Joanna Dorling
Oct 8, 2015

Till death us do part with our smartphones?

We can't bear to be without our phones, but what sets successful brand apps apart from the failures?

Joanna Dorling
Joanna Dorling

Zane Rubin from the Huffington Post confesses: "They say you’re an alcoholic if you can’t get through the day without thinking about having a drink. I can’t get through the day without deeply pondering the world of the Internet."

And Zane is not alone. A recent BBC news article titled ‘Asia’s smartphone addiction’ featured a survey investigating the smartphone habits of up to 1000 students in South Korea. It revealed that 72 per cent of children spend on average 5.4 hours a day on their phones and 25 per cent of children could be classified as addicted to their smartphone.

Plenty of other statistics tell the story of a universal ambition across developed and developing countries to love our smartphones till death us do part: 98 per cent of Americans ages 16 to 29 sleep with their smartphones at their side; 58 per cent of Germans keep their phones within reach at all times, 57 per cent of Indians reveal they "can’t live without their smartphones" and 63 per cent of Brazilians spend at least three hours a day with their smartphone.

A 19-year-old student from South Korea who is currently undergoing treatment for her nomophobia (fear of being without her cellphone) described her device as her 'world'. "It became an extension of me, she said. She’s not alone either!

So lucky for us, tech-savvy company Intelligent Energy has created the first hydrogen-powered battery that can charge an iPhone to last for up to a week. Meanwhile, the newly launched app Pooductive aims to connect people from around the world who are on the toilet. The app has been specifically designed to stop people from getting bored whilst on the loo, which its creators describe as a "first-world problem".

What exactly is it about smartphone apps that people are getting addicted to?

Nike caught on early, creating apps that fit effortlessly into the individual’s life. The Nike+ app tracks runs and provides its user with a digital personal trainer, which is essentially a portable and pocket-sized gym. The only demand from the customer is some recognition of the brand as they obsessively check their device.

When it comes to relationships, perhaps it is safe to say that with the rising popularity of dating apps like Tinder people are now first and foremost looking to their devices for a partner or casual hook up. The app provides users with quick and easy results, giving them instant gratification. As one habitual user (of the app) said, “Tinder is a time filler; I will just go on if I have a spare few minutes.”

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

If we account for the moments in our day when we have fleeting pockets of time—before we get up, commuting, during lunch, after work, before bed, on the toilet (for some)—then these apps are, potentially at least, responsible for driving our mental availability to branded goods and services, relentlessly. And if Byron Sharp is to be believed, mental availability is one of the key ingredients of brand growth.

Obviously many brands now realise that a consumer downloading a branded app is not only making an investment of some sort in that organisation, but also creating a space for that brand in their life. ‘Umbel’ is a platform that offers brands a 360-degree view of their customers’ needs by analysing consumer data. The Umbel blog features “14 brands using mobile apps instead of ads to build customer loyalty.” These not only convey brand messages, but also offer helpful services and tools to win them over. Given the number of brands that are vying for our attention and the clear obsession that consumers the world over have with their smartphones, it seems odd that the Umbel blog can only find 14 brands worthy of praise in building a real presence on this platform.

So what have these 14 got right?

They befriend the customer and frame themselves as helpful, offering innovative solutions to predictable consumer challenges, like decision-making. For example, The L’Oréal Genius app aids beauty buying choices by enabling the user to pose as a virtual model trialing and testing their products through ‘advanced facial mapping.’

Likewise, American paint maker Sherwin Williams with its Colorsnap Glass app offers consumers an engaging experience that connects with their everyday life in a fun and interactive manner. Users can snap pictures of inspiring colours spotted in their surroundings and the app cleverly identifies the closest match from the company's selection of paint. Both brands focus on the challenges that consumers face when confronted with an overload of choice, but also offer a sensorial and life-like experience that has both relevance and resonance. 

Another quality these 14 seem to have is their excellent memory and ability to work in conjunction with human cognition. The Smirnoff Mixhibit app proposes to "turn collective memories into a video" and offers people the chance to relive snippets of their history. The goal of the app is to help users to tell more compelling stories to friends and family through creative imagery (branded Smirnoff, the lubricant of those stories, one presumes).

There is certainly a strong focus on entertainment and fun in the apps featured on Umbel that other brands can aspire to. However, perhaps the fundamental attraction of these apps is their relevance to people’s daily lives. They seamlessly slot into the consumer’s habits where the action of picking up a smartphone has become an automatic and regular behaviour.

In a world where it is all about mental availability it would seem that there is huge potential for brands to get themselves more relevant on the smartphone.

Joanna Dorling is a Flamingo intern


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