It wasn’t all that long ago that marketers sat behind closed doors constructing concept boards and perfecting their client pitches. Legendary agencies like Leo Burnett were revered with almost god-like status for their unmatched ability for product development and marketing strategies that were pre-destined to click with customers.

But things have since shifted. Market research and co-creation have taken the place of the traditional practice of assuming your customers wants and needs. Product co-creation is now a business imperative. Let’s find out why by sharing the top three lessons learned from the experts themselves who collectively have amassed decades of experience in the art – and science – of product co-creation.

1: Co-creation Isn’t Just About Customers

Along with that tectonic shift of power when customers took control, another tenet of business has firmly taken hold: cost-savings. Where budgets were once ill-defined and seemingly limitless, today, they drive all aspects of every business. The wisdom here is that marketers should spend as much time perfecting their internal pitch to colleagues and management as they on their client pitch. Or maybe even more.

Co-Creation is like pH balance, you can draw out all the wonderful inspiration from your customers you want, but if you don’t have internal buy-in, the seeds of inspiration aren’t going to sprout. This is best evidenced by the research of Jennifer Mueller of the University of San Diego, Jeff Loewenstein of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership. They surveyed customers plus company executives, middle managers, creatives and other stakeholders to rate new product ideas based on desirability, creativity and profitability.

The result? An inverse relationship: the ideas that scored highest with customers on creativity scored lowest with company executives and vice-versa for profitability scores. This result isn’t surprising given that customers care about innovative products, not about the profit margin of the company manufacturing the goods. When the researchers delved deeper into the ratings, they found that each stakeholder group had a different perception of “creative”, hence the resulting wide range of scores and disparity within the company as to which product concepts should be advanced. The net-net? There is probably too much emphasis on drawing out the wisdom of crowds and not enough attention on involving internal stakeholders and socializing the ideas, definitions and metrics to ensure that everyone applies the same yardstick to each proposal.

2: Co-Creation is Not Crowdsourcing

Customers can, individually and collectively, provide companies with flashes of brilliance through insights and idea generation to inform the design of new products. Asking your customers to solve a challenge will provide you with unmet needs, themes for development as well as product ideas.

After all, they know what they want (you may not be 100% crystal clear on this) and they likely know your competitors better than you do. Although these seeds of disruptive innovation can come from the crowd, the execution and design require internal expertise plus the assessment of feasibility and profitability to make an informed decision and a successful product launch.

Take LEGO® for example. Their Ideas Dashboard enables customers to submit designs and concepts which are then posted, shared with the community and voted upon by other customers and LEGO staff. Once a design secures 10,000 votes, the design is further developed by a product management team to assess commercial and technical viability. It is then formally presented to a  group of stakeholders. LEGO gets this right – rejecting some product co-creation ideas (despite their popularity with customers) – but advancing others. For example, their most recent example of product co-creation, which was inspired by NASA’s “Hidden Figures”, has exceeded sales expectations.

Too often, we look to customers to help break through endless iterative steps (which we largely impose upon ourselves with our own bureaucracy through layers of policy and process) and achieve disruptive innovation. Think “Crystal Pepsi™” circa 1992.  Neither the customers nor Pepsi, Co. got it right. The message here is that there are roads to product introduction victory which you would have missed without customer inspiration, but your internal creatives need to turn these insights into reality or risk becoming a product co-creation mistake that will be cited for decades.

3: The “Eureka” Moment is a Wonderful Myth

So, you’re a lone genius. Terrific. You’ll likely stay that way because your ability to magically identify the missing ingredient doesn’t translate to the business world. As Edison once wrote, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.  Part of the problem is that product co-creation, particularly for CPG companies, goes something like this: customer thinks of a novel idea, submits a few sentences (or maybe even a picture) online on the company’s idea board. Or the customer is part of a market research panel and shares an interesting behavioral insight which sparks the identification of an unmet need.

Regardless of how the idea is generated, what typically happens next is that the customer is ostracized from further engagement and the company’s creatives pursue their version of the product concept and management signs off on it, or not. This is not ideal. Companies that leverage voting, ongoing participation, rating, ranking and community forums (such as the innovative solution offered by Imaginatik®) are likely to be more successful in their product co-creation efforts.

The team here has learned the hard way that your co-creation process needs to allow for agile iteration. In other words, a continual back and forth with entwined participants to close the loop from idea inception to test marketing prior to launch. By moving incrementally but quickly towards a solution, you can harness both the inspiration and constructive criticism of the crowd.

Product Co-Creation in a Nutshell

Engage your customers from start to finish. They are the super users of your products – and your competitors’ products – and they are much clearer on what they expect from your product than you do. Encourage community collaboration, idea tailgating (build on what’s been stated) and voting to advance the idea down the path towards consensus by most of your customer base. Enhance the robustness of the idea via active participation and reiteration with your creatives, technical team and executives. In so doing, you’ll be socializing, developing and assessing the product co-creation idea for feasibility and profitability as it’s being conceptualized, so there’ll be fewer surprises when it’s manufactured and launched.

New Call-to-action