Customer Co-Creation Examples: 10 Companies Doing it Right

Discover how 10 big players are leveraging the power of co-creation to market new products and create growth.
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58% of businesses are now piloting co-creation projects to help drive innovation.

This collaboration can be an excellent way to discover new market opportunities, push product branding in new directions, or establish a presence in a completely new area. However, co-creation isn’t always a walk in the park.

Getting co-creation right takes careful foresight and planning, as well as a deep knowledge of a brand’s customer base. We’ll take a look at how 10 companies are getting it right but first, a quick reminder :

What is customer co-creation, exactly?

Customer co-creation refers to inviting stakeholders (usually customers) to participate in a design or problem-solving process to produce a mutually valued outcome.

These outcomes can include things like new product ideas, ways to overcome delivery chain problems, or even technical solutions to complex manufacturing questions.

Co-creation also includes plenty of fun, light exchanges, like musicians using Twitter to take fan suggestions regarding album titles, or football clubs asking for feedback on their rebranding efforts.

Customer co-creation can lead to some great innovations, such as Etihad Airways’ customizable cabin interiors. However, co-creation can also produce some real head-scratchers, like ‘Boaty McBoatface‘, the crowdsourced name for a UK environmental research vessel.

10 examples of successful co-creation initiatives

  1. Unilever
  2. IKEA
  3. DeWalt
  4. Lego
  5. Heineken
  6. DHL
  7. Anheuser-Busch
  8. BMW
  9. General Mills
  10. Coca-Cola

1. Unilever

Unilever is one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, owning over 400 well-recognized brands, including Dove, Lipton, Best Foods, and many more.

With operations in 190 countries and products used by over 2.5 billion people on a daily basis, Unilever has a massive pool of customers from which to source ideas and solutions to product development questions.

To put this resource to use, Unilever actively looks to its customer base for product solutions, asking startups, academics, designers and customers for ideas and suggestions.

Through its Open Innovation platform, launched in 2010, Unilever presents specific challenges to the public, encouraging individuals to submit responses for potential adoption by the company.

These include topics like intelligent product packaging, oil oxidation technology, freezing and cooling systems, and other areas. If a suggestion is successful, the submitter can be offered a commercial contract for their solution, as well as professional recognition.

The global response to the Unilever platform has been strong, with the company receiving over 1,000 proposals in the first half of 2012 alone. This approach has also helped develop a more open culture: now, over 60% of Unilever’s research projects involve external collaboration.

Unilever’s approach to co-creation reflects the value of open innovation and shows the potential uses of crowdsourcing to solve problems – even complex problems requiring technical knowledge and expertise.

2. IKEA

In early 2018, Swedish furniture and home goods retailer IKEA launched ‘Co-Create IKEA’, a digital platform encouraging customers and fans to develop new products.

IKEA’s co-creation platform focuses on four specific areas:

  • Asking customers for product idea suggestions
  • Running IKEA Bootcamps to work with entrepreneurs
  • Collaborating with university students on product solutions
  • Connecting with innovation labs around the world

If a suggestion for furniture or product design is successful, IKEA may license the technology or agree to invest in future products. For designers and technically talented fans, this creates a strong incentive: to gain exposure through the world’s largest furniture retailer.

This approach has led to many thousands of customer suggestions, including variations on basic furniture designs like this one:

Ikea Open Source
An example of IKEA’s open-source furniture solutions. Source: Harvard Business School

Participants are also eligible for cash rewards if their ideas work and are selected. Even more helpfully, IKEA provides resources like test labs and prototype shops to help customers develop and fine-tune their suggestions.

For IKEA, co-creation helps put crowd wisdom to work in product innovation, allowing the company to harness useful design insights. This creates real market advantages for the company and contributes to a community of dedicated customers.

3. DeWalt

DeWalt, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of power tools, has a well-established customer base. In 2015, DeWalt established an Insight Community for its customers to contribute product development ideas.

