The 20th century was all about mass everything—mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption.
The current century will be all about customization. The one-size-fits-all products, businesses and marketing campaigns will be left in the dust. Is your company ready?
The quintessential 20th century company might be McDonald’s. Some 40 years ago, the chain started churning out identical menu items in thousands of identical restaurants that prominently displayed how many billion burgers the company had served.
The ingredients were optimized for the mass market—no tomatoes or lettuce on the hamburgers, because such fresh plant foods will always vary. McDonald’s marketing campaigns were singular and global, mostly broadcast on TV. Before the Internet, before cable, three TV networks dominated mindshare. And McDonald’s serially broadcast its singular message into tens of millions of households nightly on the ultimate one-to-many medium.
From about the 1980s through the present day, you see a slow transition to the new economy—from mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption to individually tailored tastes.
In fact, if you look at all the major trends in technology, they’re all leading to what you might call a custom economy. Here are three such trends happening right now.
1. Personalized advertising
The big anxiety in the world of consumer electronics is the relentless harvesting of user data by the likes of Google, Facebook and, well, just about everyone, really. Companies crave data—as much as they can get. But why?
The ultimate end game of personal data is super-powerful advertising. And by powerful, I mean highly customized.
In the mid-20th century, advertising was all about “manufacturing desire.” There was no possible way to know what you, personally, wanted. So they told you what you wanted. TV advertising was about talking you into wanting something you didn’t want before.
Within 10 years, anxiety over personal data harvesting will be gone and advertising companies will have so much data, compute power and artificial intelligence that they’ll be able to divine exactly what you want—and also when and where you want it.
No two ads will be alike. Every advertising message will be utterly unique and just for you.
2. Everything will be digitized
Software has some interesting qualities that separate it from physical goods. For example, software can be copied, instantly distributed globally, remotely fixed, patched, upgraded and monitored. And it’s free from the constraints of physical space.
As one ready comparison, think about the Library of Congress. It’s the world’s second-largest library. It occupies four massive buildings. You can’t access the 36 million books there unless you visit, physically. The books are finished and permanent in their present forms; they can’t be corrected or updated. Their contents can’t be searched. They could theoretically be destroyed in a fire. (In fact, British troops did exactly that on August 24, 1814, when they put the torch to Washington D.C.)
Now, consider the Google Books project. The company claims there are 130 million books in existence. And Google plans to digitize all of them by the end of the decade. These can be copied, accessible globally, searchable, updatable and displayable in any format, from large type to the spoken word.
The Google Books project represents the digitization of a formerly physical medium, with all the attendant attributes of software. This digitization process is showing up in many places. 3D printing is a great example
Getting Your Company Ready for the ‘Custom Economy’
Once complicated and expensive, 3D printing is quickly becoming a mainstream product.
Let’s say you want to replace a light-switch plate in your living room. You could go to the local hardware store and pick from 10 options or go to Home Depot and pick from 30. Or you could go to a Website with 3 million options with additional customization factors, and then print it out with your home 3D printer.
That’s easy to imagine. But how mainstream will 3D printers get?
The newest 3D printer project is called the New Matter MOD-t. It looks like an Apple product and costs under $200—roughly one-tenth the cost of the lowest-cost 3D printers from a year ago. The creators say it’s a breakthrough in ease of use, too.
Intel provided another glimpse at the future of 3D printing. The company announced on May 28 its intention to sell a $1,600 robot kit that anyone with a 3D printer can customize by designing or choosing body parts and then printing them out. It’s called the Jimmy robot.
Why does this matter? Because 3D printers are part of the digitization of physical objects. They give “hardware,” if you will, the stunning qualities of software.
More to the point, they represent the end of settling for limited options in thousands of product categories. Every object you print can be totally unique.
3. Ubiquitous virtual assistants
These represent the first wave of virtual assistants. They’re generally viewed as convenient user interfaces or gimmicks. But here’s another way to look at them: They represent the future of customized services.
Today’s virtual assistants are mostly about harvesting limited personal data, and then bringing it to your attention in a friendly, human-like way. For example, Google Now can scan your Gmail inbox for information about bills, and then, at the appropriate time, remind you to pay the power bill before it’s too late.
But future virtual assistants will have more capabilities; they’ll be able to pay the bill for you and so much more. Five or 10 years from now, Siri-like virtual assistants will be ubiquitous in our lives. We’ll talk to microphones in our glasses, our car dashboards, our refrigerators and tell them what we want. The assistants will not only figure out the specifics based on troves of personal data but make those things happen.
When our assistants remind us that Janet’s birthday is in three days, we’ll be able to say: “Send her a present.” Our assistants will harvest Janet’s data and our gifting history to find out the perfect gift, and then buy and ship it.
In this scenario, the need to interact with multiple services has been replaced by our interaction with the assistant. We don’t interact with our calendar, our contacts database, the online catalogs or the delivery service—none of it. Instead, the entire process is customized very specifically to us.
The world is changing fast, and the old world of mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption is being replaced by custom-tailored everything.
The real point is that, in the customization economy, customized options will almost always beat a mass-market approach. And that’s why every aspect of every business needs to prepare for a world of expectations, where advertising, manufacturing and services all provide extreme customization.
In other words, don’t get caught with yesterday’s mass solutions in tomorrow’s custom economy.