We use mobile devices throughout the day to communicate with each other, get timely information, and entertain ourselves. And, because they’re almost always within a few feet of us, these devices offer myriad opportunities for brands to insert themselves into our lives in meaningful ways. But brands have been slow to realize this opportunity.

Whenever I browse the Apple app store, I’m always shocked by the small number of apps that have been commissioned by big brands — and this holds true for the Android and BlackBerry app stores, too. The app landscape is absolutely dominated by new startups — and big brands are getting left in their dust.

Take, for example, Apple’s list of top free iPhone apps from 2010. Big brands were noticeably missing from the following categories, where only one of the top 10 apps was from a big brand:

  • Education (kudos to NASA, which was the only big brand)
  • Entertainment (kudos to Fandango)
  • Healthcare and fitness (kudos to WebMD)
  • Medical (kudos to WebMD)
  • Photography (kudos to Adobe)
  • Utilities (kudos to AT&T)

So why is this a problem? As my colleague Chris Stutzman said in a recent report, “brands must be built on the experiences they deliver, not merely the messages they advertise.” Amen. It’s no longer enough to tell consumers why they should buy your products or services. Instead, brands need to deliver real value to people through experiences that span a growing ecosystem of interaction points. And while customer experience professionals are understandably wary of making major investments in new tech trends (Second Life, anyone?), mobile is here to stay. (Forrester’s research shows that more than 80% of US individuals have a cell phone, and 17% have a smartphone.)

But for brands to take advantage of the mobile channel, they need to do more than just have an app. The real opportunity lies in extending the brand in some way that actually delivers value within the context of customers’ lives. 

Many brands do this through predictable functionality that directly maps to their existing business models. For example, Bank of America’s iPhone app helps customers pay bills and find nearby Band of America ATMs, the ABC News app offers news and weather information, and the Southwest Airlines app lets users book flights and check in.

A couple of companies stand out for creating apps that innovatively align their brands with their customers’ interests and needs:

  • The North Face. The outdoor clothing and equipment supplier had top-10 apps in Apple’s navigation and weather categories in 2010. The North Face’s Trailhead app helps people find trails, hikes, and bike routes based on their current location; and its Snow Report app provides snow conditions for “just about any resort you can imagine.” These apps have increased The North Face’s brand equity by demonstrating to outdoor enthusiasts that the company understands the activities that they’re passionate about. The apps have also created new opportunities for the company to provide value beyond its traditional product lines.
  • American Airlines. The airline’s iPhone app helps travelers remember where they parked at the airport: A user can take a picture of the parking area and/or type notes about the car location. This simple feature shows that American Airlines understands the broader context of taking a trip and the issues that some travelers face when arriving home. Not only does this app create an additional positive interaction with the airline at the end of the trip, but also app users might find themselves relying on American to help them out when parking at a sports game or the mall.

Customer experience professionals who want to leverage the mobile channel to its full potential need to:

  • Invest in ethnographic research. The first step toward a successful mobile experience is uncovering people’s true needs, desires, behaviors, and goals — and the best way to do this is through in-depth interviews and observational research. Unfortunately, many customer experience professionals just don’t have this in their budgets. My advice: Appropriate funds originally allocated to surveys and focus groups, as these methods simply cannot provide the type of insights that are required to understand what customers truly need throughout their day-to-day activities, or help teams come up with new ideas for how to deliver value outside of their existing business models.
  • Look for partnership opportunities. Brands that don’t want to create a new app from the ground up should follow the lead of The North Face, which partnered with EveryTrail for its Trailhead app. Need some ideas? Just about any travel company would benefit from having a branded version of Word Lens, the seemingly magical application that instantly translates any written text in the video screen from Spanish to English (or vice versa). Beauty companies could leverage an app like Hair MakeOver, while healthcare providers could partner with the makers of Calorie Counter.

Brands that fail to create meaningful mobile interactions with their customers risk losing these opportunities to other big brands — and to the sea of startups that are hungry to displace them.