More companies turn to consumers for next big idea

Online interactio­ns are the holy grail

- By Bruce Horovitz USA TODAY

Marketing strategy uses social media to let consumers pick — even create — new products. It also keeps people engaged with the brand.

When Baskin-Robbins launches its newest ice cream flavor in June, it won’t be one that was whipped up in the ice cream icon’s supersecre­t test kitchen.

This one was concocted by a 62-year-old grandmothe­r of four. And she did it online.

“When I wake up on June 1st,” says Diane Sroga, the Chicago resident and profession­al numbers cruncher who created the flavor, “I’ll probably stop at Baskin-Robbins before I go to work — just to make sure it’s real.”

Once she sees it on sale, she says, she’ll know it’s not some dream. Sroga is one of more than 40,000 consumers who competed in an online contest to create the chain’s next flavor — and her Bunches of Crunches concoction (since renamed Toffee Pecan Crunch) won out. She is part of a new breed of consumer who has combined talent, digital media and moxie to move from the sidelines to the playing field of product creation.

In a world where consumers demand to call

the shots, savvy marketers increasing­ly are finding ways to let them do just that — even in the creation of products. Mountain Dew was among the first to let consumers become fully involved in its product creations, even letting them help design new bottles and cans. More recently, Lands’ End let two kids — ages 9 and 11 — design T-shirts that it sold online.

It’s one thing to let consumers create brand commercial­s — as Doritos and Pepsi have done in recent Super Bowls — but it’s something else entirely to ask folks to concoct a product that could conceivabl­y be their Next Big Thing. One thing’s for sure: Companies aren’t doing it just to be nice.

They’re doing it to keep consumers engaged with the brand. They’re doing it in response to social-media-wise consumers who demand to have a direct say in the products that companies make. And they’re doing it because a growing number of brands recognize that some of the best ideas come from outside, not in.

“It’s a provocativ­e idea to let the consumer have the keys to the castle,” says Amy Cotteleer, president of A Squared Group, which specialize­s in experiment­al marketing. “But people are demanding that they have unfettered access to the brands and products they use.”

By letting real consumers play a hands-on role in creating products, the big brands are giving their best customers plenty to chirp — well, tweet — about. Beyond that, Cotteleer says, as each company looks for what’s “next,” there’s increasing realizatio­n that — unless you’re Apple — the answer might not be within the company’s own doors.

Not that this world of new product transparen­cy comes without risks. It does. Over time, it could create an odd sense of consumer entitlemen­t. In other words, once you open the virtual doors to your new-products lab, it can be hard to close them. Even tougher, says Cotteleer, is figuring out how to maintain it in a “long-term, talk-worthy way.”

Which, in part, is why BaskinRobb­ins, one of the world’s largest ice cream chains, launched its Baskin-Robbins Online Flavor Creation Contest last fall. And it’s gearing up for its second such contest.

“What better way to learn about what consumers are interested in?” says Brian O’Mara, vice president of marketing at Baskin-Robbins USA. Consumers, in fact, are constantly sending Baskin-Robbins ideas for new products — hundreds and hundreds every year — which the chain can’t accept for legal reasons. But under the rules of this contest — and the limitation­s of using only the ingredient­s now used at Baskin-Robbins — we “gave consumers an avenue to submit their ideas,” says O’Mara.

Which is precisely what Sroga did. She remembers receiving an e-mail — out of the blue — about the contest. She received it because she had previously registered her grandchild­ren to receive free Baskin-Robbin ice cream cones on their birthdays.

“I’d never entered a contest of any type,” she says.

But this one interested her because she’s an ice cream junkie and every summer makes homemade ice cream with peaches she picks from the tree in her backyard.

So, during one lunch hour at work, she concocted a recipe online using the ingredient­s she loves most: chocolate, nuts and caramel. What she ultimately created, she says, “sounded more like a chocolate candy turtle.”

Shortly after submitting the entry, she forgot about it. But about a month later, she received an e-mail from BaskinRobb­ins informing her she was among the 10 finalists — one of which was to be selected by consumers through an online vote. A month later, she received a phone call at home that she’d won the whole shebang. The company brought her and her husband to its Boston headquarte­rs and filmed her mixing a batch of her creation. It also gave her hundreds of dollars in free ice cream certificat­es.

“I’m still surprised by it,” she says. But Sroga says she knows exactly what Baskin-Robbins is up to. “It really is possible for an everyday person to come up with something that a company might be looking for.”

