It’s one of the big questions brands face today: how do we give people their own individualised products, at mass-production prices? As proven by the popular ‘Share a Coke’ campaign, consumers no longer want a Coke, they want their Coke. The one-size-fits-all solution is losing its relevance, and thanks to rapid advancements in machine learning and flexible manufacturing technologies, it’s no longer necessary, either.

We define mass customisation as the production of custom products or services at near-mass production prices. It can be consumer-led, in which the consumer is directly involved in the process, or company-led, keeping the consumer’s involvement to a minimum. But what‘s driving the desire for these custom products? And what are the implications for the food and beverage industry?

For further information on how to execute mass customisation, we suggest referring to our mass customisation framework. This framework draws distinctions between four different types of customisation: Selection, Modification, Specification and Curation – based on how configurable the product is and the level of involvement the consumer has in the process.

Differing motivations

When analysing the underlying desire for customised products, two clear consumer motivations emerge – identity and function. Customising for identity serves the need for expression and meaning, whereas customising for function focuses on the usability and performance of a product.

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Imagine the motivations behind ordering a pair of custom Nike ‘By You’ trainers, previously known as Nike iD, and purchasing a pair of custom-fit orthopaedic insoles. The former is driven by the need for something personal that reflects the consumers’ identity, whereas the latter is driven by the need for something functional that performs better for that individual than an off-the-shelf product.

Within these two motivation areas we define five consumer drivers, which will assist in understanding the most appropriate way to target consumers looking for more customised products and experiences.

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Identity-based drivers: Customise for expression and meaning
Express individuality
‘I want products that enable me to express my true, unique self…’

We all want to be unique individuals, even when shopping for national or global brands. Customisation can play a pivotal role in facilitating this form of self-expression, allowing a consumer to put their individual stamp on a typically mass produced product.

Malibu, the Carribean rum brand known for their artist collaborations, allowed consumers to become the artist by inviting them to draw their own designs onto an almost completely blank white bottle. The ‘Malibu by U’ limited edition pack came with four brightly coloured marker pens giving rum lovers the chance to put their personal spin on the iconic bottle.

Along a similar theme, Oreo launched ‘Colorfilled’, an online platform inviting creative consumers to digitally colour limited-edition holiday packs. Once complete, the custom design was printed and delivered to the consumers’ home filled with Oreo cookies.

Facilitating self-expression doesn’t have to involve consumer input. One of Coca-Cola’s most successful campaigns was its 2014 ‘Share a Coke’ initiative, which swapped out the logo on their cans and bottles for popular first names. While we share our names with thousands of strangers around the globe, they are still highly personal, so it wasn’t surprising when consumers scoured the supermarket shelves in search of their name.

Malibu By U

Convey cultural identities
‘I want products that help me to identify with specific cultural and social groups’

Rather than being defined by a singular cultural type, many people today see themselves as part of multiple subcultures. One way we identify with these different cultural and societal groups is through the brands and products we buy, with customisation providing a way to further express this belonging.

Tartan has long been a way of identifying different clans or families within Scotland. With Irn-Bru being the national soft drink of Scotland it only seemed fitting when they launched their tartan-based campaign ‘Bru’s Your Clan’ in 2015. The campaign featured limited-edition bottles available in 56 common Scottish clan tartan designs; the 57th was a specially designed Irn-Bru tartan for those whose clans were not featured. These packs allowed proud clansmen and women to sport their tartan whilst also enjoying the nation’s favourite soft drink.

Irn-Bru Bru's Your Clan campaign
Facilitate social connections
‘I want products that help strengthen my relationships with friends and family’

Gift giving is a social act which goes well beyond passing an item from one person to another. Customised products provide a way to capture a relationship on a more personal level and convey thoughtfulness, no matter how small or everyday the gift.

