©istockphoto.com/Stepan Popov

What do people want? It’s an age-old question, but the answer is simple: Just ask them.

Ask them about their preferences, and how they want to be communicated with. Then ask them to help create and design their own products. Then ultimately, provide them with the necessary tools and platforms, and they will tell you exactly what they want.

The idea that company knows best is being challenged by the realization that consumer knows best. As a result, business models are starting to change. Closed, proprietary systems are shifting to an open-source approach with more transparency. One-way communication is being replaced with two-way communication that is both social and collaborative.

Mass customization

A number of start-ups, along with some more established brands, have recognized the demand for bespoke products and services at mass-production prices. Known as mass customization, this trend has been enabled by technologies like the Internet, product modularization and lean production.

Mass customization represents the apex of market segmentation as every customer can have exactly what they want. In other words, the customer creates his or her own segment – a market of one.

At Chocri, a German-based start-up with a web presence in the U.S., you can create your own chocolate by picking your favourite base (white, milk or dark) and toppings (fruits, spices, nuts or grains). You can even give your bar a personalized name, which is printed on the packaging.

You can also unleash your inner designer at Shoes of Prey, an Australian start-up whose motto is “Your Design. Our Craftsmanship”. You choose the heel, toe, fabric, colour and embellishments; your shoes are then hand-made by their craftsmen.

Hallmark, the 100-year-old U.S.-based greeting card company, has introduced a number of products that users can personalize. At the Hallmark site, you can upload a photo to create and personalize your own printed party invitations, cards and disposable paper plates.

Hallmark proves that even large and established companies can get into the innovation game.

While mass-customized products can cost more than mass-produced ones, the extra premium is worth it for the savvy, design-conscious consumer who values originality above price.

Co-creation

Customers aren’t just looking for the ability to shape products. They also want to have a say in how products are being marketed to them – and how brands are communicating with them.

This goes well beyond opting in to receive a mass-marketing message. It’s about consumers having a say in how they experience and interact with a brand.

My Maybelline New York offers users the chance to opt in to receive a personalized beauty guide. As part of the subscription process, the user is asked to answer a few questions about her eye colour, skin type, and makeup style.

In return she receives a 20-page digest-sized catalogue that provides her with tips on how to create looks that suit her style and features. They even personalize the guide by using the customer’s name throughout the printed piece and provide personalized coupons with the customer’s name on them, which is how they track response rates.

U.K.-based mobile phone company giffgaff takes co-creation a step further with its collaborative business model. Decisions about what products and services the company offers are left up to the customers themselves, who even provide service support to each other. With this type of collaborative approach, the biggest benefit is that its standard rates are less than half of those of the large carriers.

What are the benefits to companies and brands offering a custom experience? For one thing, it generates increased customer engagement and interaction. Secondly, companies gain consumer insights because they get to know what their customers want. As for consumers, they get exactly what they want and how they want it. They are made to feel unique and part of the process, rather than lost among the masses.