I’ve recently talked about how the emerging trend of mass customisation is changing the retail industry, and how digital manufacturing threatens to change it altogether. However, I keep returning to the thought of how today’s retail businesses can embrace these trends to stay ahead of their competitors. In this article I will highlight how retail businesses can use consumer desire for customisation to boost emotional engagement, generate loyalty and ultimately sell more, even without augmentation of production processes as true mass customisation requires.
I strongly believe that we are on the edge of a new industrial revolution: “Industry 4.0”, the rise of intelligent automation in manufacturing, where digital manufacturing meets the Internet’s democratisation of design. Digital manufacturing is maturing and 3D printing is now widely used in aerospace, automotive and medical industries for rapid prototyping, the ability to manufacture “impossible” shapes and completely custom products.
The problem has always been that digital manufacture is expensive, but costs continue to fall and now it’s possible to create many mass customised items for a similar price to a traditionally manufactured one. A recent PwC survey found that 71.1% of US manufacturing companies now use 3D printing in some way, which demonstrate how more and more manufacturing processes changing toward 3d printing.
The democratisation of design has always been a problematic concept, because it turns out that designing something well is actually rather hard, and for major brands it can pose a risk because allowing your brand to be customised could end up diluting your identity or even with consumers unwittingly making your designs look like a competitor’s.
These concerns led to the concept of co-authoring, where the designer creates their design and builds in parameters for customisation. These vary from product to product: a jewellery brand may want to allow customers to modify the size or position of stones, for example, while a fashion brand can allow different approaches to the same style. Co-authoring means that the product remains completely authentic to the designer’s vision, but also personal and authentic to the owner.
Along with mass customisation, emotional branding is key to engaging the modern, millennial consumer. Emotional branding stems from the understanding that people are willing to pay for experiences as well as features. This means people want to feel special and appreciated: even if they “know” that they are just one of millions of customers, they still get the same sense of happiness if they can feel a bit unique by having some input into the product.
Emotional branding is about perceptions, so mass customisation fits right in. Both of these trends play on your customers’ desire to create their own products and experiences, to be able to share these with the world and feel that little extra connection with your product compared to any other. Just think of the enduring popularity of tailored suits: we are tapping into well-established desires and making them accessible to a larger audience.
This is particularly powerful among millennial customers because they expect to be able to customise and are more willing to share; other generations are equally attracted to customisable products but might not shout about them so much.
Building emotional connections
The confluence of these trends allows you to harness the power of mass customisation and emotional branding to generate excitement around your products, increase engagement and sales, without actually needing to have truly customisable products.
The desire for more unique and authentic products means customers will respond positively to being asked for input rather than just choice. Building emotional connections requires them to imagine the product while creating it, see their lives with the product and how it fits them, long before they commit to buy, let alone receive the product. This emotional connection will encourage them to buy, so it is important to encourage them to develop it early.
While co-authoring a luxury item naturally encourages emotional connection, the reality is that with strong product visualisation technology, even selecting from a range of colours builds a stronger emotional connection. Further, launching new products with social media campaigns encouraging potential customers to co-author, with perhaps the designer picking the best few to actually create as limited edition pieces, can also generate the same effect as true customisation without needing the full digital manufacturing that underpins customisable products.
This means you don’t need to offer true mass customisation in order to benefit from the desires that power it. If you sell products with a catalogue of colour choices, sizing options or styles, it may well be worth investing in mass customisation technologies to help your customers feel they are creating a unique product.
How would this work?
While mass customisation is normally applied to a product that is entirely custom made, in that there is a “product” and that gets reshaped or resized, with traditionally manufactured products we need to deal with SKUs, each of which represents a separate “product” at least for stock keeping purposes.
It makes sense to use SKUs for stock keeping, but I find it odd that we have made consumers think in the same way. If I want to buy bed sheets for example, I don’t want to look through hundreds of products even if I want to have lots of choice. As a customer, I want to easily find the size and shape I need, select the thread count I want and then, most importantly, make sure I get the perfect colour and style. This is where SKUs don’t work so well.
Remember emotional branding: your customer should already be envisioning the sheets on their own bed when looking at your website, and not want to look elsewhere because yours look perfect. To do that, I would recommend very realistic product visualisation with the different SKUs broken down to their constituent design elements.
So from a customer’s perspective, once they’ve selected the right “product”, they see a stunning visualisation of the sheets on a bed so that they can easily make the mental leap to imagining owning them. Then, rather than simply seeing swatches of colour, the visualisation changes according to which SKU they’re looking at. Rather than presenting the choice as SKUs, present it as design elements: colour, stripe, positioning and so on. This also presents natural opportunities to cross-sell by allowing the customer to customise other elements of the visualised scene: different pillows, bedside table, floor rug; any of these can be easily added and changed so the customer makes exactly what they want and becomes attached to it.
How Digital Forming supports emotional branding
Digital Forming‘s mass customisation platform allows marketers to introduce customisation and personalisation to any product at the point of e-commerce. It empowers customers to express their individuality and authenticity through a simple and intuitive interface, see how a true representation of how the end product would look, share it on social media, and press the “buy” button. The bond it creates between the brand and the customer is done in a deep, emotional way, the customer having co-authored the product based on their own personal taste.
Digital Forming has created a suite of custom services which allow you to build mass customisation into your customer journey, whether you are selling traditional items in a more personal way, or building a full digital supply chain. By building mass customisability into your existing customer journey, you can build your future piece by piece.
If you would like any advice on building mass customisation and emotional branding into your business, contact me @davidakka on Twitter.