The Heinz ‘Get Well Soup’ initiative encouraged consumers to give a personalised can of soup to those feeling under the weather. The Facebook initiative allowed the consumer to personalise the name on the can which also featured the words ‘Get Well Soon’. A range of pre-printed names such as ‘Grandad’ and ‘Mum’ was also available in selected stores.

In a similar tact, Pepsi launched ‘Say it with Pepsi’, a campaign that urged consumers to communicate through the sharing of emoji-themed packs. The campaign was launched in over 100 markets and replaced the iconic Pepsi globe logo on bottles and cans with hundreds of different emoji faces.

Say it with Pepsi campaign
Function-based drivers: Customise for functionality and performance
Fulfil personal requirements
‘I want products that are better suited to my specific needs’

When it comes to nutrition, everyone’s body needs different things. As consumers seek out the most relevant diet for their bodies, ‘fad diets’ are becoming less attractive with personalised diets promising better results.

Habit is one of many companies tackling the personalised nutrition space. Using a set of health-related, evidence-based questions, Habit builds a personalised nutrition plan and a detailed report educating the consumer on what their body needs and how it may react to certain food groups.

A similar approach is being used to improve sports nutrition. Gatorade’s customisable hydration system, first used by the Brazilian National Football Team, uses a smartpatch to analyse sweat and recommend personalised fuel formulas for efficient re-hydration. This customisation improves athletic performance and ensures athletes avoid dehydration, which can have severe consequences.

Although nutrition is important, the majority of our food decisions are driven by our individual taste preferences. Restaurant chains such as Chipotle and Subway cater to this fragmentation by giving consumers the freedom to choose what goes into their meal. Subway even went as far to launch a campaign urging consumers to ‘stay picky’. This level of customisation is great for satisfying our taste buds, but it is especially important for those with allergies and intolerances.

Habit personalised nutrition
Navigate choice overload
‘I want products that help me to manage the overwhelming amount of choice’

In his book, ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,’ Barry Schwartz showed that too much choice can cause anxiety and even lead to choice paralysis – in which a decision cannot be made. As a result, consumers are looking at how to navigate an array of options and find the best solution for them. Many companies are turning to customisation as a way to meet this consumer desire. By utilising pre-determined preferences and large sets of consumption data, derived from both the individual and other users, companies can begin to learn what each individual likes and dislikes. With minimal input from the consumer, sophisticated algorithms can make recommendations or even purchase decisions on behalf of the consumer.

Although this approach to customisation is most prominent in apps such as Spotify and Apple Music, where personalised playlists are created using consumption data, there are examples cropping up in the food and beverage sector. Graze, the healthy snack subscription box, allows consumers to ‘rate or slate’ their delivered snacks, gradually learning an individual’s taste profile so that future boxes can be further personalised. The input required from the consumer is very minimal but over time the algorithm gets more accurate as more data is generated for it to feed off. This personalised approach to snacking grabbed the attention of FMCG giant Unilever, resulting in the acquisition of Graze in early 2019.

Graze subscription box
Key considerations
The current trend towards mass customisation isn’t going away anytime soon, but before delving into the world of custom goods it’s important to consider the following:

Know your target audience
Be aware that different consumer demographics will have different requirements and motivations. Be sure to understand your clientele and their differing needs before jumping straight to solutions.

Identify solutions that address multiple drivers
A great solution has the potential to address multiple drivers, meeting a number of different consumer requirements. With that being said, don’t try to invent a silver bullet that addresses every single need.

Leverage your brand’s personality
Remember to always execute in a brand-led way, leveraging the distinct personality that consumers know and trust. Don’t simply copy the customisation fads circulating the industry, consumers will see through this.

Consider the supply chain
The technical capabilities required will rely heavily on the chosen execution and also the permanence of the offer. Can you adapt existing infrastructure or do the required capabilities need to be built, bought or borrowed?

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Josh Allsopp is a design and innovation consultant at Plan in London. He specialises in FMCG front-end innovation, working with some of the world’s leading brands in food, beverages and confectionery. You can read more of his articles on Plan’s website and in their in-house magazine