By Yash Egami

Smart advertising is the key to success, but word-of-mouth is priceless, or so goes the premise behind the recent MasterCard iPhone application. Developed by McCann Ericksson in New York, the app lets users find restaurants, stores and other retailers nearby using the iPhone’s GPS system while showing user-generated reviews and current offerings and deals by each merchant.

The app, which could be described as a blend of Google Maps, Twitter and augmented reality, is an ingenious branding solution for a category hit hard by the financial crisis.

“The idea behind the ‘Priceless’ campaign is to basically get people to use their debit and credit cards,” says McCann’s co-executive creative director Alessandra Lariu. “However, this is a really bad time to be saying to people that they should go use their MasterCards to spend some more money. So we decided to create this app that had some utility, and at the end of the day, because it’s a P-2-P recommendation, you’re more inclined to use your card because it’s something that was suggested by people who are out there instead of a big brand.”

Not only is the app useful for users looking for the latest trends or tips on where to buy hard-to-find items, but it also allows merchants to put virtual signs up in their windows that advertise sales and promotions.

Says Lariu, “The app doesn’t just have cool things to do and see, it also has discounts and recommendations. Like for instance, it might say that at this place you can go for a wine tasting from 6-8PM, things like that. We’re calling them offers and they’re things that people can do and try. And they’re not coming from MasterCard, they’re coming from people. The small businesses are loving it because they can put their things out there.”

While the application may seem pretty straightforward, building it was anything but. In order to have content ready for the launch date, McCann partnered with sites like NFT (Not For Tourists), Shop Local and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. “We had three different content partners plus a moderation partner going to a database that would then spit out the content to the app and the site,” explains Lariu. “It looks really simple but it was really, really complicated. The ability to add picks and how you work that out so that everyone can add their own was a challenge. Every time you add something it shows up on your phone, but everyone else can’t see it until it gets moderated.”

A TV campaign promoting the app is currently running that specifically mentions its availability in the iTunes Store. The next possible step is in-phone advertising from the “Priceless Picks,” which are some of the highlighted deals or offerings from select merchants.

While the app has a number of advertising possibilities, Lariu is mindful of its notoriously fickle audience. “It can’t be obtrusive, it should be useful. It can’t just be advertising for advertising’s sake.”

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