Consumer Co-Creation: Using Research to Create the Future


“Co-creation is the purposeful action of partnering with strategic customers, partners or employees to ideate, problem solve, improve performance, or create a new product, service or business.”
~Christine Crandall, New Business Strategies

The concept of consumer co-creation has always been at the heart of marketing research. Whenever a consumer shares their opinions, experiences, or perceptions about a product or service, their feedback is helping create a new future for that brand. However, traditionally marketing research maintains a certain amount of “distance” between consumers providing feedback and brand marketers who seek their input. Over the past few years, many brands began incorporating co-creation initiatives as part of their research program in a more literal way – by bringing consumers and brand stakeholders together to “co-create” solutions to key marketing issues. In this blog, we take a look at the emerging role in-person co-creation initiatives are playing in marketing research, the unique advantages the approach offers, and some considerations when designing a co-creation project.

Not everyone means the same thing when using the term “consumer co-creation.” Some use the term when describing online consumer communities as a source of co-creation insights. Others refer to crowd sourcing projects or even contests for consumer-generated content as examples of co-creation in action.  While those types of consumer interactions involve collaboration in order to create something new, they do so in a way that maintains a separation between the consumer and brand, usually by inviting consumers to share feedback in a specific platform to be evaluated at a later time.

Here, we’re defining co-creation as an in-person interaction, between consumers and brand stakeholders, with the objective of creating something new by the end of the session.  In the context of marketing research, co-creation initiatives are most commonly used to develop new product concepts, ideate ways to improve product performance, and develop solutions to key consumer problems. There are three key features of an in-person co-creation initiative that set it apart from more traditional market research approaches:

  • Focus on accomplishing a specific task – All participants share a common objective, to create something new during the session.
  • Minimize the distance between consumer and brand – Key brand stakeholders are included as fully participating “respondents” along with consumers.
  • Select participants with collaborative and creative skill sets – Curiosity, open-mindedness, and inventiveness are key traits of the most productive co-creation team members.

Completing the Task at Hand

Co-creation research initiatives are essentially work sessions. Participants are asked to collaborate with each other to create something new to the brand, such as a product or service idea. The goal is to have the new output as fully developed as possible based on the combined input of consumers and brand stakeholders. This is a key difference from traditional qualitative research which results in a report of the findings and recommendations for next steps.  Instead, brand marketers walk away from co-creation projects with valuable new stimulus such as detailed new product ideas, innovative workflow changes, or product design improvements ready for further development. Examples of objectives for a co-creation session might include:

  • A food manufacturer looking to develop a new product line geared to young adults who seek healthy, convenient meal solutions
    • Output might include:
      • Robust list of ideas for a variety of meal occasions – rated by participants on various key measures
      • Top rated meal ideas developed as full concepts including details like ideal ingredients, nutritional requirements, taste profiles, suggested pairings with side dishes or beverages
  • ­­A toothpaste brand exploring new product delivery or packaging methods
    • Output might include:
      • List of disadvantages to current packaging options with details on how it impacts consumers (unused product, non-recyclable, unattractive, etc.)
      • Rough sketches and/or prototypes of new packaging options using materials brought in by brand stakeholders
  • A retailer interested in improving their return policy to make the process easier for customers while safeguarding the company from fraud
    • Output might include:
      • List of scenarios where consumers have higher likelihood to be in need of a merchandise return or exchange
      • List of new scenarios for merchandise return or exchange methods that incorporate new technologies, drive-thru drop-offs/pick-ups, concierge at home/at work pick-ups, etc.

Like other marketing research studies, researchers would prepare a report of the findings and documentation of the output along with recommendations for next steps.  Often, the next steps include having the brand stakeholders refine the co-creation output and then partner with their marketing research firm to conduct further research to validate interest, appeal, and likelihood to purchase or use the new offering.

Breaking Down Barriers

Another defining feature of in-person co-creation projects is the direct interaction and collaboration between consumers and brand stakeholders, led by a group moderator. Some special considerations regarding group dynamics need to be addressed in order to have the most productive and positive experience. Most importantly, all participants need to clearly understand their roles during the session, which focus on the following:

  • Moderator who facilitates the discussion and various exercises
  • Consumer participants who share their personal experiences, observations, and suggestions
  • Brand stakeholder participants who share their professional experiences, observations and seek clarification and feedback from consumers

Keep in mind that this is a unique brand experience for the consumers involved.  Care needs to be taken to see that their input is received in a respectful and professional way. Although consumers and brand stakeholders are working together to ideate and refine solutions, the brand participants are still in a position of ‘authority’ over consumers, by virtue of their professional experience and wealth of inside knowledge.

Recruiting the Right Mix of People

Traditional marketing research studies involve recruiting for participants based on various demographic, behavioral, or attitudinal factors. When planning a co-creation research project, you’ll want to include additional screening criteria for both your consumer and brand stakeholder participants, specifically in the area soft skills like creative thinking, collaboration, problem-solving.  Some people are more comfortable than others with the ambiguity, open parameters, and rapid brainstorming techniques inherent in iterative co-creation exercises.  Therefore, it’s important to include relevant screening criteria to identify potential participants who will be most productive and interactive during the session.

Co-Creation Doesn’t Replace Traditional Marketing Research

Co-creation generates possible solutions to consumer problems or needs.  Although consumers helped create a new product or solution, that’s not a substitute for validating the potential success of the new offerings in the marketplace. It’s important to vet the output from a co-creation session among a representative target audience, through follow-up qualitative or quantitative research.

Concluding Thoughts

There’s a valuable place for co-creation initiatives within a brand’s overall marketing research program.  Co-creation projects are an effective way to tap into the rich experiences and unique perspectives of your target audience, coupled with the brand and product expertise of your internal stakeholders. The unique advantages of this customer-centric approach can help you obtain optimized results that may not have been uncovered without the face-to-face consumer collaboration. By bringing both parties to the table (literally), you are able to get more work done, in less amount of time, with greater insight and understanding.

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