One size doesn’t fit all: The rise of mass customisation

Customer demand coupled with the power of software tools, AI and machine learning is seeing mass customisation in everything from chocolate and soft drink to jeans and sneakers

“Any customer can have a car painted any colour ... so long as it is black”, said Henry Ford. The inventor was clearly no fan of mass customisation.

While it didn’t hurt Ford’s business - the pioneer of the Model T Ford scaled production of this car from the thousands to the millions over 20 years until 1926 - today it’s a different matter as brands look to boost their appeal by increasingly embracing customisation.

Many consumers are keen to stamp their mark on products and have things styled just for them as a way of expressing personality, beliefs and values. And we’re long past the time when products were purely functional.

Take Burger King and its ‘Have it your way’ tagline, used for 40 years from the 1970s, which encapsulates the shift from one-size-fits-all to consumer-led marketing. The brand’s current catch phrase, ‘Be your way’, signals an even more personalised message to its customers.

But it’s not just advertising taglines getting personal. Mass customisation, or producing goods on a large scale and allowing them to be modified or personalised in some measure by consumers, is a phenomenon across popular brands, from FMCG players to clothing producers.

Which means there’s a lot to consider for organisations looking to go down this path. Forrester senior B2B analyst, Xiaofeng Wang, noted different levels of customisation, from product and service-level to packaging and marketing.

“Brands should decide if customisation is needed and on what level based on their business goals, brand positioning, go-to-market strategies, target audiences and so on,” he told CMO.  

That’s because brands just can’t offer carte blanche. The challenge is letting customers make their mark without interfering with the symbols and qualities that define their products.

VP of sales for CPQ software outfit KBMax, Kevin Jackson, said mass customisation and brands are not inherently complementary.

“Customers want a unique quantity of one, while brands want a consistent appearance, quality, presentation and experience,” he said. “If you think about customisable products, like Harley Davidson motorcycles, the product can be customised down to a specific type of muffler, but the end product has to maintain the distinctive sound of the Harley Davidson brand.”

When one size doesn’t fit all

Some of the biggest brands in the world are embracing customisation, from custom-made jeans and eyeglasses to personalised chocolate and self-styled sports shoes. The trick is creating wide appeal in a large market with a play for individuality.

For example, Levi’s has launched the Lot No. 1 service, allowing customers to create a bespoke pair of jeans starting with the style and the weight, wash, pockets, thread and leather patches, down to the placement of the rivets. Customers start with a fitting session and consultation with a master tailor who devotes 16 hours to fashioning the personalised denim. If that’s a little too intense, the iconic denim brand has its Levi’s Tailor Shop service, letting owners add a touch of personalisation to their jeans with patches and customise the fit and even repair damaged Levi’s.

Not all brands and not all products will suit mass customisation, but it can be a powerful marketing asset. And the effort can resonate with customers, according to Wang.

“There are more parameters to consider when customising products like jeans than products like chocolate, which means it takes more effort to customise jeans,” he noted. “But if it’s done well, it may also mean bringing more values to customers.”

Emerging tech opportunities

Perhaps if Ford had the right software platform, he might have been more willing to embrace some variety in car production. And imagine his surprise to find customisation not only in iconic jeans, but also sneakers.

Nike recently rolled out a new feature in its app that uses augmented reality to calculate someone’s shoe size. By pointing a smartphone camera at your feet, Nike’s technology measures 13 unique points on your foot, determining the best fit across all its different styles.

Inside the app is a recording of the interior size and volume of every shoe in every size as well as other things affecting size such as material, stitching and lacing. Using machine learning, the app recommends an ideal size in a chosen sneaker. It also allows the user to confirm the suggested size so the system can learn how certain shoes fit and how an individual’s preferred fit in sneakers, too.

It’s not the first time Nike has embraced personalisation. The sportswear giant has a service called Nike By You that allows customers to choose a base shoe model, such as the Internationalist or Air Max, then select shoe material, colours, the style of Nike branding and even add initials or characters to shoes.

For Wang, it’s a simple numbers game when it comes to the complexity and success of customisation. Consider the number of different parts that make up a product, for instance.

“When it comes to products like cars, planes and trains, there are nearly infinite combinations of different customisable parts. In this case, a company needs a solution that allows the customer and salesperson to keep track of all the different customised elements that can have a big effect on the price,” Jackson commented. “The more a product is able to be customised, the more important a CPQ [configure, price, quote] solution will be to help deliver the final product efficiently.”

Up next: How Coca-Cola does mass customisation, plus how AR and VR should shake-up the personalisation game further

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