Robots Building Robots?

While doing “secondary research” (i.e., procrastinating) on an ESOMAR conference paper I’m writing on customer-driven innovation, I came across this weirdly mesmerizing video from Fanuc Robotics, a leading supplier of industrial robotic automation, narrated by this voice that is, well, robotic:

It led me to wonder the obvious: How do these robots mate? What is their transmission-fluid-cooler conversation about? How do they eat lunch? Does Charlie Chaplin feed them corn on the cob, in a righteous inversion of that legendary, wonderful scene from Modern Times (starting at about 1:22 into this excerpt)?

But it also led me to further muse on the topic of my paper, which is how consumers can play a role in driving both incremental and breakthrough innovation at every stage of the new product development process. After all, despite market researchers’ best efforts, reams of data, projective models and pricey forecasting studies, it is estimated that 80 percent of all new products fail. Lack of relevance, lack of differentiation, inappropriate pricing, muddled messaging – all of these factors can make or break the adoption and success of a new product. And all of these judgments are made by consumers – the constituency whose voice is too often absent from the New Product Development process in the front end of innovation, where they are best positioned to kill bad ideas early and accelerate the development of good ones.

Hence the growing (and welcome) corporate passion for “customer co-creation.” But what do academics, marketers and social media experts mean by this term? O’Hern and Rindfleisch describe it as “a collaborative new product development (NPD) activity in which consumers actively contribute and select various elements of a new product offering.”¹ That vision – one in which consumers are idea generators, feature choosers, popularity contest voters – can lead to some great consumer engagement and word of mouth. It lies at the heart of some creative and wildly successful campaigns, such as those by Mountain Dew and Kettle Foods, which involved consumers in suggesting and voting on flavors, package designs and taglines.

But I think our Communispace clients have benefitted from a more expansive definition of co-creation, one that starts earlier in the new product development process, beginning with the consumer insights that surface the unmet needs and “white space” for innovation. That’s what Kraft Foods did when they uncovered the underlying consumer hunger for portion-controlled products that led to the 100 Calorie Pack. True, they involved consumers in choosing the portion size and determining what products should be offered in this form, but it was the foundational insight that co-created an entirely new product category. It’s what Scholastic Publishing did in their Groundswell Award-winning work with community members in redesigning book club fliers, a process in which Scholastic suspended their assumptions about where the improvement opportunity lay and engaged teachers and parents directly in articulating what they and their kids need and how they choose – insights that ultimately drove a change more dramatic than originally envisioned.

In short, effective customer co-creation is about more than voting, even about more than ideating, though both are crucial activities. It’s about providing the space, time and structured facilitation processes that enable consumers to not just tell but show their aspirations, frustrations, workarounds and unmet needs. If you don’t allow for that quiet, reflective process at the beginning of the NPD cycle (and not just for the splashy, exuberant campaigns at the end of it), your chances of achieving real innovation are greatly diminished. True, you’ll get short-term engagement and large-scale word of mouth, but it may turn out to be as innovative as … robots building robots.

¹O’Hern, Matthew S. and Aric Findfleisch, “Customer Co-Creation: A Typology and Research Agenda.” In Review of Marketing Research, Vol. 6, Naresh K. Malholtra, ed. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2009.