For years mass customisation has been the holy grail of product development, providing products or services that people actually want, rather than creating backstock. Dell started selling build-to-order PCs in the 1990s, and while brands like Nike iD soon followed suit, the coming era of a ‘market of one’ has had many false starts. Has its time finally come in this age of same day delivery, 3D printing, big data and machine learning? And more specifically, what could it mean for consumer packaged goods?

We define mass customisation as the production of personalised products or services to meet consumers’ needs at near mass production prices. When considering if and how to customise, we find it useful to draw some 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.

Choices in customisation chart

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Selection

While offering a wide range of choices for consumers to select from is not technically customising the product, it can sometimes feel like it. One of Coca-Cola’s most successful campaigns was its 2014 ‘Share a Coke’ initiative, which swapped out their logo for popular first names on their cans and bottles. Fans scoured supermarket shelves for not only their own name but those of family and friends. The campaign boosted sales and had a huge social media impact.

Snickers adapted the idea in their ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ campaign. They swapped out their logo for 21 hunger symptoms such as ‘CRANKY’, ‘CONFUSED’ and ‘SLEEPY’. Like ‘Share a Coke’, this activation encouraged people to gift a Snickers to friends and was deemed a great success.

So consider if you can make your product feel personal through offering an engaging range of choices. But also consider how you manage the stock issues around popular and unpopular options.

 

Snickers hunger bars (Chocie)Snickers Hunger Bars is an example of the selection approach to mass customisation.
 

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Modification

Think of your trusty adjustable office chair and you have an idea of what Modification means. This approach is an old, and often overlooked, route to customisation which enables consumers to modify their product to fit their needs. Salt ‘n’ shake crisps are a retro example of this; the unflavoured crisps come with a small sachet of salt so that consumers can salt the crisps to their own taste, therefore customising the product to suit their individual needs. 

Messages from Mars’ was a Mars Bar initiative that featured a blank wrapper which came with a set of alphabet stickers in the style of the Mars logo. Consumers could then write their own messages on the bars using the stickers, and gift them to friends and family with a personal touch.

Unlike Selection, the category of Modification is about offering a single, or small number of variants while still creating a level of choice through user discretion. The choice isn’t ‘I pick this one because it represents me’, but more ‘I pick this one and adapt it to represent me’. The benefit is it allows companies to stock less product variations and still deliver mass customisation, giving consumers the power to tweak and adjust of their own accord.

 

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Specification

Specifying what you want is what most people think of as customisation, made popular by brands such as Nike iD and mi Adidas which allow consumers to customise their shoes by specifying different colours and materials. 

My M&M’s is an online and in-store platform that allows consumers to add their own personal messages or photos directly onto the M&M’s lentils, in the colours of their choice. Other companies are starting to test more fundamental customisation, like Nestle’s pop-up shop ‘KitKat Chocolatory’ in London, which allows visitors to create their own KitKat by selecting their chocolate type and other ingredients. 

The skincare brand, Ioma Ma Creme goes a step further by boasting 40,000+ possible versions of their day and night creams. Consumers simply rate the importance of eight benefits, such as, long term hydration, plumping and anti-ageing, which is then used to create their bespoke cream. The process takes a complex formulation and makes it understandable. Consumers therefore feel they are part of the design process and have created something themselves. 

Specification provides a great opportunity for direct-to-consumer sales, increasing brand interaction beyond the supermarket shelf and allows companies to further control and expand the consumer experience. However, depending on the execution, Specification can have the tendency only to appeal due to the novelty factor and for infrequent purchases. It also relies on a high level of consumer engagement, and requires that consumers know what they want.

 

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Curation

The wealthy have always had personal shoppers and concierges to cut through the noise and guide them to what suits them. Big data and machine learning now promise to make the personalisation of products and services affordable to the masses, through mining patterns of behaviours, social networks and preferences. The most high-profile examples are music streaming services like Spotify, where weekly and even daily playlists are automatically generated. The accuracy of the Curation algorithm gets better the more you use it as you generate more data for it to feed off.

Curation is relatively untapped in consumer packaged goods, although 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 more personalised. However, the kicker for many traditional retail-focused brands is how to generate relevant data. Getting consumers to sign up for new apps or services is notoriously hard, so how would some brands capture data that would help them customise their products? Partnering with relevant third party applications or data-driven companies would provide great insight for Curation-style customisation without the need to invest in expensive individual data-gathering operations.


Questions to consider

 

1. How does this add value to the wider brand experience?

For example would mass customisation offer lasting product benefits or is it simply being introduced to create marketing buzz? How should success be measured?

2. Does mass customisation add friction to the purchase experience?

In an era of instant gratification, many customers are too impatient to wait for a customised product to arrive in the post when they could grab something off the shelf now. 

3. What are the knock-on effects to the supply chain?

What kind of investments will be required in reconfiguring the supply chain to support customisation? Or does an entirely new supply chain need to be created?

 


Also published on Medium.