To App or Not to App

To App Or Not To App: You might find this strange and surprising if you know how much l love talking about technology and social media. It’s even surprising to me, because Red Mango is frequently recognized in the restaurant industry for being at the forefront of new media, which is largely driven by technology. And yet, the 230-unit national chain that Red Mango has become doesn’t even have an app. Hmmm….

Those of you who are familiar with both restaurants and social media would likely characterize Red Mango as a leading innovator in that space where these two industries intersect (yes, a Venn diagram comes to mind). At the end of 2012, Red Mango was ranked by Nation’s Restaurant News as one of the top 10 brands in what is known as the Restaurant Social Media Index (“RSMI”, meet-restaurant-social-media-index), alongside the likes of much larger and well-established chains like Starbucks and Chipotle. And when it comes to technology, which is a prerequisite to social network citizenship, Red Mango is equally well versed and forward thinking.

Solutions like a fully integrated cloudbased POS system, a cutting edge digital guest loyalty program, and systems that can profile customer activity across online and offline channels, are all part of the our brand’s DNA. Yes, technically, there currently is an app that bears the Red Mango name, the simple one that was released last year for iPhones and Android devices. But it is really a generic white-label app that Red Mango doesn’t own. This app was developed and is managed by Paytronix, the Massachusetts-based company that runs our guest loyalty programs for Red Mango as well as other multi-unit retail chains. Paytronix did this on behalf of us retailers in an effort to make it easier for customers to signup for our loyalty programs. But during the past 5 years, which was a time when the app industry grew exponentially, I intentionally held back on developing a custom Red Mango app. Customers and franchisees always asked me why I wasn’t developing an app, especially since “everyone else” was doing it. Even my own management team challenged me in the same way.

The typical dialogue I had with those who asked me why Red Mango did not yet have an app was actually the only way for me to dissipate the energy, excitement and passively aggressive criticism with which this question was asked. The conversation would go something like this: Q: Hey Dan, why don’t we have a Red Mango app? Everyone else has one. A: Oh yea, that would be cool. But what would you want our app to do? Q: Well, you know, things… like finding a Red Mango store… and stuff. A: Hmm, okay. But can’t you use Google, Foursquare or Yelp for that? Oh, and our mobile optimized website does the same thing. Q: Well, yea, but, um, the app could also list store hours and stuff. A: Just like Google, Foursquare, Yelp and our own website, right? Q: Okay. Well, our app could let people post reviews about our stores. A: Just like Google, Foursquare and Yelp? Q: Fine. But then our app could also let our customers take pictures of their yogurt and share them with their friends. A: Kind of like what they already do on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? Q: Okay, fine. But listen, what our app could really do is allow our customers to place and even pay for orders with their phones! How cool is that? A: Yea, that’s a cool feature. But who would make sure that the app could properly communicate with our POS system and credit card processors, and ensure that the transaction is PCI compliant? Is the ops team prepared for fulfilling digital orders? Can’t we team up with Grubhub or Seamless to do a lot of the same thing? This real-life transcript honestly represents the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with people who wanted Red Mango to have a Red Mango app for no reason other than for wanting Red Mango to have an app so that they could say Red Mango had an app. Even though I appreciated their brand enthusiasm, the likely possibility that their perceived need for an app might well be driven by ego or envy was reason enough for me not to develop an app without better reasons. It wasn’t until the beginning of this year that I started to develop a proprietary Red Mango app. The decision to do so made many of my colleagues very happy and excited, but they also did not understand why we had waited so long. Some even said that we were too late, and that because of this delay, our customers would not be interested or impressed with a Red Mango app. Some even lost interest in having an app, mainly because apps are so common these days. The proprietary Red Mango app that I’ve been working on over the past 5 months is scheduled to be released in a month or so after the time of this writing. And despite the fact that we may be late to the game, I believe the reasons why we waited as long as we did will be the same reasons why our app will be successful and well received by our guests and fans.

