Foursquare's brand is about check-ins, whether they like it or not

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on May 27, 2014

From The News Desk

"That's a very 2009 way of thinking..." - Foursquare head of communications

I’ve been a long time Foursquare cynic. Despite having never downloaded the app, I dismissed it as a tool for narcissists and life loggers. Why do I need to “check in” all over the place?

But a few months ago, I watched an acquaintance use it and finally understood the Foursquare magic. Its extensive user data and mapping tool has turned it into a more efficient Google Maps for finding nearby places. Google Maps couldn't tell me where Uber's headquarters were when I was hunting down a driver protest. Foursquare did.

So when The Verge broke the news that Foursquare was splitting its app into two, one to focus specifically on local information/recommendations and the other for check-ins, it seemed like a sensible step.

Then I got to the fifth paragraph. Apparently the Yelp-killer app — reportedly nicknamed Batman by the Foursquare team — would stay under the Foursquare brand and the check in tool would be torn off as newly named Swarm.

This makes no sense. All the good that could come of dividing the Foursquare uses into two separate apps — mainly removing the "check in" stigma of the name "Foursquare" from their genuinely useful local recommendations app -- is negated by leaving the discovery service under exactly the same name as before. Now users are going to come to Foursquare expecting check-ins and instead getting Yelp.

As the news spread and everyone wrote followup stories about Swarm, I scrolled through the coverage looking for some explanation of why the company would choose to try to reposition itself under its tired brand. No one else saw a problem with that move though. The Guardian penned a piece titled, "Why Foursquare should be on everyone's phone," The Verge said, "The new Foursquare will...finally positio[n] itself as a true Yelp-killer" and Wired proclaimed, "The social network’s original app will focus on what it does best–unobtrusively recommending places to go and things to do."

But although Foursquare and its devotees may know the app is more helpful as a local review engine than a check-in service, the rest of the world does not. To the rest of the world, Foursquare is and will probably always be that weird place where their network-y, social butterfly, narcissistic friends go to check in.

Foursquare can’t pretend like their brand isn’t all about check ins. Or that somehow, by just removing the check in button, the brand will magically reformulate itself to Yelp-killer.

What’s strange is that Dennis Crowley knows the world sees Foursquare as the place for check-ins, and the whole point of splitting the app is to change that perception.

So why kill the wind under the sails of the recommendations service by sticking it with the cursed check-in name?

"That's a very 2009 way of thinking about it," Brendan Lewis, head of communications for Foursquare, says. "It hasn’t been the case going on for four years now."

He went onto argue that Foursquare has seen three phases in the past six years. The first two were all about  accumulating data with gamification elements to get people to check in. The following two years were about taking those data points of where people like to go places and building a recommendation service on it. The next two years -- Foursquare's present and future -- have been and will be about removing the friction for the user and focusing on proactive recommendations.

“Our API is used by a lot of people to add location into things,” Lewis points out. “Local search is stuff we’ve talked about and are also known as, with news coverage putting us in the same sentence as Yelp." 

To me, it sounds like the company has made the mistake of confusing its PR line with external perception. Just because knowledgeable reporters writing about the service tout all of Foursquare's features, doesn't mean that people who aren't techies or Foursquare users retain that narrative.

Not surprisingly, Lewis disagrees.

"At the end of the day we're confident in the direction were going," he says. "We’ve been trying to tell a complex story, and we found the most successful apps are the apps that ultimately make a very simple experience. Dropbox is doing this with Carousel, Google has its apps. What we're doing isn’t necessarily that unusual."

I originally thought the company was hoping to harness — or was afraid to leave behind — the name recognition of Foursquare. After all, sticking with it comes a host of benefits: a built-in audience of users, glowing press coverage, and industry legitimacy.

But after speaking with Lewis, it's clear that Foursquare well and truly believes its complicated story was never just about check-ins, and all consumers need to understand that is, for the check-in button to disappear. Ta-da!

Foursquare may not come out and say it publicly, but recent moves suggest that it views Swarm (and the check-in experience it relegated under the brand) as a temporary means of placating existing die-hard Foursquare users. In the meantime, the company appears intent on hunting a far larger audience: All the people who have no idea what Foursquare is.

After all, by sticking with the check-in name, the company is clearly making a bet that enough people have never heard of Foursquare, don’t know it’s associated with check-ins, or haven't made up their mind on the platform's utility that they’ll be able to change the company image to one of local discovery.

In the end, it could be the decision that kills the company’s last ditch rebrand efforts. Or it could be the drastic move that finally jumpstarts Foursquare into the product that Crowley has always envisioned it being – even if he's the only one.