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It's time apps took branding seriously

Rob talks apps, meetings at Silicon Roundabout and branding.

Here’s my pet theory: apps are still in the dark ages, at least as far as branding goes.

This is something I’ve been thinking for a while and recent meetings I’ve had with startups haven’t persuaded me otherwise.


I’m sitting around a table as the development team’s in-house designer shows me the brand guidelines he’s put together. There’s a bright logo. The app’s front page has full-bleed photographs, a simple, monochrome interface and boxes in bold, bright RGB colours. (But no gradients or ‘skeuomorphic’ imitation 3-D buttons – too crass.) It’s a best-practice compilation of digital design.


I’m in a small meeting room with a couple of coders, a consultant and a developer-turned-CEO, who recently sold his last app-cum-web-platform for a princely sum. The CEO explains how his new app is going to turn their sector upside down because it’s much more user-friendly than the alternatives. ‘It’s our USP’, he says, ‘so tell me, why do I need someone to look at our brand?’


You can see the knock-on effect of these meetings writ large across the app store and squeezed into your phone. Lots of bright logos in squares with short (SHRT) names, all setting out to turn a business model upside down, like Uber, or to make something mundane like, say, splitting a bill at restaurants tons easier.

Now look again at your phone. How many of those apps do you love? Not how many of them are good at what they do, or useful, I mean in an ‘I love this brand’ way. The way someone swears by Topshop, or my mother-in-law only buys things from John Lewis.

My theory is that our love for even the most feted or useful apps like CityMapper is only skin-deep. We like what they do, not who they are. And that’s because, fundamentally, developers still think about apps like travelling salesmen did in 1900, when Coca-Cola was a medicine, and it was a novelty to sell soap that could work in a new-fangled washing machine. What the startup CEOs I meet are essentially saying is that whatever the app does or how it works is their brand. But, I reply, that’s another way of saying there isn’t really much of a brand there at all.

OK, so most of us want apps to do their jobs well, but there’s no reason why they can’t have strong brands too. Many apps would be better for it. You only need to compare apps made by startups with those from well-known or established brands to see the difference a brand makes. Think of all the running and sports apps out there fighting for your attention. All of them do a job, some of them better than others, but the Nike+ app is the only one that people really remember. The reason it’s lasted the (running) course is the Nike name that sits behind it. But it’s hard to think of great brands that started out as apps.

Things are getting interesting, though, especially where it’s crowded and apps need to stand out. Apple Music doesn’t add much to what’s already out there – as columnist Mark Ritson said about its launch, the product is years behind its rivals. If it’s successful ‘it will owe nothing to product and everything to its brand.’

And it’s also worth watching where app startups are going head-to-head with high street brands, not just the ones in the App Store. Take banking, where, thanks to a change in licensing rules, a bunch of new online banks are about to launch, albeit with app-y sounding names like Starling, Mondo and Atom. The latter’s already been granted a banking licence by the Bank of England. These new online banks will need to think about their brands to reassure people that they can be trusted with their money just as much as Barclays, NatWest and co. They could just tick the reassuring and proper boxes and stop there. Or they could go one better than the high street names, whose brands are all pretty anonymous, and use branding – not just ‘functionality’ – to do something genuinely different and (whisper it) disruptive.

I get the antipathy among startup entrepreneurs towards branding, I really do. I’m the first to grumble about a lot of the fluff and nonsense out there. But I think the attitude of the CEOs I meet in Silicon Roundabout goes beyond scepticism. Many of them are still seduced by a Silicon Valley idea that all the world’s problems can be fixed by some code and rapid prototyping. It’s a good challenge to see if app-land can get itself out of this techie mindset. Because branding can’t be dismissed out of hand as fluff any more – it’s got a big job to do.