Mass Product Customization, Continued

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Nov 12, 2003

So many of you e-mailed following my last column, here's a follow-up.

I'd specifically addressed mass customization of products, as opposed to the “mass customization” many people use when describing user experience. I've always found the differentiation between “personalization,” “customization,” and “mass customization,” to be academic, as far as the online user experience is concerned.

The mass customization we'll talk about today refers to products. Mass customization combines assembly-line techniques with the ability to customize each individual product. Cars are a good example of mass customization. Each car is built on the assembly line to the buyer's specs. Levi's customized jeans and adidas customized shoes are two apparel industry examples. There, mass customization is really revolutionizing the industry. To learn more about work done in this field from academic and business perspectives, look at the proceedings of the recent World Congress on Mass Customization and Personalization.

Let's look at mass customization from a buyer's perspective to understand where it makes sense and where it's a hard sell. I met many industry people at the conference. Some made personalized bags; some made shoes fitted exactly to your foot's shape and weight distribution; others made personalized perfumes and soaps., which has been around for many years, makes personalized beauty products based on your skin type, age, and other variables.

Customized products make a lot of sense when convenience and comfort are the prime motivators. Mass customization is a harder sell when it comes to pure vanity products: products bought for community recognition.

I had a conversation with the CEO of Bivolino, a company that makes custom dress shirts. A custom dress shirt is a good idea for a busy executive who needs 60 shirts in various styles that all fit great. In that executive's world, a dress shirt is an everyday shirt he wears not because of its name brand, but because it's his uniform.

Executives who dress to impress, however, need brand names. Such people wear Brooks Brothers or other high-end brands. This is where a company such as Bivolino can't compete. It's not a high-end brand. In the case of business shirts, Bivolino's custom shirts might win on convenience and comfort, but brand seekers choose brand over comfort.

A win-win situation would be if Bivolino became a third-party manufacturer for companies such as Brooks Brothers or Burberry. Combining Bivolino's cost-effective abilities to customize shirts with the designs, fabrics, and brand recognition of the high-end brands results in the best possible world: customized apparel for brand seekers.

If companies such as Bivolino are going to survive, they must sacrifice their own brand identity and make a strong push toward being business-to-business (B2B) manufacturers, not business-to-consumer (B2C) retailers.

Speaking of brand seekers, let's look at the automotive industry. High-end cars are largely chosen based on brand, specific models within the brand. There's a different cachet in being a BMW 3 Series driver than being a BMW 7 Series driver. The car industry understands customization and brand identity must be carefully balanced.

Auto customization consists of a series of options based on a standard, stripped-down version of the car. Customizing a BMW 7 Series involved hundreds of options for the car. At the end of the day, it's still a 7 Series. A huge point for one simple reason: People driving by don't know what all your customized options are (unless they're on the outside). What they know is you're driving a 7 Series.

Have you seen the kids today who spend a lot of money “tweaking” their Hondas until they have four exhaust pipes, gold tire rims, fancy trim, black windows, and neon lights underneath? They're still driving Hondas. (If you have that much money to tweak your car, why not just buy a better car?)

Customization doesn't outweigh brand awareness. In my eyes (maybe I'm alone here), a Honda is a Honda, no matter how many bells and whistles are on it. And a Jaguar is a Jaguar, regardless of whether you bought the baseline model or sprung for the most expensive customized components. A no-brand car manufacturer whose only selling point is the car was made to your exact specifications wouldn't succeed. There's no inherent street value to the car.

Mass customization of products will revolutionize the way goods will be bought and sold. It already has. The future of mass customization seems clear: Big brands will jump on the bandwagon once they realize personalized products form an even closer bond between the consumer, the product, the brand, and the company. No-brand mass customizers will realize their biggest revenues will come from bigger brand names. They'll act as fulfillment houses, not front-end retailers. Consumers will benefit by combining name-brand cachet with personalized comfort.

What an exciting area to watch!

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