Since its establishment, DeWalt’s Insight Community has grown to include more than 12,000 users, including 8,000 professional tradespeople, and 4,000 home users. This diverse group of contributors ensures DeWalt receives a helpful range of product suggestions.

With this platform, DeWalt engages customers in the product development cycle, testing packaging and design, as well as website usability. The Insight Community helps create improvements to DeWalt’s products, such as a new range of cordless hammer drills.

Ward Smith, the Group Product Manager at DeWalt, recognizes how crucial this kind of open innovation is in today’s world. “Competition is fierce,” he says. “Everyone’s trying to launch more tools, faster. You need a fast and accurate way to be more reactive in the marketplace”.

This commitment to open innovation hasn’t just been entertaining for customers – it’s also meant big savings for DeWalt. In fact, estimates suggest the company has saved almost $6 million in research costs due to its Insight Community.

4. Lego

Of all the examples in this list, no other company better illustrates the power of customer co-creation than LEGO.

LEGO has always had a reputation for creativity. However, the company’s commitment to innovation helped rescue the brand from a challenging financial situation in the early 2000s, the result of brand dilution, over-extended product lines, and excessive growth.

In 2004, a change in leadership resulted in a fresh approach to open-source product development and the creation of LEGO Ideas. Since then, the crowdsourcing platform has received suggestions from over 1 million people, with fans voting on the most popular ideas.

In return for contributing a winning idea, the creator can give final approval for the end product, be recognized on all packaging and marketing, and even earn a percentage of product sales.

Lego Ideas
LEGO’s fan-created Saturn V moon rocket. Source: Collect Space

This innovative approach helped drive the launch of 23 dedicated LEGO Ideas sets, which have proven very popular with LEGO fans. Not only that, but the commitment to co-creation has helped lift revenue, saving this beloved company from dire straits.

LEGO’s embrace of customer co-creation shows how this kind of collaboration can help create new communities of fans around the world. The LEGO Ideas initiative has also driven a lot of media coverage and has strengthened customer loyalty.

5. Heineken

Beer giant Heineken is an immensely popular global brand, with global revenue of almost €27 billion in 2018. Despite its size, Heineken is a company that recognizes the value of customer collaboration at the local level.

In 2012, Heineken invited a group of customer stakeholders to participate in what is called ‘Heineken Open Design Explorations Edition 1: The Club’.

With this initiative, emerging designers from a diverse range of backgrounds were tasked with developing a new and innovative club concept. Nineteen designers used an online creative hub to share ideas with thousands of Heineken fans.

Heineken Concept Club
Heineken’s crowdsourced Concept Club. Source: Popsop

The end result was the Heineken Concept Club, unveiled during Milan Design Week in 2012. Thousands of Design Week attendees visited the installation to interact with the crowdsourced layout, and the event attracted a lot of industry and media attention.

This example demonstrates how a customer co-creation can help attract fresh media attention for established global brands, even well-known brands like Heineken. Even better, the funds required for such an exercise are likely lower than traditional marketing or advertising costs.

6. DHL

DHL, the world’s largest courier, is a great example of how customer co-creation can be successfully applied to service industries, not simply to the manufacture of products.

Over the past decade, DHL has hosted workshops with customers in Germany and Singapore in an effort to find creative solutions and improve client experience. The company has now formalized these workshops into DHL Innovation Centers.

At these Innovation Centers, customers are invited to talk to DHL employees and brainstorm new initiatives to help company performance. One of the great ideas to come out of these sessions was the ‘Parcelopter’, a drone used for deliveries over challenging terrains.

Dhl Delivery Drone
One of DHL’s delivery drones, a crowdsourced initiative. Source: Forbes

This approach to customer co-creation proved to be fruitful: as of early 2017, DHL had held over 6,000 co-creation sessions with customers. In 2018, DHL extended its network of showcase centers in North America, opening its third Innovation Center in Chicago.

