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Have it your way: Using retail customization to drive brand engagement.

Posted by David Wiggs on January 14th, 2010 at 12:00 am

One of the most interesting marketing developments of this past decade has been watching Chris Anderson's 2004 concept of the Long Tail play out across retail-- specifically companies inviting fans to customize products.

  • Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Keds shoe company inviting customers to design their own shoes. Champion has also gotten into the act, but in a more limited way, by running design contests, then producing the winning design, while Nike has been in the customization business for nearly 10 years with NikeID.
  • Next year Coca Cola will see a more widespread distribution of its Freestyle soda fountain that invites consumers to mix their own flavors, ultimately offering over a hundred different choices.
  • Sweet-toothed consumers can even customize their own M&Ms.
  • Here in the Pacific Northwest, the hipsters at Jones soda just launched an iPhone app inviting users to generate a photo for their very own customized Jones six-pack.

Customization of mass marketed goods isn't new for brands; some would say it started with Burger King in the 70s:
Although this funky version is my favorite:
 

Four decades later the trend has continued with online businesses like Cafe PressZazzle and Threadless letting customers design and even market customized tee shirts, mugs, mouse pads and other tchotchkes.  But it's not just packaged goods makers getting into the game. Global brand, Toyota, recognizes  that customization begets brand loyalty by offering customers the ability to customize a Scion; Ford offered tricked-out cars with the roll out of its new Fiesta at the 2009 Auto Show. 

What does retail customization mean for marketing?

Many a brand manager wouldn't dare undertake a marketing initiative that they couldn't tie directly back to ROI, but where retail customization is concerned, they'd be missing the point.  Mattel fell victim to this thinking when they tried and later sunsetted a build your own Barbie website . One guess about this site's demise was that people spent a lot of time designing the doll, but it didn't translate to sales. It probably didn't help that the Friend of Barbie was only available to fans over 18. But in the end this was a missed opportunity for Mattel.  After all, are sales really the point of customization?

Customization retail is really an engagement and customer service tool. It's about brand loyalty and brand development; it should not necessarily be about sales. (Although, as Amazon could tell you, if they shared sales data, the long tail of retail becomes quite meaningful when as much revenue is derived from obscure single sales as all the best seller titles combined.)

Brands need to see customization for what it is: one more example of a marketing dialogue with customers.  Will an individual's sneaker design drive sales for a global sneaker brand like Keds?  Unlikely, but customers taking ownership of a product at that level develops fierce loyalty, creates buzz and bolsters the overall impression of the brand—all of which typically lead to an uptick in sales—eventually.  But what if it doesn't?  Is that a bad thing?

If you build it will sales come?

Engagement, not sales, should be the real metric of retail customization.  A great case study for brand engagement in the last few years comes from Office Max.  Elf Yourself, one of the most popular online viral marketing tactics ever developed, has translated to a 46% recall for the Office Max brand. By its second year online, people had spent nearly 2600 years (combined time) on the site as reported in James Othmer's book, Adland.  Any brand would be giddy over that level of engagement.

Office Max has shown that generating buzz and having customers develop a relationship with and take ownership of your brand is marketing gold.  Sales were never the point.

Lose control of your brand.

As anyone familiar with the story of New Coke knows, loyal fans can bring a giant brand to a halt. When one of the most iconic brands in the world messed with its formula, Coke fans revolted. For a more recent example, watch social media circles every time Facebook announces an interface change that users don't agree with. It's practically chaos.

But revolt and chaos are not necessarily to be feared in brand marketing.  Handled well, a company's reaction to unpopular decisions, demonstrates a level of care that can foster more brand loyalty than any broadcast marketing campaign.   Brands can't buy loyalty, it has to be earned.  As with any other relationship it's built on trust, respect, and an ongoing dialogue.

The word customer is derived from custom, meaning "habit;" a customer was someone who frequented a particular shop, made it a habit to purchase goods there rather than from its competitors and with whom the shopkeeper maintained a relationship to keep his or her "custom" or, expected purchases in the future.

As part of your 2010 marketing plan, consider retail customization to drive brand engagement with your customers.  It may not drive sales but if it helps your customers make your brand a habit and develops a relationship with an engaged clientele, what's the downside?

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