Co-creation – why isn’t it being adopted more widely?

By Reach Brands

Co-creation has been widely used in product development for quite some time. But there seem to be so many different approaches and definitions to co-creation, that it makes it hard to pin down. For some, it’s a route to new product innovation – and to creating new ideas and strategies for businesses. Others use co-creation as a way of crowd-sourcing ideas – canvassing the mass collaboration enabled by Web 2.0 technologies. However, online communities represent only one of the options in the wider co-creation toolbox for collaboration and inclusion.

Our own favourite co-creation definition comes from the creative strategy consultancy, Sense Worldwide who write that co-creation ‘is the practice of looking outside an organisation to collaboratively create ideas, products and services with clued-in consumers, creative individuals or people with particularly relevant skills.’ In short, co-creation is collaborative creation.  It isn’t about jolly brainstorms and flip charts, but rather about channelled creative energy – using well-planned tasks to meet a business challenge in a smart and structured way.

A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter and Gamble, had no doubts about the importance of the consumer. He embedded co-creation firmly within the business:” “You have to innovate with the customer, involve the customer early in the innovation process and keep them involved, co-creating and co-designing with you throughout.” Co-creation principles are now used in many other major innovation, insight and marketing departments around the world including Nestle, Mars and Unilever.

Co-creation is gaining in popularity. And it’s easy to see why. Simply put, it is a faster, more effective and cost efficient way of working – and one that reduces risk while also enhancing the chances of success. The creative process and co-creation is a match made in heaven. Why?  Co-creation enables thinking outside the box, bouncing around ideas, playing with colour, words, imagery and so much more. Yet many brand strategy and brand design consultancies are not exactly rushing to adopt a co-creation approach. We think there are three key misconceptions behind these organisations’ reluctance to adopt co-creation:

1. “Market research derails creativity”

Any brand design consultancy can wistfully list superb ideas and concepts that were murdered by consumer research and sent to the great creative graveyard. It’s safe to say that the brand design industry’s experience of consumer involvement in the creative process has not been particularly positive. Andy Knowles from JKR highlights the issue in Research World: ‘We have witnessed, (suffered), a complete reversal of the conclusion about a proposed design by reversing the order of questioning between groups. Same moderator, same design, same competitive set, same demographic group; rejected out of hand by the early groups, lauded to the heavens by the later.’

One of the fundamental issues is when in the creative process consumers should be brought in. The Big Picture Design Research – one of the most respected agencies among brand strategists and designers – describes a common problem: ‘…research brought in at the last moment, as judge and jury, long after major decisions about the design approach have been made, an approach which inevitably results in many research debriefs that are seen to put the brakes on the creative process, rather than inspiring it’. It’s a bleak vision, but these issues that can be easily solved by bringing consumers in to co-create at the start, rather than giving them the final say-so at the end of a long and complex project.

Another problem in concept evaluation research arises when positioning or designs are rejected, not due to the idea itself, but because of something as simple as the wrong tone of voice, the loss of a key visual brand equity or the wrong colour clues. Consumers find it very difficult to dissect what it is about a positioning and design that is or is not working for them. There are just too many variables.  Instead, they often try to start designing or reworking ideas.

In fact, co-creation can mean that consultancies no longer need to fear client initiated consumer evaluation research being used as judge and jury on ideas and concepts. By decoding a brand or category at the very start of a project, a lot of the more practical communications issues that could arise later and derail a positioning or design concept are highlighted, solved or noted to avoid. Examples of these issues include the wrong hierarchy of communication, an un-engaging brand story or unappetising composition/imagery. Using co-creation at the start of a project means that consumer evaluation can be used to check that the right communication objectives have been achieved from the word go.

It is fair to say that working with consumers via the traditional research route is one of the key reasons that consumers are considered ‘an unnecessary evil’ by the brand positioning and design industry. There are many factors, but none of them are actually the fault of the consumer. The resistance to the co-creation strategy boils down to many research agencies and client insight managers misunderstanding brand design, as well as when in the process the consumer is involved and what research methodologies are employed.

2. “Resulting creative briefs are limiting and restrictive – I don’t want to paint by numbers.”

Many designers fear that consumers will take away their creativity and intuition, leaving them with a design-by-committee brief. Reach creative director Mark Rylands has a very different experience: “Our briefs deliver the exact opposite. Consumers want to be emotionally engaged. This feeds into our briefs and designers feed of off emotion. The inspiration and focus that co-creation brings to the development of the brief enables our creatives to springboard off into a rich world of ideas.” Mark believes that creativity is ultimately served far better by a brief that eliminates the number of variables and gives a clear rationale for the goal.

He also values the early indication of success that closer collaboration with consumers can bring: “With co-creation, our designers have the confidence to know that their concepts will be spot on. Working with consumers upfront gives them the clear direction they need – and a solid evaluation criteria to benchmark their ideas against – so they know that they’re guaranteed success. At other consultancies, full-blown design concepts are often used to explore the brief. This means that designers can end up seeing their efforts tossed aside through no fault of their own.”

Far from relegating designers to ‘painting by numbers’, providing it is done in the right way, co-creation delivers a more rewarding creative process for designers.

3. “I know what I’m doing.”

The elephant in the room can be summed up in one word: ego.  The fact is that many brand strategy and brand design consultancies contain directors with large egos, especially on the creative side.
Posturing has no place in co-creation, which rests on teamwork, finding the best solution and doing whatever is takes to deliver great results for the client. Consumers are the missing cog in the in the client-agency wheel.
Co-creation is about adding a fresh perspective and creating inspiration. We work with consumers to help define the brief and the visual brand strategy. They don’t do our job for us – but they do help us to create an inspirational springboard that’s of great value to creatives of all shapes and sizes – whether in advertising, promotion, PR or elsewhere. Marketing has changed and there is no longer a place for big egos and creative isolation.


Working in this way co-creatively, has proved extremely productive for Reach. We often end up in places we never knew existed, asking questions that we never thought to ask. Co-creation is an exciting way to engage with consumers and to discover the truth about brands and their design communication. The consumer insights we have been able to uncover have resulted in clients asking us to tackle communication challenges that have nothing to do with brand design, such as new brand development, appetite appeal in a category or NPD workshops. In fact, just over 40% of our projects stop at the creative strategy stage and the resulting briefs are then implemented by our client’s incumbent agencies. This has meant a change to our business model and an attempt at a new description for what we do. Reach now describes its main speciality as visual brand strategy.

Far from being a creativity-killer and unnecessary evil, consumers have been our secret weapon. Co-creation is not merely compatible with brand design, it vastly improves the success of projects – in terms of effectiveness, time, money and confidence.

We recommend that everyone goes forth and co-creates…

By Natalie Reed, Strategy Partner at Reach
Contact Natalie