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From custom made to customer made

Marketers are now using public opinion to design their products

Sayantani Kar  |  Mumbai 

is doing it for its and missions. Unilever fired its advertising agency to go with it. Crowdsourcing, a term coined by Wired Contributing Editor Jeff Howe, has stretched from scientific discoveries to corporate research and development. has numerous websites dedicated to non-scientists to contribute to space research, while Unilever, among many other multinational consumer brands, has asked its consumers to create ads for many of its brands.

Closer home, life is getting complicated for consumers. Companies are now actively seeking out users to help in solving various problems — from designing packaging, to logos, to advertising slogans… just name it. If Kurkure is getting its festive pack designed through entries from the crowd, the Indian handphone manufacturer, Micromax, and even the Government of India, have gone to the Indian crowd for design inspiration. While constituted its new logo from a user suggestion, our new rupee symbol was the result of a similar initiative by the Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India.

The groups they are turning to could have specialised talent or could simply be representatives of the larger consumer population. At times, brands directly reach out to the public or do so through mediators who can bring in users with the right background for the job at hand. Incentives include money, or active acknowledgement from the company in terms of, say, featuring in the company’s ad.

For the chief marketing officer, crowdsourcing or co-creating with the consumer is a tangible measure of harnessing the social media well, a network that many of them still can’t figure out. So for now, consumer brands in India are inviting communication and design ideas from people outside their own and partner organisation networks. But vanguards of crowdsourcing both in India and abroad speak of a future when even innovation and product development could be crowdsourced.

In the US, websites such as InnoCentive have been crowdsourcing solutions that had stumped R&D teams at corporations such as Elly Lily, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Colgate, saving them money. The problem solvers? Maverick tinkerers, hobbyists and freelancers with little or no expertise in the fields they dabble in. P&G has its own website, connect+develop, for submissions on innovation covering the entire gamut—products, packaging, business models and trademark licensing. Dell has taken such submissions a step further by getting consumer fraternity to vote the best crowdsourced idea, be it about products, design, packaging or technology suggestions. Its Ideastorm website pulsates with implemented ideas, and recent and trending ideas for all to see.

In India, companies are just starting to fathom what they stand to gain-besides the savings on money, the sheer number of ideas that stream in can boggle one’s mind. Voting of the ideas by the crowd is gradually becoming part of the drill.

Designed for success
Designing is an area that lends itself well to crowdsourcing. Pratik Seal, head of marketing at Micromax, says, “For our logo redesign, we could have gone to design houses or consultants. But we realised that most of the brand consultants were not very clued in to our core audience.” The middle class youth is Seal’s consumer — a demographic consultants don’t necessarily map well. So enlisted the help of talent-hunting agency, Talenthouse India, a JV between and the California-based, Talenthouse. While Talenhouse mines groups with specific artistic talents, the entries are put up online to solicit votes. In that sense, even the finalists are crowdsourced. Talenthouse was able to make a presentation of the leading themes which came up through the process, one of which was that of the punch. A version of the same won the brand’s logo hunt.

For PepsiCo’s Kurkure, the annual festival pack design turned out to be an opportunity to figure out if crowdsourcing works or not. Nalin Sood, executive vice-president, marketing, foods, India, says, “Since we have thrown the brief open to both our regular advertising agency and the outside world, we will be able to compare the results to decide whether crowdsourcing has the potential to start something new for us.”

Again, Sood chose Talenthouse because of its ability to tap a pool of people with some background in design. “Where you mine for responses will depend on how specialised the task is. So, the flavour-hunt by Lay was thrown open to the general public, while our festive pack design is tapping into a design talent pool,” points out Sood.

Design and communication inputs are easier to solicit as the first step to crowdsourcing because the companies don’t have to share critical business information. But brands can’t be casual about the briefs they craft for the crowd either. “One has to design the initiative well. The prize will have to be commensurate with the effort. You need to commit the prize and not have a bailout in the fine print saying there would be no prize if the entries are not good enough. There should not be any ambiguity in the brief and you should be specific even as to the colours etc if it is design,” points out Deepinder Goyal, CEO, Zomato, a food and restaurant listings website that has crowdsourced its television commercial.

While sourced ideas from the crowd it ended up spending close to Rs 20 crore to unveil the crowdsourced logo. In contrast, start-up Zomato embraced it for the savings it affords. “If we had gone to an ad agency, they would have charged anything starting from Rs 50 lakh for, let’s say, three ideas. Through this route, we have received 110 ideas at one-tenth the cost,” notes Goyal. It found 10 per cent of the entries useful, without any of them being ready for TV. Zomato then armed the 10 entries it had chosen with more money, time and feedback to come back for the final round.

