Trend: custom-made from the production line


Mass customization and personalization are regarded as global megatrends. But how should we grasp what these trends are actually about? Do they only apply to promotional products? And what’s all this got to do with online print?

It still causes a certain amount of confusion when the term mass customization is mentioned. Not only because the term is difficult to pronounce, but also because a basic understanding of what it means is lacking. But you can definitely understand why, because mass customization is strictly speaking a paradox. “It is made-to-order manufacturing to a mass-production degree of efficiency”, is how Prof. Dr. Frank Piller, one of the most renowned mass customization experts, describes it.

To understand it properly, you have to go back in time quite a way. It all started with the Industrial Revolution and the assembly line, which enabled mass production and made products universally affordable. That is the case to this day, but has also resulted in increasingly cheaper products and that absurd “tight is right” mentality. Manufacturers of mass-produced goods wish to serve a market that’s as broad as possible, but the “one size fits all” strategy no longer meets many customers’ needs. At some point the market “went off-course”, because consumers were no longer interested in just the bare necessities. Nowadays they want the thrill of variety, they don’t want to go with the flow, but do exactly what others aren’t doing – simply being individual.

It’s the same shape of duck that’s mass-produced on an industrial scale. When there’s a choice of four different colors, that’s referred to as versioning. And if the customer wants a green bill, the mass product is turned into a custom duck. Source: © Photo by Mike Flippo /

Not a temporary phenomenon

Customizing means adapting a product to meet the customer’s requirements and can also be taken to mean individualization. Houses, for example, have always been built this way. In this context customizing refers to an individual product. However, customizing has long since also been used to refer to industrial products. If the individual product is manufactured using mass-production techniques, that is referred to as mass customization.

A really typical example are promotional products, which although they are mass-produced in a range of versions, they can then be customized by printing a logo on them, for example. It’s a similar story when buying a car. There is a wide range of engine, color as well as equipment/feature versions available, from which the customer is able to custom-configure their car. And some manufacturers have for years offered the option of printing the customer’s choice in a personalized brochure.

“Admittedly, in the digitalization era trends often disappear faster than they emerge. Yet mass customization is not a temporary phenomenon, it hasn’t suddenly popped up, it has evolved over the course of the last 20 years or so (see the vehicle manufacturing industry). This is set to intensify even more, because many markets are already saturated, because quality alone is no longer a USP, because providers’ offerings are increasingly interchangeable and because differentiation from the competition is getting increasingly tougher. For that reason more and more companies are set to latch on to this trend.” – Bernd Zipper


Added to that is the fact that consumers are being increasingly sensitized to customization by personal messages from the world of online. And a well-thought-out offering does not end with the sale of a product, but is the intermediate stop in an enduring customer relationship. That’s because an appropriate, custom offering wows a customer more than standard products.

According to online magazine, there are now more than 600 stores in German-speaking parts of the world that focus solely on customizable products. These include fashion and sportswear, as well as chocolate, interiors, photo products, jewelry and much more besides.

However, the current rapid growth is finite. Studies assume that the market potential for mass customization will settle at around 30% of the overall market, even in countries where custom products are in demand. If you consider this in its own right, this is just gigantic and commercially speaking very appealing as well, since the products provide customers with an additional benefit, which results in a willingness to pay a higher price. Products from this segment are on average 20% to 50% more expensive than mass-produced goods.

Theory or practice?

And it has long since been practical reality rather than theory! Let’s take the clothing industry, of which large portions have been outsourced to Asia. You buy these products off the peg. But if you want an expensive, tailor-made suit, you have to go to a tailor and have it made to measure. Or you can go to an Internet tailor, who ascertains your requirements using a configurator and produces your suit for an affordable price. Similar services are also provided for furniture and other items, which we believed had migrated to low-wage countries never to return. Entrepreneurs that go down the customized production route are demonstrating that it is also possible in Europe to manufacture inexpensively and close to where customers are.