Ron Buckman considers himself an everyday person. The res- ident of Fraser, Mich., is 24, and he’s a sales guy at an Apple retail store at the local mall. But there’s one thing he loves even more than computers: Mountain Dew.

“As soon as I was allowed to drink pop, I was drinking Mountain Dew,” he says. He still drinks at least one a day, he says, and admits to occasional­ly using it as a mixer with alcohol. So it’s no surprise that he became an active fan on Mountain Dew’s Facebook page.

But this might be a surprise: He not only helped select the flavor of a recent Mountain Dew drink, he also named it. This was all linked to Mountain Dew’s DEWmocracy campaign that was aimed at giving consumers a say in product creation. Last year, consumers picked one permanent flavor from three limited-time flavors.

Because of Buckman’s constant activity on Mountain Dew’s Facebook page, Buckman was invited by the brand to be a member of its Dew Labs team. That’s a group of Mountain Dew enthusiast­s who get to chat amongst themselves online and help create Mountain Dew products. Some even become veritable product guinea pigs — sent test products in advance and asked for detailed comment.

One such citrus product that Buckman was sent last year — along with several other potential flavors that he was shipped in a FedEx box — he rechristen­ed White Out. He loved the flavor so much that he lobbied other Mountain Dew enthusiast­s to buy into it and vote for it over the two other flavors in the running. He even got actor Ashton Kutcher to help him promote the flavor via Twitter. His efforts won out. White Out’s been on shelves since October as a permanent flavor.

“Just having a product that I named come to fruition is awesome,” says Buckman, who was not paid for his efforts, although he did get to appear very briefly in a commercial for the new flavor.

He knows the score. Mountain Dew didn’t let him “inside” just for fun. “Companies are smart to let consumers interact and make decisions,” he says. “It’s also free advertisin­g,” when consumers chat about it online, he adds.

Now, Mountain Dew executives want to take it to the next stage. They’re trying to figure out a way to let consumers be more physically hands on in product creation. In other words: actually mixing the next brew.

While Mountain Dew isn’t ready to let consumers inside its new-product labs, it is trying to figure out a way within the next few years to bring the labs to them, says Brett O’Brien, director of marketing for the brand. It’s looking into creating mobile labs, on wheels, that it would send to events, such as snowboardi­ng competitio­ns or summer festivals, where consumers could step in and mix ingredient­s. “That would be the next step in consumer interactio­n,” says Buckman. “They’d be building the products with us.”

But consumer involvemen­t doesn’t have to be that complex. Just ask Riley O’Callaghan. She was 9 years old last year when she opened up a Lands’ End catalog and saw something about a contest for kids to design a Lands’ End T-shirt. She may have been but a fourthgrad­er at the time, but she had dreams of becoming a cartoonist. This contest seemed like a decent way for the Gaithersbu­rg, Md., resident to find out if her cartooning was a dream — or a skill.

Riley followed the contest instructio­ns and sent in a cartoon picture that she drew of a penguin. After hearing nothing for several weeks, she figured she was out of the running. Then, two months later, a letter arrived at her house telling her that she’d won. Besides the ego boost of getting her design on a newT-shirt, she also wona $500 gift card and $1,000 for her school.

Never mind that the family had only recently moved to the area and Riley was a new student. A school assembly was held in her honor. It was pretty cool, she says, when a Lands’ End staffer placed the $1,000 check in the school principal’s hands. Riley had never seen the actual T-shirt that she drew — except on paper. That’s when the staffer walked over and placed the T-shirt in Riley’s hands. When she held it up, cheers erupted.

At her school, the $16.50 Tshirt was a best seller. Even her teacher bought one. It didn’t sell so badly online, either. Within two months, it sold out, says Lands’ End spokeswoma­n Michele Casper.

 ?? By Todd Rosenberg, Todd Rosenberg Photograph­y ?? Ummm, tasty: Diane Sroga won a Baskin-Robbins contest by coming up with a new flavor.
By Todd Rosenberg, Todd Rosenberg Photograph­y Ummm, tasty: Diane Sroga won a Baskin-Robbins contest by coming up with a new flavor.
 ?? By Jack Gruber, USA TODAY ?? Winner: Riley O'Callaghan, now10, designed the winning T-shirt in a Lands' End contest for kids.
By Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Winner: Riley O'Callaghan, now10, designed the winning T-shirt in a Lands' End contest for kids.
 ??  ?? White out: Ron Buckman helped give new Mountain Dew flavor its name and its fame.
White out: Ron Buckman helped give new Mountain Dew flavor its name and its fame.

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