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Bespoke is coming to a product or service near you

A headline in The Atlantic Monthly proclaimed: "The Future of Marketing is Bespoke Everything." That might be overstating it, but there is a growing demand for bespoke or customized products and experiences. Some are luxury brands. Designer Christian Louboutin said business creating one-of-a-kind products for customers rose by a fifth over the last year. But custom items are in hot demand for other markets as well. According to the research firm YouGov, 26 percent of people surveyed said they’d bought a personalized item in the last year, as compared to 17 percent in 2015. Nearly half of consumers surveyed said they’d pay more for a personalized product and 67 percent would pay more for customized apparel or footwear.

Ivan Bojanic, head of trends and integration for Gongos Inc., a business intelligence consulting firm that focuses on customer centricity, co-wrote a piece with Vice President of Strategic Branding Susan Scarlett, “Customization is the New Black: The Age of the Passive Consumer is Decidedly Over,” in which they listed these benefits of customization:

  • Increased website stickiness, purchase frequency, and customer advocacy
  • "Free" design consultation, ideation and co-creation; giving an inside look at customer creations to steer future product development
  • Less waste and lost profit associated with mass production (e.g., only 30% of traditionally mass-produced clothing is actually sold at retail); and fewer returns

26 percent of people surveyed said they'd bought a personalized item in the last year.

While it may not at first seem like a scalable business model, many startups are beginning as solely custom providers. Propercloth lets men design their shirts by submitting their measurements and selecting from a few classic cuts and hundreds of fabrics. Mohop uses the outlines of your feet to create custom shoes—you pick the shape, materials, and colors. And established companies are also getting into the custom trend. Lancome Le Teint Particulier can scan your skin color and texture and concoct a bespoke foundation makeup while you wait. In fact, beauty brands may be the fastest growing industry in terms of bespoke or custom offerings.

With companies like Prose, which makes custom hair products, and Care/Of which makes customized vitamin packs, the driver may be that customers find it tough to identify and shop for the products that will meet their needs, whereas ordering from a custom process makes it easy.

[Read also: Feeding the needs of today's experience-hungry customer]

But also, increasingly, people want the experience of being interactive, co-creators in the things they buy. Reasons they give researchers include: wanting “to demonstrate creativity,” “stand out,” “feel pride in creating something,” “design something just for fun,” and “identify a product as belonging to me.”

Customers find it tough to identify and shop for the products that will meet their needs, whereas ordering from a custom process makes it easy.

“The exciting thing about customization is that there’s a real emotional payoff for people when they create something of their own,” said Bojanic. “Psychologists call it the IKEA effect: having an active role in creating something creates a deeper emotional connection than we would have just buying it off the shelf,” he said. “So, companies that are helping people to achieve that kind of emotional connection are going to have a real advantage over those that don’t.”

The difference between bespoke, custom, and personalized experiences

Emerging technology is engendering customization for more and more products and services. But just like when the proliferation of 3D technology made it possible to turn many movies into 3D experiences, causing customers to soon tire of them, not every product or service

Before we get into what makes for a good custom experience, we should lock down our terminology. Custom, personalized, and bespoke are often used interchangeably, but are not the same thing.

  • Bespoke means something that is created with you in mind, often handmade. When Orange County Choppers designs a motorcycle to a customer’s exact specifications, those are bespoke. When someone goes to a craftsperson and asks for a specific item to be made with specific materials in a specific way—like a desk made of cypress with a secret drawer—that’s bespoke.
  • Custom can mean bespoke but often it means the customer begins with a template and makes some tweaks, like buying a wedding dress and having it taken in, or adding a belt or straps. Tesla customers custom order their cars when they order online and select the color of the exterior, seats, and shape of the wheel covers.
  • Personalized used to mean having your name or a message added to a mass-produced item. But these days when businesses speak of personalization they’re generally speaking of using data and artificial intelligence to suss out what customers are looking for without the customers’ deliberate participation and using this data to serve relevant ads or to suggest products.

Bespoke means something that is created with you in mind, often handmade.

The goal is to make the customer feel like the product or service they got was special and unique to them. The question is, what does that look like for your business and your customers?

[Read also: Personalization's deep data foundations]

5 questions to help determine whether to offer some form of customization

1. Is the end result worth the trouble?
Designing your own thing is fun, creative, and rewarding; but also takes time and requires making choices, which takes energy. A lot of research has evaluated whether making choices makes life better or just more difficult. The answer is, it depends. People want the freedom to choose and they’re not as easily overwhelmed by choice as previously thought. However, each thing a customer says yes to means they had to say no to several others. Each choice shrinks the possibilities; each option we let go of feels like a cost, even if it’s a little thing—like picking the blue material instead of the red.

(Blue goes with more of my clothes…but red makes more of a statement…what if I never have the guts to wear the red? What if I wish I’d gone for it when I had the chance….?)

The goal is to make the customer feel like the product or service they got was special and unique to them. The question is, what does that look like for your business and your customers?

This depletes our psychological energy. The happier we are with our choice, the less depleted we feel. But there’s a direct correlation with how happy we are compared to how much energy we had to put toward our object.

