April 1, 2019

Food for thought — why customization and mass markets don't mesh

customisation mass market

In a world of mass production, brands look to innovate with new and exciting products designed for specific audiences. However, in a perfect world, all brands would love to fully personalise their offering to each customer. We know that personalised attention reaps great rewards for firms, but does customisation truly make sense for companies as they scale?

Shoe customisation & hard lessons

You might have heard of Shoes of Prey, the now defunct Australian company which allowed women to build their own custom shoes. It wasn’t just about adding colours to pre-made models: the company wanted you to tap into your imagination. The firm, through its research, believed mass customisation would make sense if it could achieve four goals:

  • Keep lead times to below two weeks
  • Simplify the design experience
  • No premium pricing for customizing
  • Effective distribution

Unfortunately, the company quickly realised that most people don’t want to take the time to customise their products in the first place. Shoes of Prey tried to change hardwired consumer behaviour without properly understanding the thought process behind their mentality. This ultimately led to the company’s demise, but sparked a larger conversation altogether about mass customisation.

Why mass markets are a miss

Many firms have personalization options for customers to play around with. For example, you can build your own Nike shoe, engrave your Apple gadgets and even monogram that luxurious Goyard wallet you’ve been eyeing for a while. However, personalization is not nearly as complex as full-on customization because the latter are often one-offs and unique (personalization relies on pre-existing goods). This hurts a company’s ability to scale, but also creates additional distractions away from core product focus. There’s a reason why firms like Apple sell a small amount of goods to begin with. In the end, most brands opt to limit customization options altogether, instead relying on great products that appeal to a consumer’s core beliefs and that can easily be accessorized (like a phone).

Drop Culture – Customisation With A Twist

Brands use exclusive drops to fill the void between full customization and standard products. Drops have a triple effect as they:

  • Galvanize enthusiasts and community members around a given widget
  • Leverage top influencers and celebrities
  • Help diffuse other products and introduce new lines for the parent brand

Smart companies know that consumers don’t want to think about what works for them. In fact, most people prefer being told what to like, avoiding the paradox of choice altogether. This is why celebrity endorsements coupled with limited releases of goods helps people feel part of a select club. The exclusivity facet creates a sense of uniqueness, just as it would with a custom product. However, this setup is better for manufacturers because it leverages an endorsement and does not require any effort from a consumer. You don’t need to dream-up Virgil Abloh’s Nikes and make them on Nike ID. Instead, you can let Virgil do the work for you (which also saves Nike the trouble). It turns out there’s a lot of money in industries that properly master these realities.

What Solutions Exist?

Knowing this, how can brands reconcile their need to better individualize their offering? Companies are already leveraging AI/Machine Learning systems to provide better recommendations to consumers (Alibaba is a prime example). Apps are also changing, with interfaces that adapt based on a user’s preferences and usage patterns. However, these are digital solutions that are easily scalable as data-flows and technologies improve.

What about tangible goods? The likely answer is that customization will always make sense for a select few enthusiasts that enjoy the process of creation, but will never be scalable enough to warrant more effort from manufacturers. However, that small but important batch of creators should become central to any brand’s growth strategy. By leveraging on open-source technologies along with community groups, brands can acquire this knowledge to better drive product initiatives. Instead of relying on in-house talent, firms can tap into an ever-changing and improving creator pool. Perhaps 3D printing will also solve the scale problem down the road, though it won’t stop people’s inherent need for convenience (being told what is popular).

Lastly, collaborating with creator pools enables network effects that span across industries. For example, a creator’s take and experience for a piece of tech can open up doors for a home appliance, building greater opportunities that branch out over space and time.

Creativity: a gift for the few

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these trends is that true creators will become difference makers. Indeed, creators are best placed to take advantage of new designs and turn them on their head. Because masses rely on innovators for new creations, one person essentially becomes the customizer for a whole population. This should empower more creatives willing take on the extra lift and be rewarded accordingly. Even in an environment of loose patent enforcement (depending on the industry), innovators will always push the boundaries where they need to go. Those hybrid Nikes you’ve seen on the streets might just be a result of small customizers playing around with sole-swaps to begin with. Ultimately, true creativity is innate to all of us, but very few of us take the time to tap deep enough to create something meaningful. As such, we reward and often idolize those who do push the masses forward.

Until then, we look forward to the world brightest minds building exciting goods and services.

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