Inside the Mix

Customization is not merely offering choices, but giving consumers the tools to make them

Customization is not merely offering choices, but giving consumers the tools to make them

There is no question that consumers are more confident than ever that they can call the shots.

Literally speaking, when you're in a Starbucks. The coffee chain has become the pinnacle of instant product personalization, long after Burger King's "Have it your way" mantra did the rounds.

The concept of customization as a marketing tool has been around for some time, and Starbucks capitalized on it a while ago by launching an integrated campaign touting the potential to make its products entirely your own. The best part is the in-store materials, including a neat little pamphlet I picked up the other day called Make it your drink. This is the key to Starbucks' customization offer: it equips the customer with the terminology he or she needs in order to confidently order their unique drink. Without it, the rookie will still worry that they will feel foolish for ordering incorrectly and may not be aware of the add-ons they don't yet know they love that could make a customer come back again and again for "their" drink.

An experience in Texas recently made me profoundly grateful for Starbucks' innovation. Luby's is a cafeteria-style restaurant, and though I was with someone who'd grown up going there, I was overwhelmed by the choices available, the speed at which I had to make the decision, the combinations that were or were not allowed on the LuAnn Platter, and the fact that you could not see everything that was available all at once. All the while, the line was moving fast behind and in front of me. I was a novice, clearly, and wailed that they should give out instruction manuals on the way in as I contemplated the consequentially weird lunch I'd just bought.

While ordering at a cafeteria is the most basic form of customizing your experience, the analogy works: If you're leaving all the decision-making up to the customers, it's a good idea to give them the building blocks to help guide them through the process, otherwise it's asking for a lot of work on their part.

Alan Weiss, veteran organization consultant, says the most effective customization mechanisms allow the customer to make the modifications themselves, rather than being presented with mutually exclusive options. That translates to the difference between being able to buy a car that you can drive in true manual mode or as an automatic; and being presented with a choice of convertible or coupe at the time of purchase. The key, he says, is to give the end user the choices, which is usually cheaper than providing endless mutually exclusive options at the point of sale. Which, of course, doesn't really apply to coffee or cafeterias. Nor, for that matter, does it apply to computers, which makes me think Dell - one of the first brands my PRWeek colleagues suggested when I asked them about customization - might disagree.

Either way, allowing customers to shape their own experience with a brand is valuable not just for what they buy from you, but for what those buying decisions tells you. Use that information well, and you'll have brand advocates on your hands who do a lot of your work for you.

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