Business goes for iPhone apps

The enduring popularity of the Zippo branded lighter app for the iPhone has not been lost on the business world. Its virtual flame has been spotted lighting up concerts around the world, keeping Zippo safely at the top of the iTunes charts.

Australian businesses are now getting in on the act, adding their home grown applications to the iTunes app store in the hope that some of the iPhone's marketing magic rubs off on their brand.

Starting out as a cottage industry, most iPhone applications in the app store today are the creation of small developer-entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the faddish appetite for novelties and gaming applications.

While a handful of them have reaped small fortunes from apps that went on to top the charts, it is brand visibility rather than profit that has lured companies like ANZ and Honda Australia onto the platform.

Both companies chose to act quickly to gain a presence on the iPhone, to project their brand as innovative and forward thinking. ANZ beat competitors to the punch with its first transactional banking app delivered alongside the Australian iPhone launch - which has since been downloaded 50,000 times.

Sam Plowman, head of online banking said: "It was very apparent to us that Apple had developed an interface that would bring forward the use of browser and internet apps on mobiles. We decided we had to be ready with app when the iPhone launched here.''

Honda is the first car maker to enter the field in Australia with a virtual car showroom and GPS directions to local Honda dealers, and has retained its rank in the top 15 business apps since its launch in February.

We wanted to demonstrate commitment to innovation and technology,'' said Corinne Wilson, e-business manager at Honda Australia.

Like Honda and ANZ most companies joining the iPhone rush aim to deliver information and transaction services related to their business area. Transport, banking, media and social networking applications have a natural fit on the platform and information services such as Qantas' flight data and Fairfax Digital's new Domain property search application can leverage existing online business models. 

Fairfax Digital, which is owned by the same company that publishes this website, said users of the Domain app could search for property to buy, rent or share just as they would be able to online, as well having access to photo galleries, maps, videos and virtual tours.

Companies with more consumable products like Zippo, however, must resort to less conventional methods to draw attention to their brand on the new platform.

One example is Coca Cola's "spin the coke'' app, which is a play on the age-old spin the bottle game, and designed to entertain rather than inform. In a similar vein is a local initiative by Johnson & Johnson Vision Care to promote its Acuvue contact lens business.

Claiming to have delivered the first viral app for the iPhone in Australia, J&J Vision Care is not a newcomer to creative marketing campaigns. The company won recognition for a Facebook branding campaign in 2007 with the Acuvue Wink, in which winks were exchanged between friends.

Users of the Acuvue iPhone app can transform the handset into a mirror, have a staring contest, and use the "eyeCompare" test for assessing compatibility among loved ones. On a more practical level, the app will give directions to the nearest optometrist along with a free trial of contact lenses.

"Acuvue is a reasonably small brand competing with big brands so it is very important we target consumers really really well. TV advertising is not viable for us so having a medium like the iPhone means we can have a very targeted conversation with consumers," said Mandeep Grover, marketing manager.

While viral campaigns can have a profound impact in the fickle world of iPhone applications, branding experts remain wary of new initiatives that lack clearly defined objectives.

"I have ditched more apps than I have got on my phone at the moment. They are very fleeting, so you really have to consider whether it is the best medium to communicate your message,'' said PJ Fulcher-Meredith, a communication director at ABT branding agency.

"We all know these things can be faddish. The iPhone will still be around but in a year's time, but what will the articulation of iPhone apps be like?'' 

Rick Bavage, independent iPhone application developer, said a less risky option for companies wanting to experiment with the new platform was to sponsor an existing application. He is preparing to launch a new application called "Sick of Smoking'' which he believes will have a natural fit with a number of anti-smoking products on the market.

"It comes back to marketing and fit. Marketers can get excited by all the new ideas out there but they still have to think about the fits with their brand. Any product can have an iPhone app as long as it is engaging enough,'' he said.