This is a review of three recent press publications which highlighted or reinforced interesting aspects of customization and personalization. Together, they provide a nice summary of upcoming trends around the theme of the creative consumer. The first article is an interview with Rob Walker on 'actual personalization', the second one reports promising news from new VC for MC, and the third is from The Economist and discusses the creative consumer and user innovation.
(1) Rob Walker and “actual customization”
Rob Walker is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers on consumption trends in the United States. He examines consumer behavior in his weekly column, "CONSUMED," for The New York Times Magazine. o the following part of an interview with Rob Walker by Holly Taylor, published by the online magazine Core77, stroke my attention. In this interview, Walker draws a fine line between “customization” and “actual customization”, the first offered by companies via configurators (selection from pre-defined options), the latter an activity of consumers who take an existing product and modify it in a unique way by their own.
“C77: What are the themes that come out in what consumers are responding to?
RW: I think that the most interesting phenomenon lately is the idea of customization.
I want to draw a line between the idea of customization and actual customization. They are two different things. I think that many businesses are catering to the idea of customization. Like with the Nike iD website or Puma's Mongolian Barbeque—where you can choose colors and materials for a sneaker—it's customization, but it's within parameters. You probably have enough choices there to come up with something that is extremely unlikely to be worn by someone else at a party.
But there is a huge difference between making a pair of shoes, and working through these sets of options provided by a giant company to produce something you want, so long as it has their logo on it. I think that that idea of customization is resonant with everyone. It's obvious that we all want two things in life: to stand out and be different and to fit in and be part of something. That's not my insight, but I think that it's true.”
Walker is then referring to artists like SBTG (google SBTG and sneakers to learn more) who is physically hand painting standard Nike shoes in editions of 25 or 40: “He's not sitting around doing project work for a company and speculating or wishing that someone would recognize what he's doing. He's doing stuff that is being treated as art objects.” Interestingly however, even this “real” customizer is working in the context of Nike and Adidas. They take existing branded standard products and transform them into a personalized piece. So also actual customization builds on “mass”.
(2) Personalization catches fire among VCs
While hand painting sneakers are a trend that might have not a huge following with the majority of consumers, firms are increasingly helping their customers to become creative on their own, as an article by Verne Kopytoff in the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Here are some quotes.
Kopytoff reports about companies which enable especially personalization or esthetic design, i.e. building on the trend described by Walker above that consumers want to transfer existing standard products into an object of self impression. And recently ventures capitalists are investing (again) in these companies:
“Customized T-shirts, posters and postage stamps have emerged as the Internet's latest darlings among venture capitalists. Zazzle, a Palo Alto company that allows users to buy personalized products, announced it had received $16 million in funding from two of Google's early backers, Kleiner Perkins' John Doerr and Ram Shriram of Sherpalo Ventures. Earlier this year, a similar company, CafePress.com, in San Leandro, received $14 million in a second round of funding led by Sequoia Capital.”
At Zazzle “… users create their own designs for products including T- shirts, posters and greeting cards. The websites then handle the printing and shipping. Many people simply use the web sites to make gifts for family members and friends. Others earn royalties by selling their products or designs to shoppers on the sites.”
“The idea is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Consumers have been able to get customized trinkets at flea markets and county fairs for years featuring their names or images. What sets the online version apart is its potential global reach. Shriram, the investor, said that is in part what attracted him to Zazzle. "This is an opportunity to do mass customization," he said. "The scaling of this has been an interesting challenge."
(3) The Economist: The rise of the creative consumer
The Economist (Mar 12, 2005, p. 75) discusses how and why smart companies are harnessing the creativity of their customers. The story builds on the new book of Eric von Hippel (see interview below). Here some quotes:
“ … Not only is the customer king: now he is market-research head, R&D chief and product-development manager, too. This is not all new. Researchers such as Nikolaus Franke at the University of Vienna and Christian Lüthje at the Technical University of Hamburg have demonstrated the importance of past user contributions to the evolution of everything from sporting equipment to construction materials and scientific instruments. But the rise of online communities, together with the development of powerful and easy-to-use design tools, seems to be boosting the phenomenon, as well as bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.
"User innovation has always been around," Eric von Hippel says. "The difference is that people can no longer deny that it is happening." Indeed, it is "very likely that the majority of innovation happens this way." … In the past firms have mostly resisted customer innovation or not known what to do with it. American farmers were lobbying manufacturers to make cars with detachable back seats as early as 1909. It took Detroit more than a decade to "invent" the pick-up truck. … Within three weeks of launching "Mindstorms", a build-it-yourself robot development system, in 1997, Lego was facing around 1,000 hackers who had downloaded its operating system, vastly improved it, and posted their work freely online. After a long stunned silence, Lego appears to have accepted the merits of this community's work: programs written in hacker language may now be uploaded to the Mindstorms website, for example. …”
The whole article is worthwhile to read, get it on The Economist website or search for it in your local library. Or just read on for an interview with Eric von Hippel about this topic.