Why brands are inviting customers directly into their product development
How can you be sure a customer is going to buy your product? By using their feedback to give them exactly what they're asking for.
Since then, the concept of “co-creating” products with customers has taken off, and brands are asking for help on all fronts. Personal care brand Curie’s founder Sarah Moret recently explained on Twitter how she asked customers to help her price a new moisturizing oil. OFFFIELD, the CBD hydration brand for runners, is in the process of setting up its “Labs” program, where customers will be invited to give feedback on products in development, while social platforms like Geneva are helping brands including skincare startup Bubble, period products company August, and apparel brand Uncle Studios create forums where they can discuss the future of the brand and their products.
By mobilizing a community of potential customers before launch, brands can make sure they have a captive audience ready to hand over their money. It is not an easy process — it not only involves weighing up huge volumes of often conflicting feedback, but also requires the diplomacy skills to gently explain why some ideas that customers might have are completely impractical — but it can be worth it to make sure a launch goes off with a bang. As Nick Ling, the cofounder of brand incubator and acquirer Pattern Brands puts it: “I would prefer to invest a lot of time upfront with co-creators versus finding out those insights six months later, when it’s too late.”
We spoke with Ling and three other founders to find out more about what it really means when they say they are creating products with customers.
For nine months before launching its home organization line Open Spaces, brand incubator Pattern Brands ran a website called “Space and Time” that looked just like a new ecommerce brand — only, it didn’t really exist. “It was a version of Open Spaces that we used for getting tangible consumer feedback before we launched,” says Ling.
The site featured a “full shopping experience” where people could poke around and see what they wanted to buy (although, with no products available, customers were asked to join a waitlist).
Ling estimates up to 3,000 people interacted with the website — some from Pattern’s own network, and a significant number of whom were completely unsuspecting. A further 300 people were also involved more closely in the development process, participating in focus groups and customer interviews, as well as reviewing 3D models of the products.
Ling says tech advancements have empowered brands to bring customers into the creation process. “You can spin up a website in days rather than weeks now, and you can do lifelike 3D modeling of products versus going and getting it actually manufactured before you show it to people,” he explains. “You can see if people are interested in what you’re selling before you’ve even invested in that.”
As for the fake website, one of the biggest lessons learned was that consumers select their home organization products based on how they look, rather than what they actually want to use them for. As a result, Open Spaces now communicates functional advice about its products after purchase.
Pattern has since pivoted to focus on acquisitions, rather than launching its own brands. Its consumer community still plays a role in finding targets: Ling says the company has a mailing list of loyal customers to which it suggests brands.
“It all started with influencer marketing,” says Charlotte C Pienaar, the founder of sunscreen brand Everyday Humans, when reflecting on how customers — and content creators — get involved with making improvements to the brand’s products.
Pienaar noticed that influencers were, at times, coming up with ways to market the products that the brand had not considered. With Resting Beach Face, Everyday Humans’ sunscreen serum, “we saw a lot of creators say ‘it gives me beautiful, glowy, healthy skin,’” says Pienaar. “We’ve never even used that tagline before, but now it’s become something we use because creators have given us that feedback.”
Everyday Humans is now in the process of formalizing this input, requesting one-on-one feedback from creators and also conducting group surveys to collect data points on its products, and figure out what it needs to address.
A “weird” smell from the sunscreen was one piece of feedback that kept coming up, and which informed a recent round of product reformulation at Everyday Humans. “We literally just launched our reformulated Resting Beach Face, and one of the key things was that we wanted to make the fragrance more palatable,” Pienaar explains, in addition to making improvements on the packaging (using more recycled plastic), and adding more moisturizing ingredients, based on creator comments.
Now when Everyday Humans recruits affiliate marketers, it asks them to fill out a survey explaining what their current skincare routines look like. It has also set up a Geneva group with over 100 enthusiastic customers. “We get so much information on what people want, what people don’t want,” Pienaar says, adding that Everyday Humans is now developing further products incorporating this feedback.
The first product Leila Kashani launched, back in 2014, was a single-blade razor designed to take care of spots missed while shaving. Originally sold under the name Sphynx, it later became part of Alleyoop, a beauty line selling makeup and skincare products designed to be as multi-functional and transportable as possible.
This transition, Kashani says, was possible thanks to the input of a 200-strong Slack channel she set up to gather ideas for new products.
“When I started reading the reviews [for the razor] online, it was like ‘oh, this is great, but I wish…’,” she explains. “And so I decided at that point, my close circle of friends giving me feedback is not good enough. I had no idea how people were actually going to use [the product].”
Today, all of Alleyoop’s products are created in response to frustrations its co-creators have with their current skincare and beauty routines. Take Alleyoop’s four-in-one brush. Kashani had originally designed a single case that could hold a number of makeup brushes; but when her Slack group insisted that they needed a sponge, she redesigned the product so it could hold one. When customers requested that Alleyoop’s skincare line came with both a towel and a gentle physical exfoliator, Kashani responded by creating a two-sided mitten that could do both jobs at once — and when customers complained about having to use cotton balls with their toners (which they found wasteful), Alleyoop decided to create one in a stick form, rather than liquid.
In May 2021, baby and toddler product brand Lalo announced it was opening applications to its “product council” — a committee that would help the brand to shape its future products. Within 24 hours, over 1,000 applications had come in, says cofounder Michael Wieder.
As part of the application process, customers were asked to share what they liked about the brand, the things they would change, and future products they’d like to see. In exchange for joining the council, these customers get free products to test — that will hopefully be tailored to their needs.
The chosen applicants didn’t need to have previously purchased anything from the brand, but were people who had demonstrated genuine interest in the program, says Wieder. “It was clear that they’d spent more than three minutes on the application — they’d sat down and spent an hour,” he explains. “We wanted to make sure we got a mix of extremely loyal customers and potential customers.”
The 15 members of the “Lalo Fam” product council are now part of a Slack channel where the Lalo team will dip in each week to ask specific questions about what they'd like to see next from the brand. Once a month, the founders host a Zoom session which serves as a focus group, where they discuss the brand’s future plans.
Lalo has been quizzing the product council on everything from colors choices, to how specific features on already-existing products could be improved. Wieder also says that Lalo has “an entire line of products launching next year that will be heavily influenced by the guidance of the council.”
“My cofounder Greg and I are both dads, and it’s very easy to take your own experience and assume that’s the experience for all parents,” Wieder says. “What the council allows us to do is really have an open mind and understanding of the different types of family lives, children and experiences that we need to support with our products.”