Products that make customers say, “I did this!”

Do you need to have a finished product in order to make a sale? Is there any way that not offering a finished product would actually give you an advantage, or even become a selling point? Suppose that your manufacturing costs appear to have gotten as low as they can without sacrificing quality. Even if your costs are acceptable to you, you still have to deal with the lag time between ordering products and having them manufactured and shipped to you—typically six weeks from China. Perhaps this lag time causes you to lose sales, or to miss the window of opportunity for your product if you’re aiming to respond quickly to a short-lived fad. Is there any other option besides relying on this manufacturing and supply chain?


My children have long since outgrown toys, but if they were still young today, I’d probably be roped into visits to Build-A-Bear. Build-A-Bear, like the paint-your-own pottery craze that preceded it, doesn’t offer a finished product. In fact, the whole selling point is that you create your own customized product in-store. These types of businesses are offering a dual product: both the end result—be it a stuffed animal in a personalized costume or an “I Love Dad” coffee mug—and the chance to create something without taking responsibility for gathering materials or cleaning up the mess it generates. A stuffed toy may feel like a low-risk product, but children’s tastes, interests, and fads can be as fickle as an adult’s. Just ask any parent. Once you start adding the layers of design and complexity to a toy—clothes, accessories, prerecorded sounds—you risk creating something that misses the mark with your target audience. Build-A-Bear’s strategy is very clever in that it allows them to keep components, rather than finished products, as inventory. They never have to run the risk of being stuck with 10,000 astronaut bears the week after the latest Pirates of the Caribbean opens. Or conversely, having 10,000 pirate bears in anticipation of a hit only to find the franchise has run out of gas and the kids don’t care.

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There are two points to take from this. The first is that these companies are reducing their risk of having a stockroom full of faddish, briefly popular products that they now can’t sell. The second is that they are able to charge their customers a premium for the pleasure of assembling the final bear. They’ve been able to persuade their customers that down is up. They don’t offer a fully finished product for sale, and if you do want their product, you’ll have to assemble it yourself.


Home bakers have experienced a similar shift in how they “make” a product—for example, a cake. When I was a kid, my grandma would make me a cake from scratch every year. The cake cost maybe a dollar in commodity goods. When she passed away, my mom took over the job. She’d buy a cake mix, add an egg, some oil, and some water, and that was it. Of course, the cake was more expensive because of the convenience factor of having pre-made cake mix. When I was eight, my mom got a job as a Realtor and had no time to bake, so she’d order a cake, which was probably twenty-five dollars, for the even greater convenience factor.

These days if you have young kids, a cake—either homemade or store-bought—no longer cuts it. Instead you are paying hundreds of dollars for a party in an ice-cream store. There’s a relationship here between the amount you’re paying and the experience you’re receiving. Selling these products is about more than simple convenience. Manufacturers have to walk a thin line between making a product so easy that it feels like cheating, and so complex that the user sees no value in the supposed “convenience.” When cake mixes first came out, they were really simple; all you had to do was add water. But women didn’t like it, because it felt too easy—like they hadn’t contributed anything to it, and couldn’t claim any pride in making it. So cake mixes were altered to require a fresh egg as well, and the product took off.

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The Pillsbury Doughboy ads played on this same idea. Their sales pitch is less about the superior taste or ingredients than it is about allowing Mom the satisfaction of putting hand-baked rolls in front of her family. Same with Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade TV show. Both of these brands allow their users to bypass any guilt they might feel at not being able to offer their family the full experience of a homemade meal. The users get the pleasure of the last step: pulling something hot and fresh out of the oven and serving it to their family.

If you want to build this kind of emotional connection with your customer, you need to look at how you can offer them a creative “I did this” kind of experience. You want to give your customer a chance to feel like they’ve done something special for their family or loved ones by making something for them. There’s also a positive customer experience in being able to feel a sense of personal pride in something they’ve done for themselves. Can you give them an opportunity to take ownership over the construction process?

Look at ways in which you can add real value for your customer while simultaneously giving them a less-finished product that improves your bottom line or supply and manufacturing protocol.

Can you give them the chance to say “I did this”?


Sparking Points

  • What benefits would you get if you were able to sell your product such that the customer assembles it?
  • Could assembling it be pitched as a learning, bonding, or more authentic process?
  • Could you increase the perceived value, and hence the cost, of your product by emphasizing its real-time availability?

Know that your customers’ needs will change

A big part of my business is being aware of, and responding to, the life cycles of my industry and my customers. Some of these are easy to see; you only need a cursory understanding of the effect of OPEC on gas prices in the early ’70s to understand why cars became more fuel efficient in that decade. Other reasons are harder to see. Some criteria can be “faddish,” based on things such as color or brand. Others are based on external influences.


For years the cell-phone industry fought to offer the smallest, thinnest possible phone. That’s what customers wanted. Now those same customers are prioritizing access to the web over the size of the phone. This has reversed what was seen as a key and unshakable evolution trend toward smaller phones. Now customers want larger phones with bigger screens. Sometimes trends can be reversed by something completely outside your control. Something that changes the buying decision. What will these same consumers want as they get older? Will full web access and streaming music and video be a priority, or will their needs change as their eyesight and hearing fade?

Remember the cycle part of “life cycle.” You may lose the connection with your customers at certain stages of their lives but regain it later. It’s like the young man who buys a sports car when he gets out of college, trades it in for a minivan when he marries and has kids, and finally reverts back to sports car as an empty nester. Don’t assume that a customer is lost forever just because they’ve shifted their allegiances for the time being. If you can maintain some kind of link during the years they are not using your product, you still have a good shot at winning them back again when their needs and your services match up better.

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We are rarely fortunate enough to know exactly how our customers’ needs will change; we simply know they will. The simplest way to anticipate how radically your customers’ needs and wants may evolve is to look at the past. Think about how our expectations of personal transportation have evolved. When your great-grandfather needed transportation, he might have looked for a sturdy horse and a well-made saddle. Your father wanted a car. My first vehicle was a motorcycle, as it was all I could afford at the time.

Simply understanding what products fell into and out of use isn’t enough. You need to consider the entwined relationship between people and the products that allow their lives, and their expectations about their lives, to evolve. The more our grandparents and parents came to rely on going wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, the more their lives were built around this very premise. Your great-great grandfather couldn’t have sustained a traditional family life if he lived fifty miles from his place of work, yet now we assume that this is a standard setup for a commuter. Understanding this constant back-and-forth between the products we use and how they affect our lives can help you predict how this relationship will evolve in the future. What will personal transportation look like ten years in the future? Will new traffic-flow and work-scheduling solutions allow greater mobility and the continuation of a suburban lifestyle? Or will people become so frustrated with ever-worsening commutes that they return to dense urban areas or flee to rural ones? Could these changes affect your customers’ buying decisions, and if so, what are you going to do about it?

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What other cycles like this can you start to anticipate now? How are your customers building new ways of living their lives based on new products and assumptions? Stay close to your existing customers and talk to them. Realize that they might not understand their own needs; it’s up to you to ask the Killer Questions and get a more nuanced perspective on what is driving them and their lives. Their buying decisions are not going to be the same three or four years from now. So long as you keep asking “Who are they, what do they want, and why do they want it?” you stand a good chance of staying ahead of the inevitable changes.


Sparking Points

  • What are the ways your future customers’ lives are changing?
  • How will that influence what they buy?
  • What will they abandon and no longer purchase as their lives change?