Innovation & Design

Co-Creation: Not Just Another Focus Group


To launch Twist, a new men's fragrance in its global Axe brand, Unilever turned to a preapproved crowd of eager young amateurs for help

In July 2008, Unilever executives convened 16 regular young men and women from around the world at a meeting in New York. Why? To tap them for ideas for a new global fragrance for Axe, a brand of men's body spray, antiperspirant, and shower gel. The company had previously experimented with consumer-driven product development for local launches, but never for one on such a large scale. The young adults had been assembled by Face, a London-based firm that helps companies innovate through co-creation. Face runs two online communities: Headbox, for young adults, and Mindbubble, for women. Each group has about 7,000 members, all eager to opine on what brands should do next. For each commercial project, Face invites a small number of members to work as paid collaborators, with compensation levels depending on the project. It's a new way to answer the question of how to harness an unwieldy crowd to a business' advantage. Co-creation is more fluid than focus groups, says Face Chief Executive Andrew Needham, who helped to start the company in 2004. Presented with a brief, Needham's participants are asked to develop an idea from scratch, while focus groups mainly offer feedback on ideas or prototypes that have already been prepared. "Often consumers take you to places that you would never thought of going to had you used more traditional research methods," he says. Twist: fragrance panel's fresh idea

David Cousino, global category director of Unilever's consumer marketing insights group, based in London and Rome, agrees. Unilever started working with Face in 2007 to develop an Axe variant for Spain. "Consumers want to be engaged with brands more closely and we as marketers must do that," he says. The challenge, he adds, lies less in finding passionate consumers than in hiring the right team to lead them. Marketers must be prepared to relinquish creative control rather than steer participants towards favored, often predictable, outcomes. To manage the launch of a new fragrance in the global Axe brand, Face tapped a group of 16 with an active interest in Axe and other health-and-beauty products from its youth community. The participants then met in New York in 2008 to be briefed about the brand and asked how they might tackle the concept of "freshness." Their answer? To develop a fragrance that transforms throughout the day. They named it "Twist." The concept was run by the Headbox community for feedback, won a thumbs-up, and was then approved by Unilever. Axe fragrance designer Ann Gottlieb spent five months developing the fragrance with Swiss perfume-and-flavor company Firmenich. Twist launched on the market in late 2009. Sales results are as yet unavailable, but Needham says the product and advertising are testing well with consumers. "We couldn't believe that the stewards of the brand hadn't talked about how fragrance works until now," says Unilever's Cousino. "Sometimes it takes someone who isn't as close to the category of business to break those filters away and show what they think is interesting." While co-creation is just another tool in a marketer's bag of tricks, Cousino expects Unilever to use the process in future global launches. "Consumer market insight teams and marketers now know that consumers will always have a place in the innovation work stream," he says.

Wong is a lifestyle and real estate reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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