DHL’s co-creation efforts have also helped customer satisfaction scores to rise over 80%, generating higher client retention as a result. Crowdsourced technologies have also helped DHL dramatically reduce the delivery time for some items.

This example shows us that co-creation is never out of reach, even for the world’s largest companies. Even though DHL employs over 490,000 people around the world and produces $57 billion U.S. dollars in annual revenue, the company still looks for inventive new solutions.

7. Anheuser-Busch

Anheuser-Busch might not seem like a company with a huge demand for innovation. After all, the beer giant has a 45% market share in the United States and is one of the biggest players worldwide, representing well-known names like Budweiser, Michelob, and others.  

However, Anheuser-Busch also realizes the need to keep a close eye on the changing tastes and expectations of their customers. That’s why the company puts crowdsourcing at the forefront of its product development.

To meet changing product demands, and to recognize the growing appetite for craft beers, Anheuser-Busch held a competition between brewmasters in 2012, combined with consumer tastings, to develop a new craft beer.

Black Crown
Black Crown, Anheuser-Busch’s crowdsourced beer. Source: HBS

With over 25,000 participants, the project led to the creation of a new golden-amber lager: ‘Black Crown’. The release of this beer was met with plenty of enthusiasm from customers and helped shore up Anheuser-Busch’s presence in the expanding craft beer market.

Anheuser-Busch has also adopted diverse approaches to customer co-creation. For example, in Brazil, where the company markets the country’s leading beer brand, Skol, it started a crowdsourced approach to producing television commercials.

This project made use of over 35,000 videographers from 120 nations around the world, offering potential contributors the chance to participate in creating these commercials.

Anheuser-Busch’s commitment to customer co-creation demonstrates the value of these collaborative techniques, even for industry giants.

8. BMW

In 2010, BMW announced its first-ever open innovation contest: ‘Tomorrow’s Urban Mobility Services’. Launched within BMW’s Co-Creation Lab, the contest was an opportunity for fans and customers to share their product ideas and opinions with BMW.

This contest gave consumers the opportunity to get intimately involved in the design process from start to finish and created a real incentive for die-hard fans to contribute their ideas.

Bmw Co Creation Lab
BMW’s Co-Creation Lab. Source: Consumer Value Creations

The contest resulted in 497 users publishing over 300 distinct ideas, which were then evaluated by over 1,000 judges and assessors around the world. The winner of the contest was Venugopal Panicker, with his ‘Pick Me Up Please’ concept, a connected mobility system for pedestrians.

Following this initial contest, BMW has continued to host further innovation contests, helping to drive fan and industry interest in crowdsourced innovations for things like interior features of its compact class vehicles.

As this example shows, even luxury brands with huge levels of name recognition can embrace co-creation, inviting customer-driven solutions to complex problems.

9. General Mills

Another example of an industry behemoth constantly looking for new ways to innovate, General Mills is committed to customer co-creation.

General Mills already has a sizeable market share both in the United States and elsewhere and includes well-known brands like Cheerios, Wheaties, Old El Paso, and Betty Crocker in its portfolio.

Way back in 2007, the company created the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network to enhance its customer collaboration by teaming up with entrepreneurial networks, startup accelerators, and talented individuals.

With this network, General Mills actively seeks suggestions for new concepts and product lines. The process is open to anyone: customers and company employees can submit product proposals, and these will be vetted for potential adoption.

This approach has been a huge success so far, allowing General Mills to make a range of changes to its product line and packaging process. Alongside this approach, the company has also cultivated a list of scientists and technologists to help with new product development.

10. Coca-Cola

With $31 billion U.S. dollars in global sales for 2018, Coca-Cola is sitting at the top of the heap when it comes to beverages. However, it isn’t happy to just continue churning out the same products. Instead, Coca-Cola is investing in customer co-creation in local markets.

For example, as of late 2018, Coca-Cola has entered a co-creation experiment with customers to make sure its Southeast Asia product strategy reflects the tastes of the region and its people.

