Honest launches a new iPhone app, an important step to becoming more than a diaper company

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 20, 2013

From The News Desk

Diapers are a dirty business. And not just for parents.

There are only about 8.2 million moms with babies in diapers at any given time in the US. That's it. But they purchase a huge $8 billion in diapers, and are the biggest revenue generator for huge consumer packaged good companies like Procter & Gamble. Pampers and Huggies split the market in a deadlocked 50-50 split, and they will do whatever it takes to keep it that way.

Give out free diapers to every new mother in every hospital in America? No brainer.

Flood the television airwaves with ads talking up each new velcro, tab, pattern, or absorbency gimmick? Done.

File aggressive patent trolling suits at anyone who comes close to innovating? Just try us, bitches.

This is what made Jessica Alba and Brian Lee's Honest such a ballsy company to launch a little over a year ago, and frankly, so necessary. While these CPG companies will spend untold legal and marketing dollars defending their valuable markets, they don't focus nearly as much on things a whole demographic of parents want, like eco-friendly diapers with no chemicals or patterns for the MTV generation of parents that are cooler than, say, Elmo. The world does not need another Elmo, Disney Princess, or "Cars" character printed on any other children's merchandize ever again.

But if Honest were just a diaper company it would likely face three fates, say most cynics: Stay so small that the CPG companies let it live, get big enough that they try to crush or copy and out-market  them, or get big enough that it goes the route of Method and just gets bought. The last of the three may not be so bad for a venture investment, but getting there would be a long, daunting road.

That's likely why Honest is becoming much more than just a diaper company. It's increasingly becoming an eco-friendly parenting lifestyle brand.

At its launch it already offered all natural cleaning and bath products, and it has continually expanded the line to include everything from candles to laundry pods to hand sanitizer to lip balm. I've used nearly all of them, and the quality is excellent. (Except the wipes. The wipes are getting better but still dreadful. Apparently you need plastics and toxins to make a good wipe. If Honest doesn't nail this at some point, my son will learn his first curse words during changing time, when an attempt to pull out one wipe invariable leads to 200 flying out of the package.)

Like many ecommerce companies, Honest also appears to be edging closer to a content brand. Alba has written a book called "The Honest Life" that's pimped all over the site, and tomorrow the company is announcing its first ever iPhone app called HonestBaby.

It has a range of free tools to help moms track all the necessary events post-birth including feeding, diaper changes, growth, sleep patterns and little moments, photos and memories. It's not designed to be a shopping app, per say, but does allow easy configuring of your Honest bundles from your phone.

I caught up with the team working on this app a few weeks ago as they were putting the final touches on it. I'm a rare Venn diagram between a tech blogger and mother of young kids, and, as readers know, I'm never short on opinions. I came away feeling like this alone wasn't a change the company move, but a key first step in Honest developing a deeper relationship with families beyond its products.

At a basic level, I'll download the app as an Honest customers simply because updating my product bundles on the site is a pain right now. I can't tell you how many bottles of baby shampoo I have instead of products I really need, because changing my product bundle every month could only be done on my computer.

All sites designed for new parents should be religiously mobile first, because that's the computer that's stuffed in a pocket as you chase a kid all over a playground and can be navigated with one hand while you rock a child to sleep or simply held out of the reach of peanut-butter-sticky hands while you use it. On the weekends and evenings, I'm lucky to open my laptop, but I'm on my phone constantly.

Likewise, it's a nice way to give free tracking tools to parents that may become Honest customers later on.

I also like that two phones can share the same account so that mom and dad can both enter and track and share this data. But why just two? Most families in the Honest demographic probably have some form of child care. It'd be way more helpful if my Nanny could access the account too. After all, she spends some 50 hours a week with my child.

That gripe may sound like a nuance, but these nuances are important when it comes to apps like these. There are dozens -- maybe even hundreds -- of apps that track stuff like this in the app store. I've tried a few, but never stuck with them. Why? Because they are only as good as the data you enter and when you are sleep deprived with a new born or chasing around a tantrumy toddler, you are simply not forgiving of a clumsy interface or lacking features.

With our first child we started out tracking feedings and diapers with a pen and paper booklet the hospital gave us. I downloaded an app, but quickly ditched it and went back to pen and paper, because the app just wasn't well enough designed.

Frankly, it didn't feel designed by a mom. It had easy "start" and "stop" buttons to record feedings, but any new mom knows, it's not quite so straightforward. Grabbing a phone to hit "stop" and "start" when you're trying to get a baby to latch on for the first time is.... annoying to say the least.

The crew designing the Honest app is regrettably also mostly men. That said, many of them at least have young children at home. I'm planning on using it with this baby due any day now and will report back whether it was better than the rest of the pack.

Even still, while the app may be useful in the immediate aftermath of childbirth, I'm dubious that I would stick with it to record growth, moments, and pictures of my kids over the years. It's a nice idea, but those are typically things I want to share with friends and family, and there are already so many social networks that have a broad reach and do that better. As is, I'm paralyzed when I take a cute picture of my one year old. Do I email this? Put it on Path? Instagram? Twitter? Facebook? One of my favorite things to do is Tweet them from my son's account and then watch a scrapbook accumulate automatically on RebelMouse. I am probably the only parent that scrapbooks in quite that way, but still with so many tools out there, I'm doubtful many of us need another one.

But while this app alone may not set the world on fire, it's an important step to whatever Honest does next. That may include more of a curated all-natural ecommerce channel of third party merchandize, not unlike Ecomom's value proposition. It will likely include tweaks to the service, like making it easier to use, showing off more diaper patterns and giving users the ability to gift a year of service to an expectant couple.

My advice -- and hope -- would be that they push even more into the realms of content and brand. BabyCenter, which is owned by Johnson & Johnson and long under the impressive leadership of Tina Sharkey, was perhaps the best example of a consumer packaged good company developing and executing a fully-functioning, sticky, bespoke social Web platform that consumers saw as much more than an ad.

But while Baby Center is good at many things, it doesn't speak to this MTV demographic very well. It certainly doesn't reflect my aesthetic, sense of humor, or philosophy of motherhood, and I find few parenting content brands do. I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes when I get weekly updates from BabyCenter on my pregnancy. The so-called "Belly Laughs" are cringe-worthy. And when I want some answers to legitimate questions, I search and find more mommy message boards (reminiscent of Yahoo Answers) than good, solid advice.

More frustrating, most content brands are plagued by that fear-based view of pregnancy so common in books like "What to Expect When You're Expecting." There's a strong current in Western culture of making women feel like their bodies are death-traps for babies, rather than encouraging them to trust their instincts. Media properties like these always have a lot of "shoulds" in their content. Outside the basics like "don't do crack while pregnant," "shoulds" should really have no place in preparing to be a mother. "Shoulds" only pad an expectant mom's already exhaustive to do list and natural inclination to worry.

There's a huge opportunity for a content brand to speak to the mom who goes to Yoga and wants all natural diapers with skulls and crossbones on them. And Honest has a celebrity who fits that demographic and can market the hell out of it. That could make Honest a lot more than a diaper company.

When I told Honest's co-founder and COO Sean Kane all of this, he emphasized that the company was pretty focused. But he also didn't tell me I was crazy.

[Image courtesy clotho98]