Why customization isn’t always positive

Fruit in a bowl

Technological advances allow customers to determine specific product characteristics by choosing particular ingredients, features or design elements in helping to build a product outcome. Retail stores (such as Pinkberry), companies (such as Build-a-Bear), and websites (such as spreadshirt.com) enable customers to customize their own product. According to existing research and practitioners’ beliefs, engaging customers in the product creation process prompts more positive product evaluations. However, according to new research from Dr Anne-Kathrin Klesse at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) the impact of product customization is more multi-faceted and depends on the type of customers.

Still healthy self image

Why customization isn’t always positive

Assistant Professor of Marketing Anne-Kathrin Klesse and her team, which included Yann Cornil and Darren Dahl from University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business and Nina Gros, a doctoral student at Maastricht University, conducted 16 interviews with marketing managers of companies that allow customization. All those managers unanimously mentioned positive outcomes such as better preference fit, greater product satisfaction, higher willingness to pay, feelings of pride and ownership, as well as delight and loyalty in the case of product customization; while the main drawback they identified was the financial cost of customization.

Dr Klesse explains: “We felt these managers (and existing research) have neglected the possibility that customization may adversely affect customers’ perception of key product attributes. For example, would customers perceive a food product as more or less healthy if they participated in its creation? Would they perceive a T-shirt as more or less fashionable if they customized it?”

How we view ourselves is how we view the product we created

In her research, Dr Anne-Kathrin Klesse and her team aimed to answer these questions by comparing customizers (individuals who created a product themselves) to non-customizers (individuals who received an off-the-shelf alternative that was identical to the versions that customizers created). They conducted six studies in three different domains – clothing, food and holiday packages – and compared customizers’ and non-customizers’ product perceptions of salient product attributes including fashionability, healthiness, and adventurousness.

The results showed that allowing customers to customize a product prompts self-image-consistent product perceptions. This means that customers will perceive the product that they created in line with how they see themselves on a salient dimension.

Dr Klesse explains: “In the context of food, we found that customers with an unhealthy self-image (that is, customers who see themselves as rather unhealthy eaters) who customized a muesli (or yogurt) considered the product as less healthy than customers who did not customize their muesli (or yogurt). Conversely, customers with a healthy self-image who customized a muesli perceived it as healthier than customers who did not customize their muesli. This difference in perception occurred although the end-product (muesli) was identical with respect to healthiness for both, customizers and non-customizers. So essentially, how we view ourselves directly influences how we perceive the product we created. Dr Anne-Kathrin Klesse and her team refer to this phenomenon as self-image-consistent product perceptions.  

Consequences of customization on consumer behaviour

The results from the research provide important insights for companies that rely on customization as part of their business strategy.

“For example, customizers of muesli with an unhealthy self-image perceived their product as less healthy and thus were less likely to recommend the product to health-conscious customers (for example dieters), and utilized fewer health-related hashtags for a social media post when promoting the product on social media. This will have a detrimental effect if a business wants to promote their company as a healthy food store,” says Klesse.

Secondly, the researchers found that how a person feels about themselves might have direct impact on their choice for the size of the customised product..

“Our restaurant experiment revealed that customizers expressed lower desire to eat more of the Greek yogurt than non-customizers, because they perceived the Greek yogurt as less healthy. This suggests that customization might impact customers’ choices of portion sizes,” Klesse explains.

Strategies to overcome the negatives effects of customization

The research also revealed two intervention strategies with which marketers can counteract the potentially harming effect of customization for consumers who hold a negative self-image in a particular domain, for example unhealthy eaters or people who consider themselves unfashionable.   

One possibility is to frame the customization process as a mere choice task between readily available options rather than product customization. For example: consumers are given a one-time choice between three readily available options of five different food ingredients instead of choosing all the five ingredients step-by-step themselves.

Another possibility in the context of food is to strengthen the product positioning by adding labels as ‘healthy’ or ‘organic’ on all product ingredients. This will weaken customers with an unhealthy self-image perception that they could have created an end-product that is not healthy, and thus reduces the occurrence of self-image consistent product perceptions.

More information

Read the article: “The Secret Ingredient Is Me: Customization Prompts Self-Image-Consistent Product Perceptions” in Journal of Marketing Research.

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Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Irene Bosman, communications manager for RSM, via +31 10 408 2028 or bosman@rsm.nl.