Mobile is a promising marketing medium. Even more so today as many of us stay glued to our phones longer than usual. To be precise: people spent a record-setting 38 trillion hours on mobile apps in 2021.
In light of this information, it's not surprising that so many brands have launched and operate primarily on mobile platforms.
But what makes mobile-first companies so successful in their niches and how do they navigate branding challenges? Grab your goggles, and let's dive in!
What’s a Mobile-First Company?
Mobile-first companies design their digital product experience primarily for mobile users instead of prioritizing desktop users.
To create a memorable and effective product experience, mobile-first companies leverage smartphone-native features like cameras, location-based services, and mobile wallets — and adjust their main offerings to mobile users’ needs.
Examples of popular mobile-first companies:
All of these examples launched as app-only and shaped their entire operations — product, marketing, sales, etc — around mobile users.
A Brief History of Mobile-First Thinking
Originally, desktop and laptop computers were the primary ways of interacting with software. This has changed with the advent and evolution of smartphones — aka Internet-connected pocket computers.
Smartphones started to appear back in the late 90s but gained major traction in the mid-2000s when cellular connectivity got cheaper, screens got larger, and microprocessors became more robust.
The first iPhone release in 2007 was arguably the turning point for the mobile platform. Equipped with an HD camera, a convenient touch screen, and a powerful new chip — Apple's iPhone kickstarted the era of mobile app businesses.
In 2008, Google released the Android OS, which proliferated the mobile app ecosystem. More hardware developers jumped into the hardware market — Samsung, Xiaomi, LG, and Huawei among others. Brands also started building and adapting their desktop and web products to the mobile channel.
Google was among the first to popularize the term “mobile-first strategy”. In 2010, Eric Schmidt, then-CEO, told VentureBeat:
“Mobile will ultimately be the way you provision most of your services. The way I like to put it is, that the answer should always be mobile-first. You should always put your best team and your best app on your mobile app”.
…And that’s exactly what mobile-first companies did — purpose-built a product around the needs and preferences of mobile users.
Few remember that Instagram was originally designed as a location-sharing app, called Burbn. The MVP version allowed users to check-in at different locations akin to Foursquare, make plans for future visits, and post pics from visited places.
Source: PG Designs
But the product wasn’t getting much traction. Frustrated, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram's co-founders, decided to analyze why users weren’t happy. With the help of the app's analytics, the duo discovered two things:
Too many features left users confused
People loved and used photo-sharing the most
So, the Burbn team made a radical move: they scrapped everything but the photo-sharing functionality. In place of check-in features, they added more camera controls and cool photo filters.
As Kevin Systrom recounted in a "Fireside Chat" interview:
“The lesson I’ve learned is that you need to make sure to always cut what doesn’t work, cut the stuff that isn’t popular. (...) Companies go through identity crises and they figure themselves out over time, but I think it’s all about keeping what sticks and throwing away what doesn’t.”
After Instagram revamped its mobile product UX, the app really took off and became the global phenomenon we all love to hate today.
That being said: a brand doesn’t necessarily have to be a "born" as a mobile-first company, but can also transition into one. And taking a mobile-first approach is a smart move because the mobile digital economy is booming.
Between 2016 and 2022, smartphone ownership nearly doubled — going from 3.6 billion to 6.56 billion people.
In developing markets across LATAM and Southeast Asia, smartphone ownership and usage top desktop usage by a sizable notch. In Europe and the US, mobile also became a strong supplementary channel to the web.
In some cases, mobile even proves to be more profitable than the web. For instance:
Mobile eCommerce sales now represent 72.9% of all online retail sales globally.
The global mobile banking revenues in 2021 were $69 billion
The app-based online food delivery market in SEA is .(https://www.bain.com/globalassets/noindex/2021/e_conomy_sea_2021_report.pdf)
…and many other pockets of growth exist for mobile-first companies for brands to explore.
The Key Principles of a Mobile-First Strategy
A mobile-first strategy has a strong focus on mobile users’ preferences. Thus, you design your product and wider brand experience around the levers and constraints of smartphones.
