Threadless: Customer Empowerment In New Product Development

Threadless: Customer Empowerment In New Product Development

By Megan Pauly

by Megan Pauly

The company Threadless, a Chicago start-up founded on the idea of printing self-submitted artistic T-shirt designs, continues to prosper with – both literally and metaphorically – flying colors.

The colorful website engages a vibrant online community of more than 120,000 registered users who do more than fill out registration boxes.

It’s the company’s advanced sense of customer engagement that really seems to set Threadless apart from similar competitors. The company’s customers, by nature, are actively involved in the new product development process, as well as the process of selecting which T-shirt designs are sent to the printer.

The website, receiving more than 500 new designs from around the world per week, relies on customers to vote for their favorites. And it’s this system – targeting customer empowerment – that drives the output of products.

Threadless prints the five best user designs each week and rewards the winning designers with a $2,000 check. Not only this, but the website has even put faces – and interviews – to the names of some of the artists whose work has been selected multiple times.

Take Olly Moss, AKA “Woss,” for example, a “26.53 year-old” artist who has had 25 of his designs printed by Threadless.

It’s simple things like this that have customers coming back for more and more.

The power of the customer

This model of customer empowerment demonstrated by Threadless reflects the right of the individual’s participation.

And with the ever-emerging popularity of social media in today’s day and age, that right of individual participation is becoming all the more important and relevant for companies, especially when it comes to the topic of new product development.

Through the medium of the World Wide Web, it is also increasingly easier and easier for companies to incorporate an interactive piece that would instantly allow for more customer involvement.

And Threadless is not the lone company riding the trending wave of change.

Adidas, BMW, Ducati, Proctor & Gamble, 3M, and many others have created online platforms that aim to integrate their customers’ innovative new product ideas into NPD processes more actively, more directly and more systematically.

These changes must reflect a change in the mindset of the consumer from a passive observer to an active participant in the processes of new product development and design.

Democratizing innovation

Unlike a totalitarian regime, corporations do not want to continue to take the approach of centralized control, with the risk of losing business if they do.

Instead, the idea of customer empowerment is linked to a sort of ‘democratization of innovation’ that allows for the customer to play an active role in the company.

And, in the domains of T-shirts, furniture and bicycles, it has been found that on both empowerment dimensions – the creation of new product ideas as well as design implementation – have led to higher perceived customer orientation, more favorable corporate attitudes and more favorable behavioral intentions.

Worded differently, customer empowerment is positively and significantly related to perceived customer orientation.

So really, the question isn’t if the customer will be involved in the process of new product development, but the question is this: where do companies draw the line?

Pardon my pun, but Threadless doesn’t draw any lines.

As you can see below, they internalize their image through their Twitter description:

“You are Threadless. You make the ideas, you pick what we sell, you’re why we exist. Join us, why don’t you? Make, pick, play, and shop now!”

Based on a study by Christoph Fuchs (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University) and Martin Schreier (Bocconi University in Milan). Image copyright

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