Consumers are changing, it is very difficult to keep and hold people’s attention. [Co-creation] forces you to push boundaries, to be on the lookout for going to mass market faster.

Andrea Bracho Poirier, Manager of Commercial Insights for Coca-Cola Southeast Asia.
Coca Cola
Source: Stock Images

In this environment, Coca-Cola sees the answer in its customers. To find out what its fans are looking for, Coca-Cola’s research and development team has been renting local eateries across Southeast Asia and testing customer-driven variations on classic Coke products.

While the company isn’t prepared to reveal any of the results of these tests for reasons of confidentiality, it is happy to report these variations are testing well, with a lot of positive feedback from customers.

This illustrates the value of customer co-creation at the local level. Even for well-known and celebrated products like Coke, a huge proportion of their sales depends on adjusting products to suit specific markets. Collaboration with communities helps them to achieve this.  

What do these examples tell us about successful co-creation?

So, that’s an overview of ten companies who can show the rest of us how customer co-creation is done. From drills to delivery drivers, we’ve taken a good look at the range of crowdsourced innovation happening around the world.

But what can these examples tell us about successful co-creation? What does it take for customer co-creation to deliver great outcomes?

Here are some key takeaways.

1. The best co-creation efforts are targeted and specific

As the examples of General Mills and DeWalt show, asking customers the simple question of “what would you like to see more of?” can result in some great ideas.

However, posing a specific challenge can result in even better solutions. A targeted approach also involves less time for the company in filtering through customer submissions.

For example, take a look at Unilever’s approach.

By asking people for specific solutions to technical problems, the company is more likely to receive feasible suggestions from those with the skills and expertise to know what’s going to work.

Before launching a co-creation initiative, companies should have a detailed idea of who their ideal participants are, and should spend time doing their own thinking about the problem.

2. Effective co-creation takes trust and transparency

Today’s customers are better informed than ever before. This raises the stakes for companies embarking on co-creation exercises, as tech-savvy consumers will see through any attempt to manipulate or exploit the process of customer collaboration.

When a company embarks on an effort at customer co-creation, it should do so transparently, and in a way that builds and maintains trust with customers.

BMW’s approach is a great example. The company is upfront about its innovation process from start to finish and outlines in clear detail the commercial reality of having a product design idea selected, helping to create trust with participants.

3. Co-creation can do more than just shape new products

There are plenty of examples of co-creation helping companies to shape new lines of products, such as DeWalt’s cordless hammer drills or Anheuser-Busch’s Black Crown beer. However, co-creation can also lead to innovations that go beyond single products.

Look at DHL, for example. With input from customers through its Innovation Centers, DHL has made changes to its core delivery systems, resulting in meaningful improvements to parcel delivery times. Not only is this more convenient for customers but it also saves a lot of money.

Companies should keep their eyes and ears open when collaborating with customers, and should always be thinking about the wider potential applications beyond single product lines.

4. Good co-creation requires motivation from participants

It doesn’t matter whether you’re asking customers to contribute their ideas for cereal, luxury cars, or power tools: nobody wants to give away their great ideas for free.

Creating a clear and strong incentive for participants in co-creation is crucial to getting the best ideas, and is why collaborations from the likes of LEGO, BMW, and Unilever have been so successful. Customers want to take a shot at having their ideas recognized.

So, don’t just put out the call for customers and fans to contribute their ideas and suggestions – create a clear and compelling reward for doing so.

5. Co-creation can build confidence and community

Beyond leading to nifty new products and process improvements, customer co-creation can also do a lot to build confidence in a brand, and create a sense of community amongst its fans.

LEGO’s approach is an excellent example here. Granted, the company already had a well-established community of fans, but the LEGO Ideas platform has done a lot to build and strengthen this community by offering fun and collaborative design exercises.

When customers are able to connect with brands by participating in product development, they’re more likely to view the brand positively and to feel like they’re being listened to. This isn’t just great for building a community of fans – it also contributes to brand loyalty.