The baseline mobile-first strategy principles are:
Leverage native smartphone features
Adapt your UX to phone-specific gestures
Remap your visual content hierarchy
Change your navigation and information architecture
Design with microsessions (usage sessions under 15 secs) in mind
Any brand with a past experience in designing desktop or web products has to re-think and re-fit their brand experience into smaller screens. Plus adapt everything — from standard customer journeys to the checkout experience — to a different set of gestures.
That’s no small task. As Nielsen Norman Group emphasizes, simply “porting” desktop products to mobile is always a bad idea.
“Providing content and feature parity across devices is a great goal, but it doesn’t mean that all the UI elements and the design must also stay exactly the same. Each UI platform has different capabilities leading to different design requirements for an optimized user experience”.
Apart from having strong design knowledge, you also need to de-brief your mobile product team on branding best practices — or else you’ll struggle to achieve consistency between your products and deliver impeccable CX at every touchpoint.
On the other hand, when you hit that sweet spot between mobile UX, desirable brand experience, and user needs — your mobile product markets itself.
Take it from Revolut — a British mobile-first bank. Founded in 2015, Revolut reached 1.5 million users and a $1.7 billion valuation after just three years. Across markets, stellar mobile user experience has been instrumental to this growth.
Irina Scarlat, Former Global Head of Growth at Revolut, explained their journey in Romania:
“The initial growth that we had in Romania was purely product-driven growth. Romanians started using Revolut because the product was much better than there any existing alternative”.
Revolut didn’t have a big marketing budget for the region. Instead of using paid digital marketing channels, Revolut focused on cultivating a community of brand evangelists and ambassadors.
They engaged the most active users to drive brand awareness around Revolut through word-of-mouth (WOM) and referrals. Because their product experience was excellent, Revolut managed to grow from 20K to over 1.5 million users in Romania using brand advocacy alone.
The bottom line: if you play your mobile card right, immense growth opportunities will follow.
3 Ways Mobile-First Companies Can Level Up Their Branding
Given that UX comprises a bulk of the overall brand experience, it’s hugely important to get your product design right.
But design is a continuous process — especially as consumer preferences evolve. To ensure that your mobile products remain competitive and on-brand, here are several tips to apply.
1. Create Design Systems to Ensure Consistency
Mobile-first thinking is user-centered thinking.
You need to build out your product experience around preferences, gestures, and jobs to be accomplished by users interacting with your app — on the go, behind the wheel, and even in the bathroom.
At the same time, you need to follow mobile design principles set forth by mobile OS developers: Google’s Material Design and Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. These can help you reign in your creativity — but can also pose branding challenges.
For example, when the New York Times decided to create an Android NYT Cooking app, one of the first things the team did was develop a design system, which is:
a documented set of shared guidelines, patterns, and best practices you apply in digital product design and development.
The NYT team based its design system on:
Material design principles
Audit data from the iOS app and website
Based on these findings, the project lead created a set of clear guidelines for typography, spacing, color pallets, and app iconography. They also developed a content hierarchy — consistent between Android and Apple apps (even though Android devices have greater variability in terms of breakpoints).
The research and documentation efforts paid off, and the much-anticipated Android NYT Cooking app now has a 4.8 rating based on 9K+ reviews on Google Store.
Action Point: Conduct user research within your target audience. Understand how they are using your mobile product(s) — if you already have one — or survey them on intended usage.
Use the findings to create prototypes and low-fidelity mockups. Then, collect early feedback and validate your design assumptions. Finally, systemize all your knowledge into an evolving design system document and refer back to it every time you want to update your product(s).
2. Use Native Mobile Features to Address Customers' Concerns
An average smartphone today is more powerful than the onboard computer used by Mars Rover — which is currently exploring the Red Planet.
Apart from having a robust computing core, smartphones are also packed with extra features brands can use to their advantage, such as:
Location-based services (GPS, Bluetooth, etc)
Accelerometer, gyroscope, temperature sensors, etc.
Stored payment methods
Strategize how you can use native hardware features to address some issues on the customer's journey.
For example, let’s consider online shopping. Last year, US retailers faced:
$218 billion bill for processing eCommerce returns
The average return rate was 20.8% of goods sold
10.3% of returns are being lost to fraud
In dollar equivalent, out of every $1 billion in online sales, retailers saw $166 million worth of goods returned.
