Feeling nostalgic for a Woolies’ pic ‘n’ mix, Mel Gillespie discusses how brands can make better use of choice in the age of the prosumer.
Pick and Mix: Not a new concept
The last bag of Woolworth’s pic ‘n’ mix sold for £14,500 on eBay in 2009: an 800g bag filled with fizzy cola bottles, strawberry bonbons and white mice. I was wondering what makes pic ‘n’ mix so great, and realised it all comes down to choice. The ability to choose exactly what combination of sweets you wanted was one of the small freedoms you were given as a child.
We’ve always wanted choice. And this has begun to spread to how we engage with brands, breeding a new type of consumer, the ‘prosumer’, a term coined by futurologist Alvin Toffler, defining the merging of the practices of production and consumption. It all began in the ‘70s with the introduction of the home testing pregnancy kit, which marked the start of a movement that saw people begin to perform for themselves services previously performed for them by others. From designing your own trainers at Nike, to recording personalised storybooks with Hallmark, to even custom mixed cereal at mymuesli.com, companies are rapidly realising that inviting customers to play the role of designer can meet their needs better than standardised products.
Last week, eBay followed the trend in launching their new iPhone app. eBay Exact enables users to customise accessories from 3D printing companies before they are printed and shipped out to them, allowing them to modify patterns, materials, shapes and colours, facilitating a shift towards fully customisable products.
Is this kind of user collaboration a good thing, or is it simply labour on the part of the paying consumer?
One company that brilliantly embodies the rise of the prosumer is threadless.com, based around T-Shirt designs that are created and chosen by an online community. Founded in 2000, it now has over 2.5 million members, with 1,500 designs competing via the online community to be the ten which are printed each week. Successful designers then receive $2000 in cash and a $500 store gift card. Members then buying the products end up playing a critical role across idea generation, marketing and sales forecasting.
Threadless.com: the embodiment of the prosumer principle
Satisfaction in taking part is not always monetary. Threadless members get gratification through intrinsic rewards such as ‘fame’ within the community and the visibility of the platform which gives people the tools to become their own designer, not to mention the satisfaction of someone wearing your T-Shirt out and about. As company co-founder Jake Nickell is keen to point out in his TEDx talk, Threadless is first and foremost about community and collaboration.
User collaboration also adds value to a company as it aligns consumers’ demands with producers’ supply, while – as with the eBay Exact app – effectively outsourcing the work of the design department saves on cost. In the longer run, it can provide direct insights into customer preferences across markets and demographics and can help spot emerging trends before they take off.
Aligned with the proliferation of new technologies that facilitate collaborative thinking, it’s becoming easier for consumers to be brand collaborators and ‘pick n mix’ their products. And it can only be a good thing. Especially when companies like Child’s Own make personalised soft toys from children’s drawings. Who wouldn’t want the option of having their 3 headed or one-eyed afro monsters turned into a product to sell?! I’m starting to feel hard done by with the freedom I had in choosing between a flying saucer and a bonbon.
Fabricio’s Monster (Age 6)
Alex’s Monster (Age 11)