering celebrities, a large part of Chad’s PR strategy seems to be connecting directly with fans rather than through other channels. Brands and public figures who take on the tone and style of the mobile medium while still adhering to core brand values can broadcast their own messaging to fans and keep them engaged at the same time.

*****

What do you think?
Value, innovation, purpose and that elusive “cool factor” seem to be the winning ingredients to a successful app – would you add any others? Which apps are topping your list lately? Let us know in the comments below.

– The 360i Design & Development Team contributed to this report.