I can summarize these reasons with three bits of advice:

Tip #1: Clearly define an important yet unique purpose for the app. Identify the specific needs that the app will meet. Most companies develop custom apps to make things easier for their customers, or to improve user experiences with their brands. Make sure that the customer need-states that your app will fulfill are not being met by more popular apps to which people are already deeply attached — such as Instagram and Foursquare. The Red Mango app I’ve been working on has been designed to provide basic information like store locations, menu and hours. But the reason why we developed the app has nothing to do with these features; rather, the most compelling reason we built the app was to solve for an unmet need which we recently learned is incredibly important to our guests, which is real-time information about the frozen yogurt flavors that are currently available at any Red Mango store at any given moment. I am not aware of any existing third-party solution that could process and facilitate this type of information for our stores, so we built the solution ourselves as an important and unique feature of our app that we know our guests will find valuable.

Tip #2: Make sure that there is complete organizational alignment, support for and understanding of your app. Meet with all of your company’s functional groups to make sure that your team understands the purpose of the app, and how it will benefit your brand and customers. Confirm that your company can deliver on all of the app features, especially if they require participation and support from different parts of your organization. The last thing you want to do is build an app that promises to do things that your company is not prepared to or willing to do. This could happen if only one functional group (such as a Marketing or Information Technology team, for example) designs and develops the app from start to finish without involvement from other parts of the organization that need to be involved in order to enable all of the app’s features. One of the things we wanted the Red Mango app to do is process orders and payments for delivery or catering transactions. Although it would have been fairly straightforward to program our app to offer this feature, we knew that our delivery and catering infrastructure would not be ready until the end of this year and as a result, decided to defer the integration of this specific feature into a future app update.

Tip #3: Make sure that your company is prepared to keep the app fresh and current. Smartphone apps are living and dynamic digital personifications of your brand, so one of the worst things a company can do is treat them like one-time projects with static start and end dates. Keeping an app dated and stale will not only guarantee its obsolescence, but will also cause unnecessary confusion. Before we started to build the Red Mango app, we wanted to make sure that important information about Red Mango stores – such as store hours, menu, and contact information – would be consistent across all of our digital media channels. The last thing we wanted was store-level information to be inconsistent across our website, mobile app, and third-party sites, so we had to create a companywide information system that would synchronize all of this data in one location. We had to create something that would allow us to enter store information into one central database that could automatically propagate all other databases; any other method that would require the active management of disparate databases would have been extremely difficult to maintain, which was a clear threat to the integrity and usefulness of our app. As you can see, developing an app involves much more that deciding whether or not you want one and then coming up with a list of what you want the app to do. It requires a thoughtful and thorough analysis of how your business currently meets the various need-states of your customers, if and how those need-states could be better met, and then figuring out whether or not a digital app can help you do that in a unique and compelling way. For companies like restaurants where real-time information is important to customers, a mobile app makes a lot of sense, but only if that information is not already being delivered by more popular services. For others like electronics retailers, the only reason for an app may be to replicate their web store experiences into a mobile-friendly environment — insuc h cases, an app is not really an option but rather a necessary part of doing business competitively. But there are many other businesses where an app may not make a lot of sense, and where developing one just to have one would be a waste of money and time. Take a watch repair service. The owner of this repair shop may be tempted to build an app that tells people where his store is located, what he’s good at doing, and what customers say about his work. But this kind of information can be found on popular and more trustworthy platforms such as Yelp or Angie’s List, which would render a custom app to useless. So before you embark on your journey to develop an app for your business, be sure to look at it from all angles, especially from the perspective of your customers. And if after doing so, you firmly believe your company (or your franchise system) really does need a mobile app, go ahead expert advice and unleash your inner Apple (or Android) and repeatedly ask those corporate decision makers, “why we don’t have an app, even though everyone else has one”, until they finally deliver.

Dan Kim is the Founder and Chief Concept Officer of Red Mango, a leading national frozen yogurt and smoothie franchise with over 200 units. He regularly engages with his 1.7+ million followers with his Twitter accounts @dankimredmango and @redmango, and has a combined Facebook fan base of nearly one million fans for /redmango and /dankimredmango. He is also active on his personal Facebook account,
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