From the days when Nike first let us design our own sneakers with NikeID to the launch of new services like Amazon Custom, the adoption of ‘customizing’ products by brands has become table stakes to success. 

But where did the ‘custom-made’ revolution for brands begin? 

Let’s look back at Stanley Davis, who best described himself as “Gandhi in banker’s pinstripes”. In 1987, his efforts to balance his talk of the cosmos with the pedestrian topic of production economics went over pretty well. He sold a bunch of books and went on to write a few more books, but his biggest impact was coining the term “mass customization”. Those words lit up the 90s, ricocheting from boardroom to boardroom until they became tired.

But the original idea, the one that gave promise in 1987, went like this: the future industry will find a way to balance between two extremes. One extreme is the assembly line, which spits out replicas. You know, “You can have any color Ford Model T, as long as it’s black.” The other extreme is the 16th-century craftsman whittling a piece of maple, making a custom leg for a chair that only exists in grandma Bernette’s house.

He posited that, in the future, we’ll be able to produce custom goods and services to meet an individual customer’s needs with that near mass production efficiency. That 16th-century chair leg can be delivered to grandma’s house in three to five business days at no extra cost, thanks to ‘mass customization’.

Another plus: if we know grandma wants a chair leg, we don’t have to have warehouses stocked with chair legs, waiting to be sent out. We can just make that chair leg when she needs it and ship it out. Thus, supply and demand are in perfect synchronicity.

So, then it’s the 90s. Flexible production systems mean that assembly lines are becoming really efficient at making not just one thing again and again, but many individual objects with unique arrangements of parts. But there’s a problem: it’s hard to gather data on what individual customers want without a lot of effort on the part of companies. That one-of-a-kind chair leg could be efficiently delivered to grandma’s house, but without her input, we’ll probably get her preferences wrong.

But now, there’s the internet. 

There’s ceaseless information about what consumers want. And if that’s not enough, grandma can go onto chairs[dot]com and, by using a 3D graphical interface, render her chair leg, which she can then recommend to her friends via TikTok, and a smart algorithm can price the item so that demand doesn’t overwhelm supply when all her TikTok followers buy the same thing, too. Mass customization is a reality, and in three to five business days, grandma will have exactly what she wants.

So, the efficient system to supply customized goods to consumers is up and running. But what are consumers like today?

Mass self-expression: how brands and identity customization connect

Somewhere between the fall of globalization and the rise of the Influencer, the unit of self-identification has shifted from the community to the individual. No longer are we defining ourselves in the form of mass culture but in the culture of the individual.

The Beatles are dying, and the hippies have cashed in on their 401(k)s. Meanwhile, a toddler making toy review videos has millions of followers. Customization has a vital role in this shift.

We customize our outer presentation to fit what we perceive to be a singular, unique internal identity. Whether this internal compass is actually unique or not (an argument for another time), we customize this boring body we’re given to match what we have been told is our infinitely colorful soul. There are a few key factors that have made this process subtler, faster, and more complex than ever.

The first factor:
Customization of identity is more complex. The boundaries of what is customizable are becoming blurred.

In 2000, outerwear and music taste could be customized: a Catskills suburban middle school tween could choose to be a Marilyn Manson, Hot Topic “chick” or a Ricky Martin, Skechers “girl”. But today, from our face, body, and gender, deeper cultural identity markers are now customizable. What other things about our identity presentation will we be able to customize in 10 years so we can more accurately match our outsides with our insides? 

The second factor:
Customization of identity happens faster. Being truly unique is nearly impossible because everything moves so fast. The moment you customize something, it is no longer something you own.

At the budding of any counterculture, there is excitement among the truly cool and new. “This is cool and new”, they say. 

The punks, for example, put studs and patches on their clothes, making each person a true, custom individual. Over time, the mass industry took wind of this punk counterculture and started producing punk products to be sold to the masses, which erased the individuality inherent in it. Putting studs on your backpack versus buying a studded backpack from the mall is totally different: the former act is an act of rebellion, the latter an act of appropriation.

Now, this process is unbelievably fast. If a person does something truly unique, because of social media, they are only one degree of separation from mass culture. So, next week, Urban Outfitters could be mass-producing what one TikTok influencer put on their page the day before. 

Is the future of counterculture a digital version of Thoreau’s Walden, where users isolate themselves from social media so they can customize and be an individual in peace? Or does counterculture dive into and take pride in its role as an influencer of mass industry? 

The third factor:
Brands are continually being viewed less for their badge value and more for the role they play in helping an individual codify their perceived self-expression.

Cathy Horyn, ex-editor for the style section of The New York Times, wrote that we are entering a post-trend universe, where the old definition of trends, in which all high-end fashion companies created a single kind of clothing for a single season, has ended. This horizontal trend is, she claims, being replaced by the vertical trend. Each brand has its own trends, each season, and its own personality that is always evolving. Consumers don’t buy into trends, regardless of the brand, but instead buy into individual brands, all of which are producing new kinds of products each season.

Brands are more complicit in self-expression than ever; the infinite variety of brands in a consumer’s possession defines, or at least reflects, who they are at a given moment in time. Brands play more of a role in self-expression than ever.

Cover image source: DeepMind