As 21st century consumer engagement is ever more driven by social groups rather than marketers, the onus is on today’s connected brands to find newer, smarter ways to reach out to and find common ground with audiences. And now that brands are laid bare in the digital realm – interacting on a social basis – it’s more critical than ever to innovate in ways that truly resonate with consumers. Just as well, then, that these consumers now want to be active participants in creating and shaping the very products and services they consume…

Around the world, brands are discovering new-found credibility by waking up to ‘Co-creation’ – a fresh and open approach to collaboration with customers – from simple online suggestion boxes, ideation sites and platforms, to co-creation contests, crowdsourcing and private communities. And these days it’s comparatively easy to take advantage of readily available co-creation platforms to open up a channel to customers and ask them to contribute ideas.

In essence, successful co-creation is about bringing together different groups of people to develop new ideas and experiences. But it rarely happens organically or at random. As a collaborative and creative process that takes real engagement from participants, it needs proper facilitation, management and the right environment to succeed.

It needn’t be a huge technical undertaking; buzz-monitoring can help identify the most engaged customer groups. What they then need is an environment and processes that give them the freedom, trust and focus to create as one team.

Harnessing the collective knowledge of communities to build your brand can deliver real commercial benefits – whether done online or offline – by building arenas where consumers can introduce ideas and insights around their brand experiences. Individually these inputs may be of little benefit, but when they’re seen at an aggregate level they can help identify and solve problems, as well as spot new opportunities.

Today, co-creation is being rolled-out as an integral component of many global brands’ R&D schemes, seeing the brand reach out as never before to stakeholders, particularly the consumer, to help innovate and drive growth. The most effective examples take a structured approach, steering their consumer collaborators to focus on specific areas to solve specific problems. And although this approach creates a vast amount of noise, careful management can translate the most diverse collection of voices into commercial insight and business solutions.

For us, the real opportunity is not in engaging everyone at the macro-level all at once – it’s to be found deep in the niches and clusters. This is where the real insight lies, and where brands can drive the greatest benefit from a process that combines the desires, perspectives and lenses of the customer.

My Starbucks Idea, for instance, endured a steep learning curve to make the most of customer insights, transforming the original platform from a virtual feedback box to a structured forum for idea development. And, by introducing a specific topic – how to improve their cups – they cut out the un-necessary social media chatter to focus on solving the problem according to their consumers’ needs.

Of course, co-created solutions could have been reached by internal teams of specialists, from R&D to Product Management, but by involving a broader audience in a sustained environment (one that the standard focus group can’t compete with) the output is far more grounded in consumer insight. This reduces commercial risk compared with costly, standard R&D processes that rely on smaller groups for research and testing.

But there’s an equally valuable by-product of co-creation: the generation of a widespread group of brand ambassadors. Studies suggest that consumers’ relationships are deepened through direct engagement with and contribution to a brand. On a basic, human level, people tend to support the things they’ve created. In short, listen to and engage with your users and they’ll help build your brand – and your bottom line.

So where to start? Consumers want new, and they want relevance – brands want the advocacy and loyalty that truly shared value can bring. Even starting small and informal, but driven by a clear purpose, not only enables brands to dip their toes in the sea of co-creation without enduring massive overheads, but also fits perfectly with the consumer-led way in which our connected, digital world is developing. Smaller, nimbler and deeper forms of co-creation can give you the tools to deliver fresh ideas and innovation that really connects.

Iain Millar

Iain Millar


Iain Millar is Head of Innovation at