Such offerings even exist in the food segment. At MyMüsli the customer can create their own granola mix on the Internet, factoring in their personal tastes and preferences and any allergies. The granola mix created this way is mixed exactly in line with customer specifications and delivered in a can. And MyMüsli even goes one better. The customer can personalize not only their granola mix but the can as well. The customer selects images, texts and colors – and the can is printed direct-to-can and customized.

The mass-produced basic version is always the same. Once a name or logo has been printed on it, the mass customization process is complete. Print is per se personal and therefore mass customization-compatible. Source: © Photo by Wolf Manufaktur /

Print is per se personal

However that has only been made possible by the online stores and configurators with which we are familiar in the online print industry too. In this context, print products are of course basically personal and not to be equated with mass customization. There is therefore no such thing as mass-produced business cards, only those bearing the name of Mr. Smith, Williams, Jones etc. There is also no such thing as a general invitation, instead only ever an invitation issued by XY Inc. for a specific date and time and at a specific location. Print products – apart from books and magazines perhaps – are therefore never produced for stock. Print providers make production capacity available and a print product can only be produced once the customer has delivered some content.

That is what mass customization is all about and above all it is a strategic business and production concept. It harnesses the benefits of mass production like economies of scale and automation to satisfy customers’ requirements for custom products tailored to their needs.

Putting it in plain terms – mass media with identical content for all recipients assume identical interests, identical needs and identical human behavior. But that is definitely not the case. The definition of target audiences misses the mark, because it is individuals not audiences that need to be reached out to. Consequently, uniform advertising only works to a limited extent. Sales and Marketing teams have to think and act in a segmented fashion and reach out to customers in situation-relevant ways. It’s tough combining this approach with mass-produced print products.

When we talk about mass customization nowadays, this requires a completely different type of marketing, advertising and sales approach. And for companies themselves that means if you are successful, you suddenly have to handle 500 instead of 20 orders a day. That should be manageable with the aid of automated processes. The actual challenge is designing online platforms to be customer-friendly as well as mastering and enhancing intra- and post-ordering processes.

My take: “The more, the cheaper” was also the motto of the print industry for decades. Buyers used to put this into practice ad absurdum (because “tight is right”), meaning that easily a third of all print products ultimately ended up unread in the trash, because consumption of a bulk-print-run print product happens to take longer than the content is able to remain up-to-date. Consequently print runs have reduced in size, updating cycles and the number of smaller print orders are increasing, because printing must be need-based. At the same time this enables resources like paper, energy etc. to be saved. But that’s the thing with mass-produced print products, because a personalized mailshot with 1 times 100,000 copies is a bulk print run. The only difference is that we’re talking 100,000 different print products, not 100,000 identical ones.

My tip: If you want to know more about the subject of mass customization, I recommend you obtain a ticket for the 3. Fachkonferenz “Losgröße 1 und Mass Customization” (3rd Specialist Convention about Single-Item Batch Sizes and Mass Customization) on February 26 and 27 in Speyer. I myself will be delivering a keynote – “Mass Customization –how print suddenly adds value to products”. You can even get a 20% discount on your ticket if you quote the following promotion code: REF20-81920713.

You can look forward to fascinating sources-of-inspiration and specialist-subject presentations, World Cafés with high-level experts and a tour of Daimler AG’s Wörth am Rhein plant – Mercedes Benz –Serial Truck Production in Batch Sizes of 1, as well as the facility where Unimogs are manufactured – an absolute cult product! The subsequent visit to the Development and Testing Center as well as test-driving a Unimog on the “Ferkelhügel” guarantees you a different kind of networking opportunity.

Register here

Trend: custom-made from the production line
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Trend: custom-made from the production line
Mass customization and personalization are regarded as global megatrends. But how should we grasp what these trends are actually about? Do they only apply to promotional products? And what’s all this got to do with online print?
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Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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