“You can have any colour you want, as long as it’s black,” Henry Ford famously said, and the modern mass production revolution began. Today, however, you can customise almost anything. You can blend your foundation to match your exact skin colour. You can design your own shoes; you can personalise your car, your suit and even your M&Ms®.
Customisation, once a luxury of the rich, is now affordable to the masses. The advance of technology, supported by the pervasive use of the internet, made it possible. Companies can now offer online design tools so intuitive that everyone can understand them. Hyper-real 3D images help us envision the final product, and social media platforms provide a fantastic virtual gallery to post our creations.
We have never been more encouraged to express our individuality, but why do we crave customised products?
Spoilt for choice
Let’s say you are going to the supermarket to buy toothpaste. Sounds like an easy job, right? But when you get to the aisle, you find 40 varieties. Do you want a whiter smile, fresher breath, to combat plaque or sensitive teeth, or attack gingivitis, to mention just a few choices? Multiply that experience by the number of items on your shopping list, and you will be soon drowning in a sea of options.
Consumerism’s basic rule is “more is better.” But when we reach option-overload level, “these choices, paradoxically, produce paralysis rather than liberation,” says Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. Much like the confusion effect predators experience when they see a large herd of animals; when we are offered too many options, we freeze.
When Amazon, Spotify and Netflix give us personalised recommendations based on past purchases, they’re reducing the pool of options we have to choose from. They make it manageable, so we don’t freeze with indecision. They make us feel our interests and preferences were taken into account, so we are more likely to be satisfied with the choice we make.
According to Schwartz, when it comes to option overload, “even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied than if we had fewer options,” because we keep thinking we could have chosen better. It’s also one reason why we prefer to customise a product. Personalising a pair of Nike ID shoes, for example, allows us to change colours, styles and textures with just a couple of mouse clicks. Even when we are choosing from a set of predefined options, we still get a buzz. We have few options, and it gives us a sense of pride, because we have taken part in the production process. We are no longer buying a run-of-the-mill pair of tennis shoes, but our own unique creation!
We cherish things we create. This psychological phenomenon is aptly named the Ikea effect. “The act of building something, putting your own blood and sweat into a physical object. . . seems to imbue it with additional value above and beyond its inherent quality,” says Travis Carter from Psychology Today. Even virtual experiences, like online designing, can make us feel this way.
Our brains link labour with love. That’s why we are likely to keep a coffee table we self-assembled, even if it is crooked. When we help make it, our brains think it is better. In fact, studies show that we are willing to pay up to five times more for a product we co-create!
Have you ever noticed how after you buy a new car, you suddenly see that same model everywhere? The car didn’t become hugely popular overnight. Your brain, or more precisely your reticular activating system (RAS), is simply tricking you.
Our brains are constantly bombarded with stimuli. If we were to pay attention to every bit of data—up to 2,000,000 at any time—we would go mad. Thankfully, RAS comes to the rescue by allowing us to focus on certain things and filter out the rest. It is like a portal through which information either enters the brain or gets rejected. Once something gets labelled “important,” like your new car model, your RAS will make sure you notice it.
Your RAS thinks your own name is very important. Hearing or seeing it will trigger a unique, unconscious reaction in your brain. If you see your name in an email or website greeting, you’re more likely to click it. Your brain can’t help paying attention!
Mass customisation plays on our brains’ biases. Shirts, licence plates, Coke bottles and even beachwear can now bear the name our brains like the most: our own.
In addition to one’s brain bias, narcissistic tendencies could motivate us to buy customised items. The social media and smartphone culture is turning us all into small celebrities. On one hand, this change democratises fame and opens up opportunities. Platforms like Kickstarter, for example, allow us to support emerging artists from around the world.
On the other hand, our personal newfound “fame” can make us overly concerned with self-promotion. Unsurprisingly, narcissism is on the rise. It increased 30 per cent in recent years, causing researchers to call it an epidemic. Because buyers with high levels of narcissism favour customised products and are willing to pay more for them, retailers are trying to harness this tendency and even promote it.
David Sprott, a marketing and psychology researcher from Washington State University, says that companies could “induce a narcissistic state that encourages a consumer to self-design a unique product.”
The mindful consumer
There are many benefits to mass-customisation: it encourages our creativity, it means products are more relevant to us, and in general, it makes us happier with our purchases. I believe an attitude of mindful consumption can help us enjoy customisation and avoid manipulation.
“We are long overdue for a course correction,” said Peter Kim at the Cannes Lions advertising festival, “which will require brands to stop feeding consumer egos and start working on platforms for social good.” Kim believes that brands and individuals can use their influence for genuine empowerment, as opposed to self-aggrandisement.
I agree. We can take advantage of the more active role companies are giving us and demand they source fair-trade materials, for instance. Knowing that our brains love what we create, we can decide to keep a personalised item longer, or even for life.
And we can go deeper. Our culture is obsessed with getting across the message that we are all different and we are all unique. This is true, of course. But it is also important to emphasise what makes us similar as human beings, what brings us together. The Bible says that “in Christ Jesus [we] are all children of God through faith” (Galatians 3:26).
We are all unique, and at the same time, members of one family: God’s.