We are witnessing a transformation in the figurative contract between companies and people.
Seeking consumers' input during the process of developing a product or idea is not, of course, a new idea. But the future's increasingly complex marketplace has already spurred an evolution of this process to interesting—and even radical—new models.
Today, collaboration with customers is no longer simply consultative; it is a mixture of art and science—and a process whose depth deserves a suitable name.
I call it co-creation.
Co-creation is, in fact, not so much a concept but a spectrum. At the conservative end, companies go about their business pretty much as usual, but say to the consumer, "Hey, come and help us conceive of and even create our advertising." MasterCard's "You write a 'Priceless' ad" is a good example of a practice at this end.
Now, move one or two clicks further along the spectrum. Here, consumers become involved in the design of the product itself: First in a cosmetic way (as in Nike ID, the basketball shoe that people can customize after purchase), and then in a deeper sense—as in Nokia's Design Lounge, which actively solicits and incorporates the public's design ideas into the new cell phones. An even more colorful example comes to us courtesy of the Beastie Boys, the white-guy hip-hop trio that recently distributed video cameras to 50 fans at a Madison Square Garden concert with instructions to shoot whatever they wanted. Producers spliced the resultant thousands of hours of footage into a 90-minute documentary with the explanatory title: Awesome: I . . . shot that! (The f-word that had added a bit more punch to the vernacular title is missing from retail versions.)
One more click, now, up the co-creation continuum, and one arrives in a territory that has been referred to as "crowd-sourcing." In this realm, the traditional boundaries separating company, product and consumer start to behave very differently and, to some extent, simply dissolve. In "ecosystems" such as Wikipedia, YouTube and MySpace, the product is the consumer is the product. Company, brand, customer, product offering—all have fused in a way that would have been difficult to imagine just a few years ago.
Let's put this spectrum into an historic context for a moment. In the industrial age of the Model T Ford, the company manufactured the "it" and the consumer either liked it or lumped it. Customers, Henry Ford famously barked, could have any color car they wanted as long as it was black. With the coming of the marketing age (advertising was recognized as a bona fide profession by the 1920s), the company lured the consumer into buying the "it" by making the product irresistible through lauding its pip and pizzazz. And then, in the customer-centric age, the company learned to spend millions on market research in an attempt to analyze, quantify and anticipate the consumer's every need from behind a two-way mirror.
All these purportedly sophisticated ways of inventing and selling stuff are founded on what is, when you really think about it, a bizarre conceit: There is a "them" (the consumer) and an "us" (the company)—and there is some kind of invisible wall between us. But fueled by the tectonic shifts of the Web, we are witnessing a transformation in the figurative contract between the companies that sell things and the people that buy them. It is the end of "them and us" and the birth of "we."
Which returns us to co-creation, and the question of how best to harness its power to achieve a return. To this end, here are four thought-starters:
1. It's "co-create," not "cop out." Co-creation is a dance. It is not the act of simply handing over the wheel to the consumer and saying, "Go ahead, you drive while I take a nap in the back seat." Rather, it's a dynamic exchange in which each actively inspires the other.
2. Build it in. A one-shot request to consumers to feed into the product development or marketing process is a co-creative event, but it's not the same as a commitment to a co-creative ethos. Think about how to build co-creativity into all of the processes and structures of the corporation or organization.
3. Understand creativity. As American business tries to escape from the trap of global outsourcing by moving up the business food chain, innovation, ideas and creativity are becoming our most valuable commodities. Studying creativity and understanding the best techniques to generate it from all possible sources—within the company and without—is the 21st century equivalent of the assembly line.
4. Be the change you wish to see. It's hard to team up with your customer if you you're isolated within your own company. Practice a co-creative approach to problem-solving within the organization first. Have a group that runs one brand in the portfolio team with the group from a whole other brand to take on a challenge together. Have them co-create a solution as a living experiment.
Co-creation is a wave that is still washing towards the shore, but the tide is not in yet. While co-creation is happening in real time, its dynamics are still emerging, its rules still solidifying. Its power and potential, however, are evident. Are you ready to co-create? Best prepare now, or you'll take a back seat to those who are.