One of the consequences of the digital world that we have all come to embrace is the level of personalisation it affords us. From websites remembering our purchasing history to the serving of ads that reflect our browsing, our expectations have been raised.
In this consumer-centric environment, there is a growing assumption that such tailoring to the individual should be possible in most walks of life, but how easy is it for this degree of personalisation to be achieved in the physical, rather than virtual, world? We crave uniqueness, but how realistic is this in a society based on mass production?
Perhaps this is why the personalised bottles Coca-Cola has produced have garnered such interest: here was a mass-market product served up in your very own named bottle. While it is certainly the first example of a big FMCG brand playing with the concept, it is dubious whether this could really be considered personalisation.
True personalisation is when consumers elect a preference and build products and services around their needs. Coke's named bottles campaign is micro-segmentation based on the demographics of someone's name.
Morgan Holt, strategy director at brand consultancy Wolff Olins, says: "True personalisation is when consumers elect a preference and build products and services around their needs. This is micro-segmentation based on the demographics of someone's name."
Gillian Garside-Wight, packaging technology director at packaging consultancy YPP, adds: "This is bespoke generalisation, but a step in the right direction. Coke is a commodity group, so there isn't a high value on each product; in this case, it's the most cost-effective way of personalising."
Coke's "personalisation" is a clever exercise in digital printing that has elicited plenty of headlines and sparked widespread interest. In many ways, however, it is more a manifestation of the brand's sharing positioning, rather than customisation. "True personalisation doesn't make sense in Coke's market because you're buying a formula - reliability and heritage. You don't want a personal taste and it wouldn't be improved if it was meddled with. However, a wrapper with a name on does feel a bit more like ownership," says Holt.
From a design aesthetic, vodka brand Absolut took an inventive step down the road of personalised packaging last year with Absolut Unique - 4m bottles, each with a slightly different design. This was achieved by re-engineering its production plant so that splash guns and colour-generating machines could coat the bottles in a "nearly endless sequence of combinations". This maintained Absolut's brand values while injecting variety and excitement into the design.
This raises the issue of where and when personalisation works in product design, and what can be gained by it. A few brands have been successful. Nike, for example, is frequently cited as something of a trailblazer with its online trainer customisation service NikeiD. The brand has further empowered the individual with Nike+; while iD is all about the product, the Nike+ platform enables users to learn about themselves via its personalised training and tracking systems.
Sean Kinmont, creative director and managing partner at creative communications agency 23red, picks out NikeiD as an instance of true personalisation. "It is relevant to the customer and matches their style," he says. However, he acknowledges that it is an easier path for style and fashion brands to go down.
Nonetheless, brands in other sectors are experimenting with personalisation. Interflora has developed an online service whereby customers can design their own bouquet by "dragging and dropping" from more than 70 flower and foliage options.
Glasgow-based Whisky Blender, meanwhile, set up a website where people create their own blends from up to seven varieties of the spirit, then design a label for the bottle. Some would argue that such examples constitute professionals who know what they are doing handing over product design to the amateur individual. Even so, at the crux of this issue remains the question of whether value has been enhanced by the product being personalised.
Henry Mason, global head of research and managing partner at Trendwatching.com, says: "There is a risk when 'personal' is done badly. It's a fun stunt for Coke - it fits with the brand positioning of spreading joy. And a unique pair of trainers is great. However, can I create a better soda than Coke? Probably not. Do consumers want your product to be personalised? Yes, in the areas of gifts and fashion, to display uniqueness. Manufacturing technology (can now allow) make-on-demand, similar to print-on-demand. Do people care enough about a personalised pack that they'll pay a premium? Whisky Blender is as much about the story and serving your own whisky; it's an extra layer for the consumer and a differentiating feature."
Digital design tools allow a lot more flexibility in a brand system… So, for example, creating a colour based on the sound of my voice is a rich, creative area of exploration for a designer.
Gift products are often seen as ripe for personalisation. Moonpig, which built a successful greeting-cards business and has since expanded into other areas, is a case in point. Its online, template-driven offering keeps the cost of personalisation comparatively cheap, while making the product more relevant.
Mason points out that, where initially there appears to be no personalisation, the merging of offline products with online means consumers create their own elements. "Apple makes only a couple of devices, (but there's a) high level of personalisation when you own it. Ultimately, you're paying for great design and the personalisation is left in the digital realm," he says.
The macro-trend of personalisation has emerged partly on the back of the rise of digital products in the past 10 years. Its origins lie further back, however. From the end of World War II to the 1960s, the focus was on globalisation and economies of scale in manufacturing, as mass consumerism took hold. However, the gloss came off that from the 1960s to the 1980s, when individualisation became important.
"It was less about being lumped in as the proletariat and more about us [as individuals]," says Holt. "Around that time, advertising and marketing became more emotional about what it means to you."
He, too, subscribes to the school of thought that brands need to determine whether personalisation actually offers any benefit, before they jump on the bandwagon. "At its simplest, personalisation is meaningless. Is there an inconvenience to not being personalised?"
Nonetheless, Holt argues that the possibilities for designers in this arena are interesting. "Digital design tools allow a lot more flexibility in a brand system, be it gestural or olfactory, and so on. So, for example, creating a colour based on the sound of my voice is a rich, creative area of exploration for a designer," he adds.
Holt takes this level of personalisation one step further, suggesting that designers can better use big data for personalisation. While it's often used at POS, or in the supply chain to individualise offers, he contends it can also be used to inform brands' engagement with consumers.
He cites the way in which building society Nationwide's cashpoints recognise the transaction that an individual undertakes most often - a £30 withdrawal with no receipt, for example. Once they have entered their PIN, the ATM asks whether that's what they want. "It recognises what I do, takes something interesting out of it and makes it more useful to me. Put that in the hands of a designer. What else can you do on the screen?" asks Holt.
In the US, "futurist" and author Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve organisation has been tracking the trend of what it dubs "egonomics", which has strong correlations to personalisation.
"The definition of personalisation is changing; egonomics is a trend all about how to offset a depersonalised society," says Nyla Mabro, BrainReserve's director of strategy. "We're craving recognition of our individuality, and personification and individualisation become a big part of it. Initially, it was about exclusivity of status - monogrammed, bespoke design to make you feel unique and stand above others, which came at a high cost barrier that ensured exclusivity. Then it became mass customisation, democratic egotism: we all have the right to feel special."
The definition of personalisation is changing; egonomics is a trend all about how to offset a depersonalised society. We're craving recognition of our individuality, and personification and individualisation become a big part of it.
This, in turn, has evolved into allowing people to feel they are putting their mark on a brand, to the point where it has entered the realm of co-creation. It extends even to putting an imprint on a product before it has been manufactured through beta-testing, say, voting for crisp flavours or user-generated content helping to shape a brand's marketing.
Mabro says more elements will come into play. "We will have true customisation of making our own products with 3D printing. Then the big shift will be away from personalised products to customising me - my body. We'll see this sci-fi idea of integrating technology into our bodies getting closer to reality: bionic bodies with improved hearing and body parts, technology becoming a part of us," she adds.
Personalisation carries big cost implications, so there must be a net benefit to the consumer for this to be a business model worth pursuing. The challenge for designers, therefore, is to determine how many options are necessary for a product to feel unique.
From bespoke suit-makers such as A Suit That Fits to car manufacturer Vauxhall with its Adam range, businesses are showing that putting design options into the hands of the consumer is a clear route to individualisation. "The art (behind the trend) is not that everything is 100% bespoke, but whether I feel I've put my imprint on this product," says Mabro.