Both debuted at this week's South by Southwest Interactive show in Austin, Texas. The Amex trial was with Foursquare, and it let consumers associate their American Express card with Foursquare and then use that check-in service to get automatic discounts through mobile devices.
Sounds good and mobile, no? Not at all. Turns out that the program requires the consumers to use their rectangular mag-striped plastic for each purchase. In short, both Foursquare and mobile were solely decorative. Amex could have accomplished the same thing by issuing a news release and putting up posters announcing that its card users could get instant rebates at select retailers.
One Amex executive protested, saying that the program does have one solidly mobile component: The mobile device is the only way the customer can see immediate confirmation of the credit. Actually, such confirmation could be done via E-mail or SMS or, for that matter, by customers hitting their Amex account online.
But what about Miller Lite? Surely the suds leader wouldn't settle for Mobile Lite. Turns out that it settled for Mobile Extra Lite.
Miller's trial was with Scanbuy, a vendor focusing on mobile barcodes (a.k.a. 2D barcodes). Miller QR codes were scattered throughout the show on posters, printed ads, coasters and anything else laying around. A mobile scan was needed to unlock the goodies.
Isn't that a mobile trial? Not at all. First, no Miller products had the barcode, which certainly limits this effort. Second, the barcode merely took consumers to a Web site, which they could have gone to directly, to fill out a form for a sweepstakes. And consumers were told they could indeed enter online without ever using a mobile device or a QR code. This mobile effort is both in bad taste and less filling.
By the way, the carrot at the end of the Miller promotion was 200 $20 gift certificates. A "sweepstakes" for a total of $4K? Think the $8.8 billion MillerCoors parent can afford it? Does this effort suggest that the company is serious about mobile?
There is a very serious downside to these types of pseudo-mobile efforts: They undermine true mobile projects. They also can undermine those companies' efforts.
The Amex trial, for example, is being done mostly to assess how its cardholders will react to mobile trials. The only way to do that, though, is to conduct a series of trials that are solely mobile and then a series of trials that use traditional marketing with no mobile and compare the results.
The card brand could have done an updated version of Amex's classic Traveler's Checks with Karl Malden. Instead of "Don't leave home without them," the spot would point to the Amex plastic cards and urge cardholders, "With our new mobile campaign, please leave home without them. Just bring your phone."
The industry is seeing the birth of what will be a major force in retail and especially payment. But it's not so stable at this stage that it can't be hurt by faux mobile efforts such as what we saw this week from American Express and Miller.
A true mobile trial should use the phone and just the phone. Mobile browsers are strong enough that no program should require visiting a Web site from a desktop machine (as Pizza Hut did) or using plastic to authenticate a purchase. Mobile is ready for real commerce, as long as the industry gives it a full-fledged chance.