Power to the People (But Not Too Much)

By Jordan K. Speer — February 01, 2017

You may have heard the story about how, in the 1950s, when General Mills launched a line of cake mixes under the famous Betty Crocker brand, it took a while to get things just right. You see, initially, the cake mixes included all of the dry ingredients plus the milk and eggs in powdered form. Making the cakes required nothing more than adding water. It seemed like the perfect solution for busy homemakers, one that would ensure success while freeing up time and effort for other activities.

Despite the benefits of the new product and its initial success, after some time, sales declined. General Mills initiated research to uncover the reason for consumer resistance. The source of the problem turned out to be a bit of a surprise: American housewives felt guilty about using the product. It was so much easier than baking a cake from scratch, yet still tasty, that women felt they were deceiving their families and guests. 
The solution? Instead of a marketing campaign to address the issue of guilt, General Mills changed the product by making the mix slightly less convenient. The powdered egg was removed; a fresh egg was required. The company relaunched the product with the slogan, “Add an Egg!” The result? Sales of the instant mix soared.

Why did this happen? Putting in a little more work alleviated the guilt, and also gave women a sense of personal ownership. They really were making the cake, and doing something meaningful for their families.

I heard this tale again from Alexa Fleishman, CEO of Strypes, at the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Big Show last month. In speaking about the growing importance of personalization at retail, Fleishman provided many examples that hearken back to the Betty Crocker example. Today, for example, anyone with a smartphone can take a photo, add a filter, and make it look like a professional shot. It’s the technology that enables this, but it’s that extra step that gives the photographer a sense of ownership — of having created something unique and beautiful that reflects their own signature — and keeps them coming back for more.

What’s key to remember about personalization is that “no one is trying to take the brand or retailer out of the equation. They are just trying to insert the customer into the equation,” says Fleishman. It’s about shifting from “telling the customer” to “collaborating with the customer.”

This is a crucial point to understand, for a number of reasons. For one, it’s most likely that your customer is not an apparel or shoe or textile designer and likely doesn’t have the skill set or the desire for a from-scratch build anyway. If they did, they’d be running their own business. Your customer wants something that reflects her personality and allows her product or experience to stand out from the pack, but she also wants it to be simple and fun.

And the other point that is essential to understand about personalization is that an infinite number of personalization options will be unmanageable for your business to produce profitably (or at all), will erode your brand, and will frustrate the consumer.

Customization is about placing a limited amount of power in the hands of the consumer, says Jodie Fox, co-founder and chief creative officer of women’s design-your-own-shoes online retailer Shoes of Prey. The options you provide to the consumer should be culled from the wider range of possibilities based on your own extensive research and data analysis. At Shoes of Prey, customers may choose from a variety of predetermined options such as base shapes, heels, materials, sizes and so forth. 

“We love the idea of customization, but we need a level of curation to make that possible,” says Fox.

Your customer is not looking for a truly endless number of possibilities. There is freedom in limits. She wants to introduce her own personality without being overwhelmed by the decision-making process and that goes for you, too. 

What’s the best way to cook up your personalization strategy? Make it over easy. 

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel.
She can be reached at jspeer@ensembleiq.com.

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