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Weighing the Opportunities and Risks of Mass Customization

Posted By: SGK July 09, 2014
Weighing the Opportunities and Risks of Mass Customization

Mass customization is moving fast. So fast, that marketers and many others are stopping to consider its possible negative impact on business operations and on society as a whole. Dawn Dubinka, Director of Digital at Anthem, part of our brand development group, walks us through the trends.

The most intriguing might be Google's Project Ara. Google is trying to develop two things: an economical “skeleton” that will contain the antenna and hold all the hardware components or “modules” that make up the phone; and a super-efficient 3D printer that will create and print the colorful, personalized magnetic “backs” for your modules. Consumers can then select modules to suit their preferences and needs. 

Modules include essentials like the screen and wifi technology, but also specialty functions like receipt printers or medical devices – whatever there’s a market for. Unlike an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy, there would be literally countless “versions” of the phone in operation at one time, not just a few. Your phone could be unlike any other phone on earth. 

Potential Risks 
The concept is breathtaking, but it also dovetails with significant social and economic questions. Project Ara would bypass equipment manufacturers and many other people they now employ to make the world’s cell phones.  This is one component of a worldwide debate, all the way up to the governmental level- about the health of economies that already are struggling to find work for lower- and medium-skilled workers. 

We’ve already seen this at play in e-commerce. Sites like Amazon and Alibaba are a classic case of mass customization: Amazon’s computers automatically generate a “store” for you in a matter of seconds, where you’re shown products, offered deals and make transactions. This is a simplification, but it gets at the heart of the issue and its concrete outcomes. “With the rapidly decreasing price of 3D printers, by early 2016 they’ll already be in many homes, in many businesses. What does this mean for retailers and their inventory? Does it go away?” asks Dubinka.

What does this mean for marketers?
Mass customization creates tension – between technology and stability, between efficiency and creativity. As it evolves, brands, shoppers and even governments, will need to keep the pros and cons in mind when considering interactive ordering, modularized product design, 3D printing and other disruptive innovations that allow consumers to put their personal stamp on the products they buy.

For more insight on mass customization and the risks and opportunities it carries, download Patterns Issue 1, 2014 - Participatory Marketing: How Consumers Can Help Define the Meaning of Brands.