If you work in research, strategy, brand development, R&D, or marketing, chances are you’ve either heard or uttered the term “co-creation” in the past week. As a researcher, it is exciting when internal teams are enthusiastic about a methodology because it can provide the impetus for great innovation and new thinking – not to mention it can sell research. However, there is a great deal of confusion around what co-creation actually is, what its benefits are, and when it’s a good choice. The true value of co-creation is being diluted by misunderstanding and overuse, which will ultimately result in it being seen as a fad rather than a useful technique with a specific time and place.
This three-part primer series explores what co-creation is, why it’s such an effective tool for brands, and the specific conditions that are required in order to execute the technique.
“Co-creation is an innovation technique for creating solutions that simultaneously meet the needs of end users, optimize design and feasibility for developers, and ensure authenticity and fit for brands.”
What’s the Problem?
Things that are exciting, powerful and inspiring tend to attract attention. This has certainly been the case with co-creation over the past few years. Not only does everyone want to try these sexy new techniques, but they are also patently over-applying the term as well. If the industry starts labeling every focus group that uses stimuli as co-creation, we will dilute the term and its value to the point where it’s no longer as powerful or meaningful a tool. Additionally, most criticism of the technique is actually delivered by those who don’t fully understand what co-creation is or are misunderstanding or mis-applying either the label or the approach.
So, What is Co-Creation?
Co-creation is an innovation technique for creating solutions that simultaneously meet the needs of end users, optimize design and feasibility for developers, and ensure authenticity and fit for brands. This is done by allowing all three to play a collaborative role in the creative process. Co-creation traces back to a Harvard Business Review article published in 2000 by C.K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy entitled “Co-Opting Customer Competence.” Their concept was predicated on the idea of providing mutual value and serving the interests of multiple stakeholders, including the customer, all at once. In a subsequent paper emphasizing the value of experiences, they characterize the hallmark of co-creation as “[T]he joint creation of value by the company and the customer, allowing the customer to co-construct the service experience to suit their context.” Therefore, true co-creation requires multiple vested parties, from both sides of the one-way glass, be in the room together—iterating, discussing, and honing in on an idea in tandem to ensure the outcome is not only mutually beneficial, but also feasible.
“Co-creation exercises must be chosen strategically, with an eye to their potential impacts—not just to fill a stimulus quota.”
Three Things Co-Creation Is NOT…
- Hands-on, immersive, or stimuli-driven focus groups. Yes, co-creation often involves stimuli. But the use of stimuli alone does not make your focus groups co-creations. Jacques Bughin stresses, “For co-creation to pay off handsomely over time, companies must focus it on activities that deliver a sustainable competitive advantage.” Thus, co-creation exercises must be chosen strategically, with an eye to their potential impacts—not just to fill a stimulus quota.
- Using consumers to generate ideas. The age-old criticism that “consumers can’t generate ideas” is absolutely true. Co-creation does not ask consumers to come up with ideas. Good co-creation elicits feedback and direction from consumers about their lifestyles, their perceptions, and unmet needs that enable the group to organically explore and hone in on potential ideas to meet those needs. It is the researcher’s job to thoughtfully combine deep exploratory conversation and reactions with well-considered metaphorical and overt stimuli of various mediums in order to elicit meaningful feedback that can serve as the building blocks of a great idea.
- Designing by committee. It’s a subtle but very important nuance – co-creation is not about getting everyone in a room to throw out ideas and then sort through them. Rather, it is a disciplined process in which each vested party (consumers, designers, developers, marketers, and brand strategists) plays an important role in the overall process, refining an idea or a territory to simultaneously offer value to all parties. Remember Prahalad and Ramaswamy and their focus on “joint creation of value”? Co-creation is not about having one group coming up with ideas to please another, but instead “joint problem definition and problem solving.”