Have it your way

08. November 2017, Editorial

Mass customisation: tailored mass production – the be all and end all?


bunte Warenwelt
individuelle Massenabfertigung
Marke Eigenbau
Modell T
own design
The colourful world of consumer goods

Not so long ago, we consumers were satisfied with everything that the market had to offer. With the things that everybody had or everybody wanted. The stereotypical housewife put her heart – and Maggi seasoning – into her cooking. The family dog got Chappi from a tin, only Penaten cream was good enough for babies’ soft skin and (Austrian) men always smoked Smart. One popular advertising campaign seemed to sum up this enviable state of affairs better than any other: “My Bac? Your Bac? Bac’s there for everyone.” One deodorant for everybody? Sure, why not?!

Churning them out

It all started with the famous Ford Model T or Tin Lizzie, 15 million of which rolled off the production line in Detroit, starting in 1913. Consumer demand was seemingly infinite, and Henry Ford gave people what they wanted: an affordable car for the masses. The fact that the paint was a problem in the synchronous production process did not cause any headaches for Ford customers. “You can have any colour so long as it’s black” are the words often attributed to the automotive pioneer. And the masses were happy. Black cars dominated roads in America, and in other countries soon after. From then on, industrial mass production was the measure of all things – and a revolution.

The colourful world of consumer goods grew and grew, and when people went shopping, personal tastes were very much relegated to second place. At most, shoppers had two competing products to choose from. Benco or Ovomaltine, Pepsi or Coca-Cola, Adidas or Puma? Those were the decisions people had to make. Their choices said more about their affiliations than about their personality. Back then, “mainstream” in its current sense was a long way from entering the global lingua franca. But going along with prevailing tastes and watching the same TV show as everybody else on a Saturday evening was absolutely fine. And sometimes, in any case, there was only a single choice that was the right one for everyone. Like Levi 501s, which you could wear whatever the occasion.

Me, myself and I

And today? “The norm” has had its day, and all of our material needs are covered. Everybody wants to stand out from the crowd in some way, and above all avoid getting lost in the herd. But that’s easier said than done. The time is long gone when all it took for someone to become the talk of the town was quirky clothes, a tattoo, a piercing or green hair. Instead we try to set ourselves apart from the hoi polloi with personalised smartphone covers or trainers in our very own design.

We decide where to live, what job to take and who we fall in love with.

But at the end of the day, the world is all about the self – ourselves. And about freedoms and virtually unlimited possibilities that our grandparents would never even have dreamed of. We want to fulfil our potential and “realise [our] nature perfectly” . We take selfies. We take snaps – of ourselves. We want to express our personality and put it on show for all the world to see. For many of us, our own selves are sufficient; we’re occupied enough looking after number one. There are 1.4 million single-person households in Austria, a figure that speaks for itself.

Of course, companies have long since responded to the changes in social lives and consumer behaviour, and to the “me, myself and I” trend.
Starbucks led the way in showing how to turn a mass-market product into a personalised experience. Customers were no longer nameless beings who had to drink the coffee they were served. Suddenly, they were able to make decisions and even choose the flavour of their coffee. Since then, “create your own” has been the order of the day on websites all over the internet.
Digitalisation has significantly speeded up mass customisation processes. Online we can mix our own muesli, tea and jam, and design our own furniture. We want more than the products we can find on supermarket shelves or in furniture stores. We don’t want “off the peg”, we want something tailored to us but also affordable. The low prices of mass-produced goods coupled with our very own personality. Tailor-made for narcissists, if you like.

This huge potential market represents a major opportunity for many companies.

Our imagination knows no bounds. And the incredible success of 3D printing will take personalised mass production to the next level. And what about the customers? That remains to be seen. But this longing for distinctiveness is a somewhat idealised picture. A product is just a product all the same, and only fundamentally changes our lives in a few exceptional cases. Many of the things that are marketed as progressive and unique are nothing more than old hat. But “old hat 4.0”. Like the cushion with the embroidered monogram that was ordered from a webshop, or the photo that my carmaker used to foil-coat my dashboard. Back in the day, at least I could change the passport photo of my other half whenever I wanted…
One thing is sure – the self is the best that we can get.

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