Want To Sample The Future?

Danielle Beurteaux

Electronics company Sony recently announced that it would soon open what the company is calling “Future Lab.” It’s a brick-and-mortar space that’s not a store, but somewhere consumers can try out new Sony products. Except they won’t quite be products, because they’ll still be in development.

The Future Lab website says: “The Future Lab Program is where Sony shares Concept Prototypes in development at Sony R&D with users for opportunities to co-create future lifestyles.”

The key word here is co-create. Sony launched a similar program in Japan, called First Flight, last year. But First Flight is actually a crowdfunding site, based around the idea of collaboration. An idea is shared first for feedback and development before it’s launched via a crowdfunding campaign. (You can find out more about how it works with this video, which is partly in English).

Co-creating is not uncommon in some sectors, particularly in programming, but it’s not every consumer company that wants to expose its unfinished products to a potentially merciless public.

But there is value in co-creating, according to the Harvard Business Review. The authors say their research has demonstrated that companies with co-creation components “deliver shareholder value two to fours times greater” than companies that don’t leverage co-creation. There are four reasons for this, they write: customers are invested in the product’s or company’s outcome; co-creating customers bring skills and assets a company might not otherwise have; customers are more likely to share, whether that’s ideas or personal info, if they care about a product; and, lastly, companies can be more supple, what they call “organization flexibility.”

British fashion label Burberry has also experimented with co-creation. Its campaign “The Art of the Trench,” asked people to upload photographs they’d taken while sporting a Burberry trench coach, a garment for which the label is famous. The company had 400,000 images in the first week alone, and eventually 9 million visitors to the site. The company then launched Burberry Bespoke, where customers can design and order their very own trench online.

Another recent apparel collab comes from shoemaker Timberland and fashion crowdfunding site Betabrand. The two companies have paired up to create Timberland’s new Craftletic line, which is scheduled to be available this fall. While Timberland’s design team created the initial range, customers get to vote on the basic design concepts and details. Then the resulting ideas will then be launched for crowdfunding, and the surviving designs will be made available for sale.

On the downside: co-creating can take a while – it’s hard to rush into production when you’re waiting for enough feedback to make a difference. Also, the quality of the input is important, as is consumer knowledge about what is feasible and what isn’t. Co-creation seems to be better for tweaks than overhauls.

Meaning it probably won’t replace old-fashioned in-house R&D. But companies that use co-creation as part of their consumer relationship development and outreach could find they have created a loyal fan base they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Co-creation is one way to build bonds with customers. For other options, read our research inquiry How to Build Customer Loyalty Through Digital Emotional Affinity.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.