Co-creation has become a central theme for brands and innovators over the last decade, and rightfully so. The idea of collaboration in a postmodern world where information and opinions reach millions in the blink of an eye is a necessity. But what do we mean when we talk about co-creation and is it the panacea it’s made out to be?
Co-creation views products, brands and markets as forums for companies and customers to share, combine and renew each other’s resources and capabilities. This creates value through new forms of interaction, service and learning mechanisms. In other words, it ideally establishes a dialog between all actors involved in the company’s offerings. Co-creation is about collaboration. It’s about working together to solve problems, uniting a range of perspectives and approaches to an issue. Very often this collaboration involves consumers working directly with professionals from inside and outside a client organization, to define and create a range of outputs, from strategy to communications, from products to experiences.
Value is co-created with customers if and when a customer is able to personalize his or her experience using a firm’s brand promise and product/service proposition to a level that is best suited to get his or her tasks done or need fulfilled. This, in turn, allows the company to derive greater value from its product-service investment in the form of new knowledge, higher profitability and/or increased brand loyalty. The interaction established through co-creation produces a sort of community where the company and the user/buyer engage in an ongoing, continuously evolving relationship, defined by and defining a shared set of actions and beliefs.
A key element in all of this is the notion of personalization on the part of the customer. But what does personalization mean? Personalization is about the customer becoming a co-creator of the content of their experiences. This doesn’t mean providing products and content that can then be tweaked to meet their needs, because that is still largely a passive process – the company makes it, the consumer buys it and then reconstructs it in something of a vacuum. There is no feedback loop. In a true co-creation model, customers and actors inside the company are taking active roles in developing and sharing new ideas. Competencies of the consumer and stakeholders within the company come to interact and harness a range of ideas, functional and symbolic.
This is done along four axes: engage in dialogue with customers, mobilize communities, manage customer diversity and co-create experiences with customers. Ultimately, the goal is to leverage customers for a shared creative experience, going beyond insights and creating a constant interaction that produces brand experiences and better products and services. The increase in the number of collaborators and the numerous interactions among them, across each stage of development, leads to products and services that better meet customer needs. We see a greater diversity of individuals, functions across organizations and stakeholders across the product/service/brand ecosystem getting involved.
While I am a proponent of co-creation, there are problems with a co-creative model. A customer who believes he or she has the expertise and chooses to co-produce may be more likely to make self-attributions for success and failure than a customer who lacks the expertise. A customer who lacks the expertise but feels forced to co-produce may make more negative attributions about co-production. The dialog can backfire.
The second pitfall is that co-creation assumes customers can readily articulate what they want and need. Customers take on roles, which means what they tell the stakeholders inside the organization may not reflect anything more than a whim. Think of cars with 17 cup holders and fins a mile high. What we can articulate is often a manifestation of something else, something we can’t articulate well, which may lead to creating the absurd. Rather than taking suggestions at face value, ideas need to be analyzed through the lens of detachment and we need to tease out meaning and innovation from the unsaid as well as the said.
Finally, co-creation often assumes a fixed identity for the customer, meaning that the person with whom we’re working and the person for whom we’re building changes according to context. If the co-creating customer is in the role of “mom” in one instance, she may be in the role of “artist” later in the day. The dramaturgical shift in identity will shape what he or she says and does as it relates to a brand, product or service at any given point in time. So even though the idea is well developed and well thought out in the co-creation process, whether that be an ideation session or an online forum, it may have little relevance once that stage is abandoned and the customer moves on with the rest of his or her day.
Co-creation can help break the yo-yo effect of research and development, where clients go back and forward between creative agencies, research agencies and their audience. By working with your consumers, rather than directing stuff at them, companies get a real sense of what works and what doesn’t as the ideation takes place. But it is not without risk. As co-creation becomes a mainstay at companies, we will need to figure out how to keep a diverse set of participants engaged, how to share the risks and value of innovation, how to manage the complexity of the system without laying out too many constraints. We will need to learn how to tease out what is actually needed and what are simply flights of fancy. We will need to learn to balance the said and the unsaid. But in the end, the payoffs can and will be tremendous.