Zomato had experimented with crowdsourcing a year back with its iPad contest that asked bloggers to review the website. One valuable insight that actually forced it to tweak the website was that users should be able to search by specific dishes rather than just by restaurants. Frito-Lay, the first brand from to go crowdsourcing, did so to devise a new flavour. Four flavours shortlisted fron user suggestions were manufactured for real and then put up for votes. The winning flavour, Mastana Mango, won its maker 1 per cent of the revenue generated by its sales, apart from a Rs 50 lakh cash prize.

Crowdsourcing has helped solve another dilemma for the marketers — how to keep their social media followers engaged. Arun Mehra, CEO, Talenthouse India, observes, “For most brands looking to crowdsource videos, the inspiration is Facebook.” Hence, Airtel with its HFZ user-videos and with its Tropicana shorts were routed through Mehra’s team to their microsites and Facebook pages. HUL is currently busy sourcing videos for its Axe deodorants for similar use.

For Hewlett-Packard (HP), it meant more than just content for its social media. Ranjivjit Singh, chief marketing officer, Personal Systems Group, Hewlett- Packard, says the rock anthem that HP invited its one lakh online fans to put together, echoed HP’s positioning. “With one of the influencers for our core TG, the youth, being music, we have determined that it will be our peg. Nearly 80 per cent of them listen to music on their notebooks. So, be it our association with musicians and bloggers or our Beats-enabled laptops, we have kept music central to our communication,” he adds.

Asking its fans to create an anthem, which was finally put to music and sung by one of the users, made them feel they had some part in the branding. “Brands are now being created out there, among the consumers, and not behind agency doors anymore,” adds Singh. As a result of the online buzz, HP saw 45,000 more fans added to its Facebook page. Singh also found such an avid participation by the crowd boosted the morale of the employees. “The employees felt proud when they saw consumers engage with the brand,” he says. The music video has also been taken to retail partners.

Same difference
But is all this just an evolved version of focus groups in consumer research? Singh of HP says, “Focus groups are curated to go in a certain direction. For crowdsourcing ideas, brands should be open to embracing all kinds of suggestions. Most importantly, they should have no expectations. It is more of how the brand fits into the consumer’s life than just brainstorming.” Goyal agrees, “Focus groups in consumer research don’t always get people who care about the product but are forced to. While crowdsourcing often gets you in touch with people who would have given your problem some thought to qualify for the prize up for the taking. They take an effort to make their suggestions valuable.”

With brands lending an ear to the consumer, advertising and research agencies, the erstwhile mediators, will have to pull up their socks. Ideademocracy ( is being build up to be India’s first crowdsharing platform. Rohit Misra, co-founder, who was in advertising for over two decades, now wants to establish a platform that will have a community of users who can collaborate to solve client briefs.

The platform will first put up the brief for the online community, it will then check the entries to avoid plagiarism and put up the ideas for brainstorming by the entire community. Misra wants to take the voting seen so far a step further. “In my advertising days, I have seen ideas come from the unlikeliest of places and not necessarily from the agency team with the creative mandate. So, we will tap this creativity in people out there and get them to brainstorm on the ideas that are put up on the platform and may be even merge more than one idea to come up with the ideal solution,” he adds.

Such brainstorming will be critical to spin crowdsourcing beyond the logo designs. “Logo design inputs are process-driven and don’t take much to create. But as we move higher up the value chain to product design and business challenges, the crowd has to discuss the project together to come up with the best option,” Misra points out. The website will have briefs for basic design, website design for SMEs and ultimately briefs from larger brands on business challenges.

What will keep brands from bypassing the crowdsourcing agency or mediator altogether? Mehra cites the example of an automobile company in India that crowdsourced snippets for its TVC, but ended up spending Rs 25,000 per video it received as cost of inviting applications. While a similar effort by Mehra’s team for Airtel needed only Rs 2,000 per video. “The number of videos we got was 216 out of which 70 were great but they received only 20 good videos from the 10,000 that came in,” he adds. By focusing on the right crowd, brands can look to save on their crowdsourcing initiatives. And to truly mine the crowd’s wisdom, brands will have to move beyond design challenges and get them involved in more meaty roles.

First Published: Mon, June 18 2012. 00:50 IST