Do Customers Really Want to Co-Create Your Product?

Business Model Canvas

Innovation is a fundamental component of true market differentiation — and consequently a key component of business growth. Organizations that find a way to marry this marketing function with what customers really want win.

How do you go about figuring out what the real opportunity is? There are biological reasons that explain why we lie and examples of unprofitable lines of business based upon direct customer requests. Knowing how to recognize what will work takes a bit more than asking what people want.

For this post, however, I'm exploring a different question: do customers really want to co-create your product? The whole co-creation and crowdsourcing conversation has been around for a while.

The way we talked

As I wrote in that October 2006 post, quoting from Selling Power magazine, today's customers, want to be personally courted and digitally engaged. They want to have a direct say in what gets produced. This means letting go of central control and asking the brightest minds across the globe to be your advisors. […] The trend of co-creation is not limited to advertising, marketing or manufacturing. It also applies to selling.

Jennifer Rice at Mantra Brand Consulting salvaged a series of posts at Corante Brandshift on co-creation in her blog. She wrote: Co-creation is one of those trends that will have a major impact on businesses in the coming months and years… it's a result of the emerging networked economy: a grassroots, bottom-up, self-organizing way of living and doing business. And provided some examples of deep brand co-creation.

To put it in the words Cathy Mosca used on during an interview with Mavericks at Work authors Polly LaBarre and Bill Taylor on creating a peer-to-peer social software, it's constant exposure. Understanding that you can share everything and that sharing everything doesn't kill you.

As Taylor and LaBarre featured in the book, Toronto-based Goldcorp Inc. Chairman and CEO Rob McEwen's extraordinary challenge to the world's geologists: they showed their data online and asked them to tell Goldcorp where to look for gold next in return.

This sounds a lot closer to the definition I read of crowdsourcing, a process where businesses faced with hard challenges choose to tap into the collective wisdom of millions of amateurs around the world to come up with a solution.

Another examples in Mavericks is Proctor & Gamble's InnoCentive, a web-based community that matches top scientists to relevant R&D challenges facing leading companies around the globe.

What these examples have in common is the heavy utilization of the web and digital technology.

Technology makes it easy

Brands have developed different ways to collaborate with customers on products and services. Given the ability and time, both encapsulated in Clay Shirky's cognitive surplus concept, people do collaborate with organizations.

Examples of people going for collaboration are:

  • Threadless — a site where both amateur and professional artists/designers submit artwork in the form of tee-shirts. If printed, the designer will receive a sum of money, site credit for purchasing merchandise and will be admitted into the threadless alumni club. 
  • Chocri' –a site where you can create your own organic, fair trade chocolate from Belgium by picking your base and favorite toppings, and your bar a personalized name.
  • Gemvara — a site where you choose gems and metals to create your own jewelry from a fairly expansive inventory of materials.
  • Open Runway — is a site shoes customization selecting from a wide variety of styles, colors, leather, etc. People can also share their creations with the Open Runway community.
  •  Laudi Vidni — a site where women can customize bags that have meaningful functionality, like pockets for cell phones and cosmetics, in materials that are not too heavy to carry empty, and with no visible logos.
  • Dell — allows you to customize every single product the company sells. I linked to the laptop and notebook page for simplicity.
  • Levis — allows a customization process of shape, wash, style, and sizes. The site does encourage looking through several options.

However great these product customization ideas and personalization features, this is not really co-creation.

Product co-creation

Is more about which products, services, and experiences companies are willing to hand over to customers and in turn invest on producing as part of the business.

Customer-made was featured as a trend a few years ago. The definition, as it appears on Trendwatching:

“The phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services and experiences in close cooperation with experienced and creative consumers, tapping into their intellectual capital, and in exchange giving them a direct say in (and rewarding them for) what actually gets produced, manufactured, developed, designed, serviced, or processed.”

Why would people do it? Some of the reasons are a desire for status, a financial reward, for fun and involvement, and to find their way into a company. I love the definition of what customer-made is not — it isn't voting on a campaign, it's not a "do-it-yourself", nor it is customization, or personalization.

This blurs the lines between collaboration-production. As Shaun Abrahamson writes in the guest post, businesses can create value by “earning” our effort. A few examples are:

  • Lego Mindstorm — a site where you can share ideas, post challenges, and get help with building and programming from other fans.
  • Life Edited — is a site where people can submit designs of a jewel box of an ultra-low-footprint apartment in 420sf (~39 m2). The design needs to support the life of a real person in the apartment – someone who works, eats, lives, and entertains.
  • Betacup — founded in May 2009 to reduce the number of non-recyclable cups that are thrown away every year by creating a more convenient alternative to the reusable coffee cup.

Can customers be suppliers, could they be producers? A couple of tools Abrahamson suggested to get you started exploring are the business model canvas or board of innovation

Do customers really want to co-create your product? Or do they want to co-create meaning though a product you can help develop with them?