By that calculation, the end product has to really reward the customer to be worth the customization. An outfit a customer will wear for a long time might be worth it: they can tell people who compliment them that they created the outfit, boosting their sense of self; perhaps something like a custom-designed pair of Nike by You shoes.

By contrast, in 2013, Pepperidge Farm introduced My Goldfish My Way. As fun and novel as it was—for the year it lasted—taking the time to go online and design your own Goldfish cracker might not offer customers the same sense of creative reward.

2. Is the process simple?
Once upon a time when you booked an international flight, you got a basic package: at least one free checked bag and one carry-on. The ticket purchase typically included a meal and free beverages. Perhaps also a blanket, pillow, and earphones.

Today, every piece of the flight experience is purchased a la carte: where you sit and how much leg room you have, how many bags of each size, food and drink, the option for in-flight accessories, and easier check-in processes. Each of these options represent a separate decision.

Customization can create complexity—for both the customer and provider—as anyone who has ever seen a spoof on ordering Starbucks knows. To create a custom experience that is also simple means the user interface is easy, customers only have to interact with the information or the steps in the process that are relevant to them, and taking those steps is intuitive and seamless. It doesn’t involve, for example, filling out a lengthy survey or following numerous boring steps. Even the act of choosing customizations should be fun and easy.

To create a custom experience that is also simple means the user interface is easy, customers only have to interact with the information or the steps in the process that are relevant to them, and taking those steps is intuitive and seamless.

Siegel+Gale, a branding company, produces an annual “World’s Simplest Brand Index”. The company’s co-CEO and Chief Strategy Officer David Srere said in article: “Simplicity is achieved when two key components intersect: clarity and surprise. It implies consideration—taking the time and effort to know an audience well enough to understand just how much information they need - clarity - and then delivering it in a way that is truly fresh - surprise. Combining these two elements allows a brand to appeal both logically and emotionally.”

[Read also: Putting the sensory into the customer experience]

The 2018 index included some brands that definitely offer the ability to customize: Netflix, Spotify, and Subway. When Netflix was named a leader in 2018, Siegel+Gale noted that the company gives customers what they want without forcing them to deal with ads. That’s simplicity.

3. Can you clear a path?
Many companies need some kind of survey so they know how to serve the customer. Care/Of, for example, has a “quiz” survey that customers take before signing up for anything. And they promise it will take only five minutes. Companies can use surveys like these to reduce the risk of overcomplication and narrow the choices for customers from the outset. Subscription boxes often allow customers to customize what’s in their box, but they pick and choose only after they've been placed into a more narrow profile, which simplifies and limits the offerings available. Surveys also give customers a chance to see what’s available by creating a simple path from one step to the next when customizing an item.

4. Is the process discriminatory?
Customization has a dark side. Recently, Japan Airlines announced it would let customers see where babies are going to be and choose seats away from them. That’s a custom experience. And, really, parents don’t want to be near people who get hives around kids any more than those people want to be around children. But the policy is also discriminatory. People with pet allergies do not have the same option not to sit near an emotional support animal, for example. And it opens a line of questioning around the potential for customers to begin asking for seats that are not near people of various races, or nationalities, or with disabilities. This form of customization can set a dangerous precedent. To be fair, though, there are also airlines that go the extra mile for parents, which can also be viewed as prejudice by showing preferential treatment.

[Read also: Why some retailers aren’t affected by the Amazon Effect]

5. How fast can you produce custom products?
It used to be assumed that making fine, bespoke, unique products took time. But people don’t want things to take time, anymore. They want a custom item in basically the same amount of time it takes to get a non-custom version. Fortunately, technology often makes that possible. Nike can make a pair of custom shoes in under an hour, for example. So the question is, can you deliver the custom item in roughly the same time it takes to deliver the off-the-shelf one?

It used to be assumed that making fine, bespoke, unique products took time. But people don't want things to take time, anymore.

There are still many customers—48 percent of customers surveyed by Deloitte, for example—who don’t mind waiting for a custom item. But that means 52 percent do.

Younger generations love custom products

Bojanic believes customization is far past the point of being a fad. His numbers show its popularity increases with younger consumers. And research from Deloitte backs that up. In every category—from holidays to clothing to books and entertainment—Generation Z and Millennials expressed a much stronger desire for customized or personalized items or experiences than Generation X or Boomers.

“As far as I know, age has been the only lens through which this has been studied,” he said. “It would be exciting and worthwhile for businesses to take a closer look at who in the market would be interested and why.”

“That said, there will inevitably be examples of custom applications that won’t gain a long-term foothold; maybe early-gen examples like customized packages and labels will fall by the wayside as more interesting applications become possible and economical due to advances in technology. Kind of like how we moved on from playing Pong forever once more complex/interesting video games became possible.”

Ronald Goldsmith, a consumer psychologist and marketing professor at Florida State University said he thinks the customization trend is here to stay, but there will always be something after that which is worth keeping an eye on as well.

“I would expect some counter-movement such as a variation on Henry Ford’s dictum ‘any color so long as it’s black’ will occur, but that might appeal chiefly to the frugal, price-conscious customer…. What is the next development beyond personalization? It can be the end of the strategy. What will happen next?”