Why do people want to co-create and to customize?

A new book by Lisa Johnson provides some good answers — and some great new case studies, too.

Lisa Johnson's new bookYes, we know today that modern consumers not just want to solely consume, but are active and co-creating and (a few of them) co-innovating – and want just what they want.
But why is this so? This still is one of the fundamental questions – also for companies that want to benefit from “crowdsourcing” or interactive value creation.

To answer it, you either have to rely on heavy sociological texts or studies from anthropologists, or on pretty weak trend assumptions by marketing consultants (I have summarized both discussions in my German MC books).

One of the few exceptions is the great book by Harvard Prof Shoshana Zuboff and her manager husband James Maxmin, “The support economy: why corporations are failing individuals and the next episode of capitalism” (London: Viking Penguin 2002), which contains a great analysis why the (US American) consumer wants more personal service and customized offerings.

The focus of Zuboff and Maxmin are baby boomers, the post-war generation now in its best living and spending age. However, most co-creation activities that are cool in the moment come from younger generations, today 14-to-40-year olds. Also these consumers are savvy, sophisticated, and particular – and they are becoming more and more immune to traditional advertising, while exploring the huge choice of “long tail” markets.

Divided by marketers in the Generation X (30+) and Generation Y (teens and twentysomethings), these groups shape today’s pattern of consumption and value creation. And Lisa Johnson, a marketing consultant, does a great job in her book “Mind your X’s and Y’s: Satisfying the 10 carvings of a new generation of consumers” (New York: The Free Press 2006) to describe why and how.

What I really liked about this book is that it is all about Web 2.0 and Social Commerce without even mentioning these terms, but bringing them into a more general, better founded and buzzword-free framework.

Her starting point:

“Whether we like it or not, recent technologies have changed how our brains operate. They have altered the way today’s consumers think – not just what they but, but how they buy, how they act and react, and which products and services they find compelling.”

Resulting form this is a different mindset that Johnson calls “the five essential criteria” which describe qualities consumers expect from all kind of products:

Experience: The desire to get out and try new activities, to explore, text, and see what is possible.

Transparency: The market as an antispin zone. Full disclosure for companies and consumers alike with accountable choices and decisions.

Reinvention: Due to fast adaptation of new technologies that allow to do old things differently, markets are a place of constant change.

Connection: Cooperation of people blending their talents and perspectives to improve the experience for everyone.

Expression: Anything is possible. The desire to express the layered facets of ones personality and individuality by customization and personalization.

These five criteria inform how consumers operate in the market. And Johnson uses them to describe ten consumer cravings that cross industries and age brackets as they drive – in her opinion – every decision made by members of the Generation X and Y. Let me introduce five of them which seem more relevant for the themes of my blog. While the following quotes describing these trends are pretty much marketing-jargon, their description in the book is actually more profound:

Shine the Spotlight: Extreme personalization gives marketing a new face: „Clamoring for personal recognition. They’re itching to stand out, stand up, and be celebrated with their names in lights (or print or pixels). Brands that tap into this powerful need with highly creative efforts will get not only great buzz, but a whole new level of loyalty and brand ownership to match.“

Make Loose Connections: The new shape of “families” and social networks. „This generation is rejecting traditional associations and club-style memberships in favor of loose connections that more accurately reflect their interests, lifestyles and busy days.“

Filter Out the Clutter: Editors and filters step into a new role of prominence. „In a world that’s inundated with choices, editing is a critical market phenomenon and an important process in our daily lives. Consumers rely on editors to sift through the raw data and identify the top picks. As a result, many savvy brands are learning to build editing mechanisms into their brands, products, and websites.

Keep it Underground. The rejection of push advertising and the rising influence of peer-to-peer networks. „A select group of people discovers something new, from shoes to bands to politics to neighborhoods, and translates it to satisfy a much wider audience. This is the way of the underground.“

Build it Together. Connected citizens explore their creative power and influence change. „.. we’ve only just begun to tap into the power of web-based networks. The Connected Generation is becoming intoxicated by their growing ability to spark change – both as consumer groups and end users. This awareness is spurring mass creativity and launching a power shift away from companies and into the hands of consumers.“

And, just for record, the remaining five carvings are:

– Raise My Pulse. Adventure takes its place as the new social currency.
– Give Me Brand Candy. Everyday objects get sharp, delicious, intuitive design.
– Bring it to Life. Everyday activities are orchestrated to deliver a dramatic sense of theater.
– Go Inward. Spiritual hunger and modern media find common ground.
– Give Back. Redefining volunteerism and the meaning of contribution.

Regarding her first trend, Shine the Spotlight and Extreme Customization, she provides a number of good arguments why consumers want this kind of customization and expression of their personality – regarding the need for (mass) customization especially for product offerings that address aesthetic design and personalization:

– People are burned out. “Consumers are cynical and extremely educated about the entire marketing process. Add in a collective obsessions with celebrities, and people everywhere are longing to experience the insider treatment. They want to feel like someone really cares about their dreams and desires.”

– People have seen what is possible. New tools and websites allow consumers to share their unique personalities.

– There’s a sense of entitlement. “I deserve it and I am ready for it now, is the common attitude.

– People want profile in familiar formats.

– People want promotion without the appearance of self-promotion.

To illustrate this trend, Ms. Johnson uses a number of case studies which I personally find not too extreme or convincing, there are much better examples out there (like the new Adidas Pars Innovation Lab, DNA Style Lab’s idea or Build-a-Bear): Jones Soda that allows you to place personal labels on standard soda, Iamtoy.com, who create handcrafted superhero alter egos of your loved ones, DNA Artwork that uses your DNA for a custom picture. But you ge the point.

Among the many other, much better case studies in the remaining chapters of the book, is the venture of an active member of our mass customization community: Andreas Schuwirth (http://www.xxpo.de), who developed a body measurement solution for the bike market that allows a totally new sales experience there. The book describes in large detail the application of this system in a new chain of bike stores in the US, „roll:bike“. These stores are envisioned by an industry outside, Stuart Hunter, who wants to provide customers a custom shopping experience with a highly edited and customer-centric store. The book describes here a great case study of an offline-customization (matching) system that really provides customer value.

What the book is missing, however, are all forms of co-creation that go beyond operational marketing or improvements of merit, but which do address topics like lead users or other forms of user innovation (Patty Seybold’s book does a better job here). Ms. Johnson stays in the traditional regime of thinking – but this is also where most co-creation activities do take place anyway.

I could go on with quoting from this book, but just recommend that you get a copy and read it for your self.

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.