My friend Simon Mainwaring just revealed his new project and book We First, which specifically addresses how brands and people can work together to build a better world. Check it out.

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0 responses to “Do Customers Really Want to Co-Create Your Product?”

  1. In some cases, user-generated content is part of the business model itself.
    Second Life bases its technology on user-generated content, games like Starcraft 2 includes a full-fledged map generator that people can use to make game levels and sell them in the in-game store.
    If the technology allows – as it is, more and more everyday – customers not only want to co-create products but also be part of the brand and have their name associated to it as much as possible, taking pride in what they do.

  2. Hello Valeria,
    Last Thursday we announced the winners of the Life Edited design phase. I won’t talk about the results here, since two other very interesting things also happened on Thursday.
    1. the announcement of Common, which I think will really push what is possible for collaboration and co-creation in communications.
    2. the premiere of Life in a Day – a crowdsourced film project by Ridley Scott.
    There are lots of interesting aspects to these projects, but I think the willingness to experiment is inspiring. It feels like we are just figuring out what might be possible.

  3. I think “people helping make what they buy” captures the essence of exchange better than co-creation. Viewed it through this simple frame: what does a customer get, and what does the company get? What’s the balance of the value creation and allocation? What’s the expected value (probability x value) of one’s effort? It’s a calculation everyone makes when they decided to get involved with a co-creation and crowd-sourced project.
    Thus, obviously the question “do people really want to co-create what they buy?” depends on the industry, product, customer segment and value exchange. Identifying the products, communities and interaction methods where that works is the key.

  4. Say, that’s a solid value proposition!
    Then: Companies devised and sold products.
    Now: Companies are more open to their customers helping in the development of new products.
    Future: Companies will exist solely to coordinate resources/processes behind the production of goods (ahem) betters.
    What would happen if a major conglomerate like SC Johnson made a statement along the lines of, “We can make anything – ANY. THING. – We have the supply chains, the resources, the production facilities, and the manpower. What could we make that would radically change the world for the better?”
    And then made it happen.
    (Umair Haque would probably faint, methinks.) 😛

  5. Great post Valeria,
    working on some co-creation approach I think you really get the point. I really think Co-creation is more than simple crowdsourcing campaign or creative idea. Co-creation should be a way to find insight and transform it in actionable innovation. Enterprise should start to co-create using customers insight before engage them in some long term project to know how they could really deserve co-creation in-side and outside the organization.

  6. @Gabriele — user-generated-content should not be a substitute for having a solid plan and helping it along; look where Second Life is today. People fall in and out of love with brands all the time.
    @Shaun — I did see the announcement. I was blown away by the work submitted. And yes, I also saw the announcement of Common and the crowdsourced Ridley Scott short. Your comment about this being the beginning is spot on. I marveled at the trend still being such five years later. Then again, we do often see the future way before we can get there.
    @Taylor — helping make what we buy spawned a whole industry in high end jewelry; I was thinking the other day how I walked out of my local store a year or so ago, with a story on my wrist which took me two hours to put together in glass and silver beads, Trollbeads to be exact. The craftsmanship is is excellent in so many jewelry items, to stay with the example, the prestige is there with some, I’m thinking Tiffany’s. However, being able to put the two together to form a unique story that speaks about you and to you is pricey 😉 I could not resist. Pandora is a similar line. Given how crowded each market is, we do need experienced strategists to guide the research and differentiated execution more than ever.
    @Brian — some companies are more open than others. I love your future proposition. However, I believe that it still happens as a combination of experience/expertise and want/need.
    @Andrea — thank you for visiting. The lines and definitions are definitely blurring. One thing is for sure, we can use some fresh thinking and doing in business.

  7. I think people are already co-creating the products.. may be not directly but indirectly.. they are associated with new products… they are the only people who can let you know the plus and minus points of a product and what they are expecting more from the current product… so, these kinds of data can really help companies to make a more appreciated product from its present version.

  8. I totally agree with Andrea.
    Co-creation is really a good opportunity for enterprises to learn what the target market wants,it’s a great marketing strategy to find out what best to offer to the market.
    Great post, Valeria. I’m definitely tweeting the idea I got from this post.
    -Angela Giles
    Social Media and Publicity DIVA
    ***Yes, I’m giving away the 3rd edition of my Twitter Blueprint for FREE! No strings attached.

  9. Thank you for making this site a place for co-creation and collaboration Valeria!
    I tend to think of what you’re talking about in terms of the customer. While it takes both business and customer to create the final product some companies still see that as licenses to merely take customer feedback and build what they want. I talk in terms of customer guided collaboration. In fact when I facilitate meetings I have signs I’ll hold up when the company talks about how an idea won’t work for them that simply says, “It’s not about you.”
    There’s nothing more rewarding than tackling tough problems together. Love what you’re professing here Valeria!

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