An endlessly fascinating quirk of humans is to desire something that no one else owns. It’s apparent in the way people spend millions in auctions, create NFTs, or even prefer the chipped teacup over the others in their cutlery collection as if in defiance against mass-produced items. Back in 2017, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director and ‘Off’White’ CEO Virgil Abloh designed custom sneakers for Nike. Called ‘The Ten’, it was a reimagining of some of Nike’s iconic shoes, a childhood dream of Abloh. Its success warranted a repeat of the campaign, with twenty and recently, in 2021, some fifty signature-style sneakers.
While the concept may seem glamorous or even elitist, we are all quite familiar with custom-made goods. Even in small towns, people wear clothes stitched for them, with the material, cut and size tailored to them. There are restaurants that tweak the menu or recipe for certain loyal patrons, going the extra mile for the love of customer service. But brand head honchos pooh-pooh the humility and ‘waste-not’ mentality of our everyday customizations and aim for luxury and individuality, to tell millions of people that there’s no one quite like them.
Irony or not, it’s an interesting proposition. As we steer deeper into curated experiences, be it targeted advertisements or data collection so astute that they know your dog’s birthday, companies are wielding customization as an embargo from mass-produced in a bid to industrially influence your personal tastes.
The Customer to Creator Crossover
Vans shoes have some epic bragging rights in this department – because their creator, Paul Van Doren, offered to make shoes with any fabric people brought to the shop, circa 1966! Their website says they were customizing goods “Since before that was a thing.”
In 1999, when Nike first offered their customization service via their website, they were still discomfitingly ahead of their time. But the years have moved to meet them. The ‘Just do it’ brand now offers ‘Nike by you’, formerly called NikeID, to craft Nike shoes as per your taste. The service can be accessed both online from their homepage and in physical branches (Nike By You Studios), situated in parts of Canada, France, England, Main Land Europe, China, and the USA. Hot on their heels, Adidas too offered ‘Mi Adidas’ starting 2000, serving custom designs to their patrons.
For Nike, it’s not all about fashion because they’re determined to increase direct-to-consumer marketing by intimately understanding their needs. Nike Fit, added to their mobile app and stores in 2019, scans customers’ feet and determines the correct size. The service was rolled out to Europe in August, moving to other international markets soon after. Nike opened new stores, like its House of Innovation in New York and Nike Live in Los Angeles, designed specifically for these markets and selling items visitors can’t find anywhere else.
Customization is an enticing process, whether done online or in-store. It takes you out of the consumer’s position and places you in that of a creator’s, and customers have fallen in love with their product long before it is ready for them.
Case in point, the Vans sneaker design website is a delightful affair. It’s a portal that takes you from the spectator stands of consumership to the frenzy of involved creation. On the Vans website, they call it, “Creativity still in your hands.” With vibrant, quirky designs such as Spongebob SquarePants and a variety of patently American cuts and styles, you feel a bit like a kid in the candy store. Not just that, they offer embossing of words you choose on the back of the shoe so that you are making a statement no matter which way you turn.
Big brands go to all this trouble for one reason: to nudge customers into making the brand a beloved possession by weaving their story into what they wear. Before profits, bottom lines, and visibility, it’s perhaps the highest form of endorsement for the brand that people want to go the extra mile to make it an extension of their personality.
Brands are also striving for emotional attachment. They are attempting to repackage the relentless consumerism of our times. Until a few years back, shopping was a more engaging experience involving going to stores, parading streets such as Madison Avenue or Sarojini Road, getting into the look and feel of clothes, texture, and designs. While online shopping is convenient, especially during the pandemic, the barriers between the customer and product and overwhelming options actually leave customers dissatisfied. What was sorely required was getting customers to play with the experience again and roping them in the customization process achieves that.
Aiming For Timeless
Louis Vuitton has always offered personalization services such as hot-stamping or hand-painting. Taking this one step further, with ‘My LV Heritage’, Louis Vuitton now also proposes a way to personalize a monogram or Damier bag and really make it one’s own.
Fashion purists aren’t thrilled by calls for customization, often viewing it as pandering to the public. But wares aren’t sold from palace stoops, they’re sold from marketplaces. Even if Louis Vuitton’s ‘Make It Yours’ campaign was subtly touted as defacement by some high-brow fashion moguls, the move perhaps helped the brand gain popularity with younger people. Plus, it is hardly a total embargo from its legacy – those stuck on the old school charm can pick stamps replicating the trunk tags from Louis Vuitton’s bygone era. It doesn’t need to be said that for a brand to become timeless, it needs to stay in business first.
