by: Jennifer Rice

I wrote a series of posts over a year ago on Corante's Brandshift on co-creation. Since that group blog has slowly died out (replaced by Corante's Marketing Hub), I'd like to salvage these posts and bring them back for discussion.

Co-creation is one of those trends that will have a major impact on businesses in the coming months and years... it's a result of the emerging networked economy: a grassroots, bottom-up, self-organizing way of living and doing business. More on self-organizing systems later; for now, here's the first in a series of 7 or 8 posts on the subject of co-creation. I unfortunately can't bring over all the insightful comments, but hopefully we can generate a new discussion.


We're getting into some juicy conversation in John Winsor's recent post. There's a comment that I'd like to bring to the forefront because it's an oft-misunderstood idea: co-creation.

"...good products are good products, they don't need transparency or co-creation. Co-creation is what people on the outside want when they want to associate themselves with cool products. You don't let the slimy masses in to medocritate the product, you keep them striving to be a part of the clique."

There are different levels of co-creation; how far you take it depends on your product and industry. Here are a few terrific examples of deep co-creation:

1. Open-source software. No explanation needed.

2. Google's new API for online ads. An article in eWeek reports:

"There are a lot of things Google hasn't thought of that people could do with their ad campaigns," said Nelson Minar, a Google software engineer. "One of goals is to enable advertisers and third parties to create tools for their own purposes."

3. Lego's Lego Factory, where kids design new Lego models using a Digital Designer and submit them to competitions. This is a primary source of ideas for new Lego products.

In each of these cases, no one made assumptions about what customers wanted. Customers were brought directly into the process. In shallower levels of co-creation, customers aren't directly involved in designing products... but companies still seek to understand customers' mindsets, desires and unmet needs.

Apple is one of those anomalies where one man had an aesthetic vision, created a company and products in his own image, and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. If you think you can replicate Apple's success in this fashion, go for it; but I'd suggest that some form of co-creation is infinitely easier. BTW, I do believe that Apple's brand is a form of co-creation: the "in-crowd" that formed around the Apple brand was created by customers, not by Apple.

Companies who view customers as "slimy masses" can never be successful in the long run; it is those customers who make corporate existence possible. Customers smell arrogance like a dog smells fear. Microsoft is a great example of a company who became incredibly successful based on following their own vision... which ultimately resulted in customer resentment. Now with over 1200 Microsoft employees participating in the blogosphere, the company has actively, publicly entered into dialogues with customers. Robert Scoble gets a ton of suggestions from customers and passes them on to the right folks internally. Microsoft is beginning to co-create.

Does this mean we should always do what customers say? Of course not. But we should always be listening to them to ensure that our products and services maintain relevance in today's rapidly changing environment. We design products and services that people will buy... and we find out what people will buy by listening, observing and participating in dialogues. There's a terrific example of this in the book "Hardball" that discusses how Whirlpool co-created their new line of appliances by deeply understanding the life of a woman named Gail.

If anyone has other examples of co-created products and services, I'd love to hear about them. This is a tidal-wave trend; customers want to be heard, and they will buy from those companies who demonstrate a willingness to listen. Sure, we could say that co-creation is just pig lipstick for customer research... at the shallower end, perhaps. But the concept of co-creation goes much deeper and farther than the traditional idea of research. In co-creation, customers truly feel like they are a part of the company (family, ecosystem, etc.) and that their voice is heard.

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