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Who’s buying the ‘customer-created’ concept?

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21st Jun 2007
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By Rob Lewis, staff writer

Customer-made: “The phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services and experiences in close cooperation with experienced and creative consumers, tapping into their intellectual capital, and in exchange giving them a direct say in (and rewarding them for) what actually gets produced, manufactured, developed, designed, serviced or processed.” Reinier Evers, Trendwatching.com.

The buzzwords of the marketing world come thick and fast, and often disappear just as quickly. The idea of ‘customer-made’ products has been around a little over two years now, which for cutting-edge consumer concepts makes it about as old as the tablets of Moses. Does that mean it really might be the start of something substantial, or is its shelf-life expiring as we speak?

Like a lot of 21st century marketing terminology, customer-made was coined by top Dutch trendspotter Reinier Evers, founder of the formidable Trendwatching.com. Evers considers the emergent spirit of customer co-creation the most important trend to watch of all. Not, he says, because everything will be co-created in the future, but because it represents such a departure from all that has gone before.

Well, maybe. His briefing on customer co-creation claims to provide “hands-on examples of firms already profiting” from this latest trend. However, to what extent you can consider Lego (established 1932) as a herald of the customer-made dawn is eminently debatable. Lego in the US did run a ‘design a model’ competition last year and the winning model was sold online, earning the victor a 5 percent royalty, but the experiment has not been repeated.

Similarly, customer-created advertising, purported to be another triumphal aspect of the customer-made phenomenon, has not lived up to initial expectations. The do-it-yourself ad campaigns run by Firefox, Mastercard, Jet Blue and McDonald's have all proved one-offs. Some of them had limited customer input in the first place: the McDonald’s ads simply had customers in them.

Also neglected by advocates of customer-creations are the ads that backfired, as happened with Chevrolet last year. Environmentalists used the opportunity to make satirical attacks on the product and then released them on YouTube in their hundreds. In terms of trends, it appears that customer co-created ads are, like, sooo last year.

Customer-creation vs crowdsourcing

Advertising aside, the key area in which customer-creation is supposed to deliver is in product development. Yet in reality, many of these projects are destined never to see actual manufacture. The Nokia Design Lounge, the Electrolux Design lab, Nespresso’s Design Contest; all these instances of supposed customer-creation are no more than conceptual showcases for aspiring and practising designers. Companies have been running them for years. They may be a good way of recruiting talented stylists and engineers, but they’ve never been a serious part of product development.

“Customer-creation does have some traction outside of media but I wonder whether it’s just a fad,” says futurist Richard Watson, founder of nowandnext.com. “You have Kettle Chips in the US asking their customers what flavour they should make, you’ve got Puma allowing people to walk into a shop and customise sneakers, and there’s definitely a need with Gen Y in particular to control what they consume. But some of it’s just bonkers. I’m not sure customer-created crisps are really the future.”

"You have Kettle Chips in the US asking their customers what flavour they should make, and Puma allowing people to customise sneakers, so there’s definitely a need with Gen Y in particular to control what they consume." Richard Watson, founder, nowandnext.com

However, the fundamental dynamics that allow for customer-creation will still have a profound effect on product development, just in a different way, Watson argues. The point is, if improving product design was really your imperative, why only ask your customers? The developments in social networking that allows for customer co-creation also allows for crowdsourcing too.

Yes, it’s another neologism, but it’s one worth bearing in mind. Crowdsourcing describes the process whereby a company outsources a traditionally in-house job to a large and generally undefined group of people, usually via an open call over the internet.

Boeing did it with its ground-breaking passenger jet, the Dreamliner, and took on board the views of thousands of experts, even its suppliers. This wasn’t simply about choosing the seat colour, either. Many contributions related to complex technological issues and the results seemed to have paid dividends. The Dreamliner isn’t due to enter service for another year. However, it’s already the fastest-selling wide-bodied airliner ever.

Selling the co-creation myth

What is certainly true about co-creation, whether or not it actually ends up making a real difference on the drawing board, is that customers like the idea of it. As a marketing tool it works quite well. The notion of buying a co-created product can give consumers a sense of status and the feeling they’re valued as customers. But this is something that’s been going on for centuries.

“I don’t think any of this is new,” says Warwick Cairns, planning director at Brandhouse. “People were going into their local alehouse 500 years ago and telling the chef how they wanted their pie cooked.”

Bentley is a good case in point. A Bentley dealership will spray a Continental to match your nail varnish, if you want. So is this really a co-created product or just shrewd customer relations? “It’s just about keeping their edge in markets of mass influence,” Cairns explains. “It’s not about having loads of gold, it’s about doing things that normal people can’t. It’s a way of making it more personalised.”

No one at Bentley is asking the typical customer how to improve their brake fluid feed pump any more than Boeing are asking the average frequent flier how to overcome the structural difficulties of a composite fuselage.

“There are certain things where you need a creator and just giving it out to the customer is a bit of a cop-out,” Cairns says. “It’s not that customer-creation will take over the world, it’s that it will creep into the mainstream – where appropriate, where the technology allows it, and where it improves the customer experience.”

Something old, something new

It may be that customer-creation isn’t a trend at all. Companies have always been eager to take on board the views of their market, as people like Gary Schwartz know all too well. Schwartz is vice president of product marketing at Confirmit, a software company specialising in feedback management. Customer-creation is all very well, he says, but it has its limits.

“Part of the issue is how do you make it sustainable, instead of a series of one-off projects?” he explains, also arguing that customer-created products can be disproportionately expensive because every development will be different. As a new business model, product-based dialogue will never replace the continuous input provided by traditional, ongoing customer research.

"Part of the issue is how do you make it sustainable, instead of a series of one-off projects?" Gary Schwartz, vice president of product marketing, Confirmit

“The company thinks, ‘it’s time for us to go into the next product cycle, let’s go get some opinions,’” Schwartz adds. “But think of yourself as a consumer. Your experience of using a product builds up over time and, therefore, whatever issues arise are going to come up in your time period, not the company’s time period.”

That said, co-creation does confer some distinct advantages. One of its greatest strengths may be that it feeds back to the customer what’s been done with their own feedback (provided it’s actually been incorporated). Too often, market research tends to be anonymous because people are worried personal data is going to be misused.

“You lose the ability to communicate back and say ‘thanks for your input, this is what we’ve done with it,’” says Schwartz. “And that’s probably the most powerful incentive for people to participate in the first place.”

Despite the hype that surrounds customer-creation, Schwartz doesn’t see it as a radical departure, it’s only an extension of what marketers and researchers have been doing for companies for years. And if it is something new, there is something old in it too.

“If you go back 100 years or more, businesses spoke to their customers because they lived in the same places,” he says. “Mass production and mass advertising changed that. Only now are technologies enabling the kind of conversation that used to happen regularly, except it’s global and not local. That’s the difference, and that’s why it’s a trend.”

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