Not so long ago, you would walk into a sandwich shop, point to ingredients in bowls or plastic buckets, and watch as they were assembled into the lunch of your choice. If you favoured turkey with beetroot and coleslaw, in a mayo-free bap, that is what you got.
Then Pret A Manger and its followers came along and you traded sandwich precision for a smarter environment, nice packaging and, conceivably, better hygiene. The humble sandwich had entered the world of branded mass production, which, unfortunately, meant that, while the range was wide, your particular sandwich fetish was not guaranteed to be indulged.
Conversely Subway and its create-your-own Subs offered a workaday version of 'mass customisation'. You get the brand reassurance and some of the efficiencies of mass production, since Subway can source high-quality ingredients in bulk, but you also get the sandwich you want.
Is mass customisation the next big thing for brands? Forrester Research thinks so. According to a study it released this year, 'its time has finally come, after a variety of false starts', thanks to higher shopper expectations, the dawn of tablets and apps, and the rise of cheaper, more-advanced web technologies.
Some brands have been quietly doing it for a while, of course, such as Interflora, Starbucks and Dell. It's a harder trick to pull off in packaged goods, but that hasn't stopped brands trying. At MyMuesli.com you can design your own muesli mix, choosing from 32 cereal bases, 17 fruits, 16 nuts and seeds, and a range of add-ons. They blend to your specifications and send it to you.
The upside is that you get exactly the product you want; the downside is that your breakfast is in the post. With my luck, delivery would be attempted while I was out, leaving me to queue in a chilly sorting office, photo-ID in hand, for what, in the end, is just muesli.
Caveats notwithstanding, customisation is clearly something for brand teams to think about in a competitive marketplace. As a counterbalance to all the workshop excitement, though, here are three watch-points that might be worth bearing in mind.
First, you need to decide whether customisation will be central to your offer, or an add-on to enhance consumer engagement and get people talking. At one extreme is Build-a-Bear Workshop; at the other is the Heinz 'get-well soup' personalised cans promotion (see '30 seconds on ...', below).
Second, customisation requires effort from the customer, so ensure that it is rewarded. Gift purchase might be an area worth prioritising here. Recent academic research confirms that receivers derive a far greater sense of reward from customised gifts, as long as there are clues to help them perceive the effort that the giver has put in.
Third, don't let your focus on the particular take your eye off the general. At heart, customisation means no more than giving customers what they want. There are basics, though, that all customers want: quality, reliability, value, politeness and ease. If pandering to individual tastes compromises general standards, you are defeating the object.
In other words, should branded, customised sandwiches ever lead to longer queues, higher prices or sloppy, anxious preparation, people will head off to a competitor that keeps choice more basic, but does it better. They will take their personal custom elsewhere.
- Helen Edwards, PPA Columnist of the Year (Business Media), has a PhD in marketing and an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers
30 SECONDS ON ... CLEVER CUSTOMISATION
Build-a-Bear Workshop - Designed to be a family-bonding experience as much as a shopping one. A bear-creation 'associate' guides you through the process, including choosing a heart and making a wish before putting it inside the 'furry friend' being made to your specs.
Heinz - In October, Facebook users who 'like' Heinz were invited to have a 'get well' message with the name of a friend printed onto the label of a can of Tomato or Chicken soup, and have it delivered to their bedside within days.
Burberry Bespoke - This is an online service allowing customers to design their trench coat. They choose the cut, fabric, colour and trimmings, including options for linings and collars. The coat arrives about six weeks later in a box the size of a 'human torso'.
NikeiD - Launched in 1999, the service is available online, in NikeiD studios and via an app. Customers specify elements of their shoe, including base, overlay, accent, lining, stitching, outsole, laces and deubre (the ornamental shoelace tag between the first eyelets).