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  • Suman Shrivastav

Hand Built By Robots

This article was published last Tuesday on and on FirstPost. They were slightly edited. This is the original version. You can see the published versions by clicking on the names of the two publications.

My teenage niece visited us last summer and fell in love with the frozen yogurt at a neighboring shop in Bandra called Yogurt Bay. She created her own particular combination of yoghurt, sauce and topping that she could almost patent, and she didn’t want her yoghurt any other way. She didn’t want to try any other shops or any other flavors at her favorite shop. At least not in that particular month.

This new generation is getting addicted to customization. And brands all around the world are noticing this trend. Today’s post is about the amazing ways in which brands are empowering customers and getting brand loyalty back.

We have already seen the customization in the telecom industry. Everyone has a different ring tone and, if they so desire, a separate ring tone for every person in their address book. They also have their own caller tunes, their own wallpapers, mobile cases and other accessories. We have come a long way from the black telephone of Mr. Graham Bell.

At the NikeID website, you can customize your own shoes. You start by picking the type of shoe you want (running, tennis, basketball etc) and then you get to change 31 different parts of the shoe. These include the base, the overlay, the laces, the color of the Nike logo, the text you want on the back of the shoe (write your own name there) and so on. At the end of the process, you create a shoe that is yours and yours alone. You order this and it gets delivered to you in due course. Unfortunately NikeID is not yet on offer in India, but it is so successful around the world, that it is just a matter of time before we get it here too.

Jones Soda has gone one step further. This is a manufacturer of aerated soft drinks which was originally from Vancouver, Canada, but has now shifted its HQ to Seattle so as to cater more easily to the American market. Jones Soda has always had a simple label with a black and white photograph in front. In 1999, they decided to allow customers to put their own pictures on the label. You can order as little as 4 bottles and get the labels customized. They will put the picture you choose plus a 50 character message and ship the bottles to you anywhere in the USA and Canada. Jones Soda even has an iPhone app that makes it easy to take a picture, upload it to Jones’ website and order your drinks. How cool is that?

Starbucks has created a loyal base of customers by creating a cadre of connoisseurs. Time was when Americans thought that coffee was coffee and thats all there was to it. Then along came Starbucks and taught them how to customize their coffee. Today there are sites that teach you how to order at Starbucks (I got 21,100 hits on Google when I searched for the exact phrase “How to order at Starbucks”). There is even a contest of sorts for the longest order there. The current winner is “Double Ristretto Venti Half-Soy Nonfat Decaf Organic Chocolate Brownie Iced Vanilla Double-Shot Gingerbread Frappuccino Extra Hot With Foam Whipped Cream Upside Down Double Blended, One Sweet’N Low and One Nutrasweet, and Ice”. No kidding.

And, of course, you can customize cars. You can go to the website of pretty much any manufacturer today and you will find a way to personalize your car. These engines are called configurators and plays havoc with the production schedules. But it is now a standard part of the offering of cars and so you can’t get away from it.

Customization has come full circle then. There was a time when everyone only bought products that were made to order. Clothes, shoes, furniture, homes, food – nothing was mass produced. But then came the era of “you can have any colour, so long as its black”. Mass production made everything affordable, but it also took away customization. Now with computers and some ingenuity, customization is back.

This trend is still nascent. Today it can be a differentiator for a brand. Tomorrow it will be a requirement and brands will have to struggle to catch up. Which camp do you want to be in?

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