Treat Your Customers Like Partners

In 2020, Sandra Choi, creative director at designer footwear company Jimmy Choo, launched a competition for fans to design their own fantasy shoes. Anybody could submit a sketch to Choi, who posted her top ten choices on Instagram and asked the community to vote for their favourites. After almost 200,000 votes, five winners were chosen, and they worked with the Jimmy Choo team to turn the sketches into commercial products.

This is a example of an organisation inviting customers to join their teams – a process called ‘customer co-creation’. Think of it as running a competition, where many people enter for the chance to win, but only a few win the prize. It doesn’t always take the form of a competition, although that’s common because it’s usually a low-risk, high-return option.

Here are more examples of companies that embraced co-creation:

  • DHL: In DHL’s Innovation Centre, customers and staff collaborate to suggest new initiatives for the company – leading to innovative products like the ‘Parcelcopter’, a drone delivery service for remote areas.
  • IKEA: IKEA’s platform Co-Create IKEA encourages customers and fans to contribute new product ideas through innovation labs, bootcamps, and university collaborations. In return, IKEA gives cash rewards and licensing deals.
  • BMW: In 2010, BMW’s Co-Creation Lab ran a contest, asking fans and customers for new product ideas and opinions. It generated more than three hundred ideas, including the winner ‘Pick Me Up Please’, a mobility system for pedestrians.
  • Lego: In 2004, Lego launched a platform, LEGO Ideas, for their fans to suggest new product ideas. It has garnered over a million suggestions, with winners rewarded with recognition, input into development, and a percentage of sales.
  • Coca-Cola: In 2018, Coca-Cola ran a co-creation project in Southeast Asia to match its products to local tastes and preferences. The company rented out local eateries and invited customers to suggest variations of the classic Coke products.
  • Heineken: In 2012, Heineken invited designers to develop a new club concept. They used an online crowdsourcing hub to share their ideas with Heineken fans, and together created the Heineken Concept Club, launched during Milan Design Week.

This is focussed crowdsourcing.

Customer co-creation is one type of crowdsourcing, where you reach out far and wide to tap into the collective and diverse expertise of the world (mostly your customers and fans, but there’s no reason it can’t go wider).

This might seem like a random and haphazard way to do business, and it’s not appropriate for every project. But for some areas – especially those in your customer journey – it can be very useful.

We most often hear about customer co-creation at the idea generation phase, but consider using it at all stages of your product cycle – for example:

  • Development: Invite customers to join your design and development team to suggest and advise on new products and services.
  • Testing: Software companies often roll out ‘pre-release’ versions of a product to selected customers for testing.
  • Promotion: Give customers the resources and support to promote and sell your products and services through their networks.
  • Support: Build an online community for customers to support and help each other.

Co-creation requires a high level of trust and transparency because you lower the drawbridge and invite customers inside your fortress. With loyal customers and a supportive community, people want you to succeed and are keen to help. But without that relationship, co-creation can be risky. Even a competition can be abused, as the UK government discovered when it invited the public to name their latest polar research vessel – leading to the most popular vote being ‘Boaty McBoatface’ (which was unfortunately overruled).

But don’t let that discourage you from inviting customers into your team. Done well, it’s one of the best ways to generate new ideas.

Thinking Ahead

Most leaders don’t try co-creation because they think it’s only for small start-ups. But it’s a valuable tool for any kind of organisation or team that wants to engage diverse thinking to find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Ask yourself – and your team – these three questions about co-creation:

  1. What problems are we struggling to solve? How could our customers help us?
  2. What internal processes, systems and culture might get in the way of running a customer co-creation project?
  3. What pilot project could we use to experiment with customer co-creation on a small scale?


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