Marketers Enlist Mobile Phones as Utility Vehicles
By Brian Morrissey
NEW YORK Beginning next month, the cold-and-flu wary will have a new weapon in their prevention arsenal: weather alerts sent to their cell phones courtesy of Vicks.
The messages are part of an effort by parent company Procter & Gamble to develop mobile applications, rather than use the cell phone as just another venue for media buys.
Other big-name marketers, like Coca-Cola and AT&T, have launched similar efforts. In some cases that means application development takes priority over mobile media buys, with brands using their vast distribution and marketing channels to promote the utilities.
“Consumers are used to ads on the Internet, on TV and in magazines,” said Carol Kruse, vp of global interactive marketing at Coke. “The mobile phone didn’t start out with ads.”
That’s leading Coke, P&G and others to test the increasingly popular concept of branded utility: tools advertisers can supply to help consumers perform tasks, rather than messages that interrupt. Think Nike+, the running-and-music system that enables runners to track and compare their training progress with others.
“At the end of the day, if they tap into why you own the phone, brands can figure out how they can help you deal with your life,” said John Hadl, CEO of Brand in Hand, a mobile marketing consultancy, which advises P&G on mobile strategy. “What can brands do for us that also ties in to the brand benefit?”
The move to create applications comes as surveys show consumers express wariness that their cell phones will turn into another source of ad overload. A Harris Interactive survey in the spring found various forms of mobile ad messages, from search result placements to banner ads, were rated “unacceptable” by more than 70 percent of respondents. Seeing a video clip from a nearby store was found “acceptable” by only 16 percent.
“Placing ads on mobile sites is just a media placement compared to finding the applications consumers want [in order] to interact with the brand on the go,” said Doug Levy, CEO of imc2, an independent digital agency.
Coke is making few mobile ad buys with providers like Third Screen Media, AdMob and other mobile ad networks. Instead, it is placing a big bet that it can provide utilities to consumers. Its first test case is The Yard, a Sprite-themed mobile social network it launched in June here and in China. It is in the process of rolling out the platform in Europe and other regions.
“The industry is still trying to figure out how to do that in a way that’s acceptable to consumers,” Kruse said. “We’re really focusing on providing fun and engaging experiences for consumers.”
The challenge for such applications is getting them to actually add value consumers can’t get elsewhere, according to Hadl. Just mimicking an existing utility won’t cut it. For makeup brand CoverGirl, for instance, P&G created a “ColorMatch” application that recommends shades based on complexion and clothing and accessories colors. Women would not have their computer with them at the store, making the mobile phone an ideal choice, he said.
In a more recent campaign, AT&T tapped the phone as a handy tracking tool for fans at last month’s Ironman World Championship triathlon in Hawaii. A mobile campaign gave spectators the chance to receive text message alerts when athletes passed one of 11 checkpoints. For a race that takes competitors anywhere from eight to 20 hours to finish, the service was a perfect fit, said Robert Tas, CEO of Active Athlete Media, which developed the program for AT&T. The athlete tracker attracted more than 15,000 sign-ups and 100,000 brand impressions. “It added value,” said Tas. “It wasn’t crap. It really made the experience better.”
The move to provide branded utilities on mobile devices and elsewhere is unlikely to eliminate media budgets. After all, consumers need to know about the tools before they can use them. MediaVest is buying mobile ads through Third Screen Media. Former AT&T agency GSD&M Idea City promoted the Ironman athlete tracker via Active Athlete’s network of endurance athletics sites. Sprite is leaning on the millions of bottles it sells per year (and its Facebook fan page) to raise awareness for The Yard.
Brands need to think of what they’re getting out of applications, said Scott Symonds, executive media director at AKQA, an independent digital agency. Unless an application lines up with a brand promise, it won’t do much good, he warned. AKQA used this litmus test earlier in the fall with a mobile campaign that suggested wine-and-cheese pairings to supermarket shoppers on behalf of Visa Signature. The campaign was designed to appeal to the Signature brand’s target consumer: the well-to-do who enjoy travel, dining and leisure activities. “Ideally we can do some twist or implementation that gives the utility a flavor or voice unique to our client brand,” Symonds said.
Another big challenge for mobile campaigns at this point, according to execs, is how to measure success. Comparing the value placed on interaction rates online to mobile is “apples to oranges,” Hadl said. “They’re both fruit, but one you bite into and the other you peel.” P&G agency MediaVest, part of Publicis Groupe, has hired Dynamic Logic, a campaign effectiveness research firm, to conduct a study of the effectiveness of the Vicks effort in driving purchase intent.
The mobile medium is still maturing and doesn’t provide many rich experiences, said Benjamin Palmer, CEO of The Barbarian Group, an independent digital shop. “There just isn’t too much of a mobile marketing medium right now other than alerts,” he said, something he expects will evolve with the popularity of the iPhone and as other handset makers come out with units that mimic its features.
“Right now mobile is in a utility-focused place,” said Symonds. “If we can provide brand utility and it’s still keeping with what the client’s theme is, we’ll trade a little messaging for utility.”