Customizing the Masses
One morning in 1909, Henry Ford announced to his company that Ford Motors was only going to build one model, the Model T. It was at that time when he was to have said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” (“My Life and Work,” by Henry Ford in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, 1922).
Powered by electricity and the division of labor, Industry 2.0 — or the second industrial revolution — opened up the doors to mass production. Ford’s Model T was only one model and one color, but the company had figured out how to mass produce cars.
By the 1960s, automation entered manufacturing. During Industry 3.0, each device in a manufacturing line had intelligence thanks to the newly-invented microprocessor, but they didn’t communicate with each other down the line. At least not yet.
The fourth industrial revolution combined Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) into a hyper-connected digital industry. Bridging the digital and physical worlds through data collection, cloud computing, big data analytics, augmented and virtual reality, real time devices and artificial intelligence. It has been called the “Industrial Internet of Things” or “Industry 4.0”.
Why all this talk about mass production and personalization? What does it mean for print providers? First, take a step back to see the trends driving this push for customization and personalization.
With the rise of social networks and digital devices, consumers are dictating what they want and when they want it. In some cases, they are also creators of content, which means they want to have a say in the products and services they use and consume.
Personalization is at the heart of serving customers in a variety of niche businesses. And thanks to the evolution of technology and Industry 4.0, mass personalization has finally become a reality. Businesses — aka print providers and brands — have not only developed the capabilities to measure what each individual customer wants and when they want it, but they are in the position to meet those needs.
In the beginning, personalization signified exclusivity, even becoming a status symbol to some as it differentiated each person from the masses, allowing them to stand out. It has been used in the fashion industry, for example, when designers create one-of-a-kind looks for a celebrity. But that kind of personalization is expensive and not easily accessible to the mass market.
Rapid developments in technology, however, have made personalized communication, products and services much more available. In some ways, because of digital, consumers have higher expectations and want their interaction with businesses — and the products and services they purchase from them — to be personalized. Thanks to e-commerce and digital technologies, consumers can put their own mark on a product. For instance, shoe brands, such as Nike and Converse, allow users to customize the color, accessories and personal messages on their shoes. Coca-Cola used personalization to launch its “Share a Coke” campaign, which involved printing common names on Coke bottles to attract more millennials. To keep the campaign going, Coca-Cola opened an online e-commerce store where consumers can order customized Coke bottles and apparel.
But this personalization is not just about apparel or bottles. Thanks to digital technology, just about anything can be customized to a consumer’s needs and wants. Take a look at the auto market and the SEMA show. Back in 2013, NBC News reported that for Gen Y car buyers, customizing their ride was key. “Personalization is part of the generational psyche. Automakers and parts suppliers have discovered the same to be true when it comes to car buyers.”
Cars are — and in some ways always have been — an extension of the owner’s personality. A customized car allows the owner to make a statement about who they are — whether it’s through customized accessories or a full vehicle wrap with a funky design or a unique texture, such as matte black.
On the interior design side of things, people have been customizing their houses for as long as can be remembered. But when it came to fabric choices for furniture, curtains or lampshades, or even vinyl wallpaper patterns, consumers were always given books of samples to page through. Now consumers can create their own wallpaper design or fabric patterns and have them printed.
Here’s the Rub
Many of the examples I’ve noted cater directly to consumers, not businesses. Today, most print providers primarily work with brands and other businesses, serving this B2B market with product and services. And while print providers can work with brands on fulfillment of these types of products, many are not prepared to work directly with consumers — the B2C market.
There is a certain infrastructure required to handle mass personalization. And while this article is not going to dive into the ins-and-outs of those requirements, shops need to consider their internal workflow, their e-commerce platform, what products make the most sense to offer for their business and what it really means to work with hundreds or thousands of clients ordering one personalized item each, verses a handful of clients ordering thousands of the same item at once.
It’s a different workflow. It’s a different way to look at a business. But, thanks to today’s technology — software, along with print and finishing equipment — it is doable. Spoonflower is the perfect example of a company providing customized fabrics and products to their customers. Flavor Paper and Astek were both founded on the concept of providing customized, personalized wallpapers.
Offering personalization to a consumer audience may require shop owners to rethink how their business operates — including how their strategy and operating model may have to change. Core processes from manufacturing and distribution, to marketing and customer service may need to have a different approach — albeit more personalized one.
And then there’s the data aspect. The use of customer data for both personalized marketing and product creation requires new processes and framework that also take into account new privacy laws already in effect — or one that will go into effect. Through these laws, customers have control over how their data is used — and what can be used. Shop owners will need to ensure they have the internal structure and processes to support this kind of personalized experience.
But Is It Worth It?
Research says it is worth it. Consumers want customized products and they are willing to pay more for it — and wait longer to receive it.
According to the business advisory firm, Deloitte, in its study “Made-to-Order: The Rise of Mass Personalization,” 36% of consumers say they are interested in personalized products or services. Those under 40 are more interested, with 43% of 16- to 24-year-olds and 46% of 25- to 30-year-olds attracted to personalized goods and services.
In the same study, it was reported that on average, 36% of consumers expressed an interest in purchasing personalized products or services. Of these numbers, one in five were willing to pay a 20% premium for it and 48% said they were willing to wait longer to receive that custom product.
Additionally, in YouGov’s latest research, “Made to Order,” it reveals that over the past three years, the personalization economy has seen an increase in demand from 17% to 26%. Now, at least one in four Americans say they have personalized a product either for themselves or someone else.
Print shops that embrace personalization have the opportunity to create a unique and differentiated revenue stream that may command a price premium — albeit with some internal changes. As the trend toward mass customization continues to grow, it has the potential to be a growth opportunity for a company willing to embrace it.
Denise Gustavson is the Editorial Director and Special Projects Editor for the Printing & Packaging Group, which includes Printing Impressions, packagePRINTING, In-plant Graphics and Wide-Format Impressions magazines, among other brands. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Wide-Format Impressions.