About 58% of online order returns happen because the items didn’t fit properly. While the clothes sizing and fit problem is a complex one, it can be lessened with mobile virtual try-on tools.
Take it from Warby Parker. In 2019, the popular eyewear retailer launched a virtual try-on tool for its iPhone app.
The team admits that developing this feature was hard:
“The first was getting fit right, which was a technical challenge that required a bunch of revisions. And the second thing was making sure the frame images looked as photorealistic as possible, which meant getting 3D artists to digital render them and lots of revisions to get it pixel perfect on each pair of frames.”
But the return on investment soon followed. As Warby Parker states in their 2021 investor report, virtual try-on and virtual vision test products helped them ensure a steady inflow of sales during the pandemic when many of their storefronts had to close. In 2021, Warby Parker recorded a 37.4% and 46% increase in net revenue compared to 2020 and 2019, respectively.
Action Point: Great mobile-first features will not only delight users but will also help you improve certain operational shortcomings. Use brand sentiment analysis and other customer analytics tools to understand what prevents targets from buying from you.
Then think about how mobile technologies can help address those. From faster customer service to better navigation to the physical locations, there are plenty of brand experience gaps mobile can help address.
3. Focus on Helping Your Users as Quickly As Possible
Mobile product usage differs a lot from desktop usage. We often access apps on the go to get something accomplished as fast as possible with minimum friction.
Such short-burst activity is called mobile microsessions — and they can account for as much as 40% of average app usage. Though microsessions frequency can be higher for some products like navigation apps or weather apps.
At any rate, the “big selling point” of a mobile app is that it offers a faster way to accomplish a goal than a mobile website or desktop app.
This need-for-speed often means that you need to simplify your brand experience by:
Shortening navigation paths
Dropping some checkbox forms
Pre-filling user information
Offering “save for later” features
Peter Ramsey, a UX consultant, conducted in-depth UX research on online account opening with mobile-only and standard banks.
One of his main findings?
Mobile-first banks require 45 clicks or less to open a new bank account online. Incumbent banks require 88 clicks on average (twice as more!).
Mobile-first banks manage to achieve faster speed by offering ID verification online (using a phone camera) and asking for limited address details and personal information. They're also instantly engaging users by issuing a virtual card user can add to Apple Wallet or Google Pay.
As a result, users experience instant gratification — they get value from their account even before the physical card arrives — and start building the habit of using their mobile banking app.
For example, one of the mobile banks, analyzed by Peter Ramsey, was Monzo.
Monzo managed to scale to 5.3 million users while spending only £20 million ($25 million) on marketing in one year, or less than £20 to acquire a customer. Keep in mind, the average customer acquisition cost (CAC) in the banking sector stands at £240 ($300).
Their secret? An intuitive product, competitive online banking features, transparent terms and conditions — which have the required reading age of 11 — consistent tone of voice, and stellar customer support. In other words: an immaculate brand experience.
Similar to Revolut, Monzo also used word-of-mouth marketing to increase brand awareness and brand consideration. Pre-launch, Monzo announced a Golden Ticket program. It allowed early-bird users to send their friends a “skip-the-waitlist” invite, and use the peer-to-peer payments feature.
Excellent overall mobile product experience, plus extra social features, allowed Monzo to boost user growth by 5% week-over-week during the launch and acquire new users at a low cost.
Action Points: Great mobile experience should happen in an instant The faster you bring a mobile user to the finishing line — the higher the probability of conversion gets.
Conduct a UX audit to locate redundancies and inefficiencies in current user flows. Then trim those up to accelerate time-to-value.
Final Thoughts: It’s a Mobile-First World
Nearly 9 in 10 smartphone owners who described a mobile brand experience as “helpful or relevant” would purchase from the brand again. And those who don’t often develop negative brand associations — and rarely give the company a second chance.
With so many excellent mobile-first products, the benchmarks for CX are high. At the same time, it’s never been easier to amplify your mobile brand experience as there’s no shortage of tools, best practices, and industry recommendations for appeasing mobile consumers.
So, if you’re a mobile-first company looking to level up your brand experience, we recommend you keep our tips in mind.