Examples of failed mass customization

A while ago, I noticed that there are a lot of success stories about startups taking on the adventure of mass customization, but that some of the big companies ceased their mass customization efforts.

Levi's used to offer custom jeans - no more.
Land's End allowed you to design your own clothing - merely dress shirts are offered tucked away into a corner of their website.
General Mills still owns the domain - yet it only redirects you to their corporate homepage. What happened?

I decided to ask an authority on the subject - Professor Frank Piller (also see his blog on mass customization here).

He was so kind to send me a paper from 2005^, where he discusses exactly what I've been wondering about. Below my summary of his take on why big firms have a disadvantage at mass customization:

Basically, Prof. Piller states that firms have to do two things in order to enable mass customization:

  • A: Companies have to achieve flexibility in their production of goods
  • B: Companies have to create an interaction system to learn about the preferences of their customers

Many big companies benefit from immense scale, and it is challenging to allow mass production to churn out billions of different products in addition to the ongoing mass business. This requires change management capabilities and an agreement throughout the organization that few big companies can achieve - it is a lot riskier than betting on another mass product!

When was the last time you engaged in a real dialogue with a mass producer? These companies have too many customers to start a real interaction process. I believe that in order to allow your customers to co-design a product, you need to (1) understand their general preferences to determine which modules you offer as customization options, and (2) you need to provide a toolkit to let your customers customize your product. Many big companies are not used to being this close to their customer without a market research firm or an advertising agency in between. Again, small and agile startups in their respective niches have an advantage.

It seems to me that social media might be a remedy to this problem. Also, we shouldn't ignore that there are success stories, such as NikeID!

What do you think - do startups have an advantage in the mass customization arena?

^ Frank Piller (2005): "Mass Customization: Reflections on the State of the Concept", The International Journal of Flexible Manufacturing Systems, 16, 313–334


  1. December 22, 2009 | Anita Windisman said:
    Hi Carmen,

    In addition to your examples of large companies that have abandoned their mass customization efforts, let me add the following 2 examples:

    One of the very first mass customization initiatives for consumers was the Personalized Barbie Doll (My Design) launched by Mattel in 1998 - over 10 years ago. I think this initiative was "bleeding edge" rather than just "leading edge" because eCommerce was in its infancy and people weren't really accustomed to purchasing online due to security issues. Also, remember that back then we had dial-up connections, so Flash, Java and interactive features that are now common on mass customization sites were lacking back then and resulted in a less than optimal online experience for the user.

    I really think that this initiative was ahead of its time. I did research for my upcoming book and blogged about the personalized Barbie after interviewing someone who was on the project team at the time:

    Ever wonder what happened to the mass customized Barbie doll?
    Part I: and
    Part II

    Here's another example:

    Launched in 1999, by Procter & Gamble, offered custom configured products ranging from lipstick to skin care, to shampoo - as well as personalized packaging options. As one of the execs behind the initiative put it, “[Reflect is] not about some brand name. We felt the brand should really be you.” That initiative died in 2005. I've blogged about it here: Again...almost 10 years later, there are numerous examples of websites where you now can configure cosmetics online.

    What do we learn from these two examples? Business innovation and creativity are wonderful things, but consumers have to ready for it. I have no doubt that if these initiatives were re-launched today they would be a smashing success.

    Anita Windisman

  2. December 22, 2009 | Carmen said:
    Thank you Anita for this insightful comment!

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