The launch of NikeID turned it around for the premier shoewear brand, generating over 22% of the company’s total revenues since. Several other brands swear that when direct-to-consumer sales are waning or competition is getting the best of you, customization can help you strike a chord with your loyal base. By leveraging on personalization, Nike was able to hike up the price to $170 per pair and successfully transformed its revenue focus. And it said direct-to-consumer revenue ended the year 2019, representing roughly 30% of total Nike brand sales, up from 28% in the prior year.
Customization is an innocuous and market justified way to get your customers to pay more. Overall, it has been observed that customers are willing to pay almost 20% more for customized goods. Additionally, exercises in uniqueness such as Nike Fit help the retailer better manage inventory and cut down on returns, even enticing shoppers to buy more shoes. Before Nike Fit launched, Nike suffered product returns due to sizing issues, and over 500,000 calls made each year to their customer service were related to sizing. Customized shoes are slightly more expensive, but companies save a pretty penny because customized shoes, once sold, don’t return.
We can hypothesize that top brands want to have the best of both worlds – global recognition, which affords them top ambassadors and billions in revenue, and personal touches with their customers like a neighborhood store that knows your life story – your favorite color or your Alma Mater. When mass production took hold in the 1920s, people were enthralled by the speed at which things were manufactured and the perfect, faultless sameness of things. But as the wheel of time goes, things that seem outdated circle back as special and custom-made. Handicrafts and rare goods have seen the same comeback. Once again, people want to own something that no one can claim to.
Nutella’s ‘Make Me Yours’ campaign tried to engage with their client base, or so they thought when they asked users to submit their idea for a label, upload a receipt and receive a personal gooey chocolate jar. Despite a significant percentage of people enjoying the idea, social media was a disaster, as people uploaded comical, sarcastic, even defamatory content for the labels. The error here was offering too much power to the consumer and poor understanding of their client base. InsideOut public relations director Nicole Reaney said, “Nutella is a brand that is marketed to families. In this particular campaign, families were not engaged. Instead, it targeted people in their teens and 20s who decided to have fun. The key lessons are to align your campaign to your target market and test it with a few people in that market to see if there is any chance of it backfiring.” The other plan, of course, is always to have an ‘Abort’ button, i.e., to pull the plug when a campaign falters.
Too much of a good thing could actually hurt the brand’s integrity in the long run. If a brand offers too many modifications to the customer, the final product may look like too much of a departure from the brand’s look and feel and be perceived as a decrease in quality, thereby reducing customer interest. If the logo does not seem prominently placed, then owning the product itself may not seem worthwhile.
Consumers appreciate luxury brands like Chanel or Gucci because of their exclusivity, almost a rarity, crafted by expert designers. The experiments show that when customization is offered for luxury products, consumers try to balance out these luxury brand dimensions with their own personal style. Consumers put less value on luxury products that offer a significant amount of design freedom because too much customization reduces the brand identity and its inherent value. A higher level of design freedom might jeopardize the brand for fashion-conscious consumers who value prestige and self-expression over brand identity.
The magic elixir is a simple lesson – when brands are known for their name alone, logo prominency is paramount. Customers can indulge themselves so long as the logo is not displaced. However, for either high class, fashion-conscious individuals who feel a kinship with the brand, they may value the inherent design of the product itself. They may view too much freedom of customization as undesirable.
An Explosion Of Self-Branding
Customizations in business are like mythical sirens, taking on the form you choose. Intentionally, they are a subtle (and sometimes unsubtle) attempt for the customer to find themselves in the product. Sometimes, it is quite literally finding – like the 2011 Coca Cola campaign ‘Share a Coke’ where they printed the most popular names or relations on labels so that you buy a Coke with your name or someone you associate with (Mom, Dad, BFF) written on it. Coke stated that the campaign started with the intent of ‘creating a more personal relationship with consumers and inspiring shared moments of happiness.’
Celeb culture too, has played its part. Celebrities fascinate us, not just for their talent or stellar good looks, but because their job affords them many cool perks – not the least of which is personalized wearables. Paparazzi and social media give us glimpses into things they get specially made. Gigi Hadid, model extraordinaire, has been coined ‘Queen of customization’ for owning oodles of stuff with her name or initials on it, right from her ‘H’ monogrammed bomber jacket from Departure or her cheeky ‘hadidas’ jacket from the sportswear brand. People who look up to her and other celebs are always looking for ways to emulate them, and brands swoop in to fulfill this desire.
Collaborative customization will only see a rise, for we are but simple beings who long to be unique. The message of all customization campaigns is clear – this here is just for you. The Nutella jar is just for you. These sneakers are just for you. When something is only for you, you’ve been singled out, special, somehow different from the rest. What you’re wearing or eating isn’t mass-produced drivel; it’s significant. And given the human psyche, if there is one thing we all have in common, ironically, is that we want to feel like one in a million.