Several years ago, Andy Mooney went to Fender, his favorite maker of electric guitars, to build a customized instrument from scratch. He positioned the neck, fingerboard, and strings exactly where he wanted them. For the body, he picked colors he loved—a combination of cream, white, and gold. He was so smitten with the finished product that he named it after his daughter, Rose.
When Mooney became Fender’s CEO in 2015, after a career in executive positions at Nike and Disney, he made Fender’s customization program a priority. The new concept, called Mod Shop, is a digital platform that allows customers to design their own guitar online, choosing from a curated selection of colors and materials. It launched in August 2016 and since then, more than 18,000 guitars have been sold, ranging in price from approximately $1,650 to $1,800.
Mooney knows a thing or two about bespoke products. Back in the late 1990s, when he was chief marketing officer at Nike, he helped execute the NikeiD program, which allowed customers to build their own sneakers from scratch. They could pick unique combination of colors for the soles, tongue, laces, and upper. Including a premium of about $50, the final shoe cost roughly $200 and was delivered within three to six weeks. Originally, only one model could be customized, but today, you can personalize any one of eight different styles on the website. Nike was among the first fashion brands to mass-market customizable products, a complex logistical feat that required creating a special web platform and rethinking the supply chain.
Now, almost two decades later, customization is almost a given. Many companies offer the option, including luxury shoe makers Jimmy Choo, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Manolo Blahnik, as well as mass market brands like Vans, Timberland, and Converse (which is part of Nike). Gucci, Opening Ceremony, Longchamp, TimBuk2—they’re just the tip of the fashion industry’s customizable iceberg.
But made-to-order is an expensive proposition. In 2015, Burberry shut down its Bespoke program (which allowed clients to chose among 12 million options to adapt trench coats to their tastes), reportedly because the company was unable to manage the complexity of the operation. Now Burberry offers a much simpler platform called the Scarf Bar, which invites you to pick the patterns on your scarf and embroider it with your initials.
Mooney, who has had a front row seat to watching the customization revolution unfold, shares his insights and advice about the process.
The first step is to figure out what your customers want out of personalized products. It’s not necessarily worth investing in an elaborate customization platform if it isn’t going to have positive effects on your business in a significant way.
Mooney uses the NikeiD program as an example. It was, he argues, crucial to Nike’s survival. “The genesis for Nike was that the brand was becoming omnipresent,” he says. “The risk that you run when you are de facto [a leader] in the fashion industry is that the tastemakers turn away from your brand and go on to something else that allows them to be distinctive.” In other words, lose the interest of high-profile consumers like celebrities and athletes and you could be in trouble.
Mooney, who was CFO of Nike UK and then CMO at Nike, wasn’t expecting the program to become a cash cow. “We never really had grand aspirations for it to be a big revenue-generating business or a big profit-making business,” he says. “But we felt that it was very important to create a connecting tissue to those tastemakers.”
When developing Fender’s Mod Shop, one key factor was Mooney’s strong belief that musicians are underserved, even though playing an instrument is a very personal experience. “They can never walk in a store and find exactly what they want,” he says. “They’re lucky to find a left-handed guitar to begin with, and to find one in the color and the neck composition they want is almost impossible.” A player’s physiology can impact how comfortable they are playing their guitar, which is particularly relevant for working musicians on the road. Giving customers the option to change aspects of the design and construction of their instrument, he reasoned, was a way to ensure they had a positive experience with the brand.
Mooney believes that if if there is a genuine need in the market for a bespoke product, customization programs can help the bottom line and promote growth. NikeiD, for instance, now brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And so far, the Mod Shop program has been popular.
Once the goal has been defined, the next order of business is streamlining the supply chain. According to Mooney, the customization process is much easier if you have control over manufacturing. Fender has a factory in Corona, California, and trained craftsmen who can get to work on the guitars as soon as an order is placed online. The customer receives the guitar within 30 days.
Mooney says it isn’t impossible to customize products when working with an outside manufacturing company. Nike contracted the work out, but because the corporation had such good relationships with these manufacturers, the NikeiD program ran smoothly.
This strategy can also work for smaller companies, too. If you build strong long-term relationships with the people who make your products and give them a stable stream of business, the possibility of a more complex project doesn’t have to be off the table. This may also mean partnering with them to invest in new equipment or infrastructure. If they understand that you’re in it for the long hall, they might well come along for the ride.
Customization can lead to chaos if consumers have too many options. Limiting those options is valuable from a manufacturing perspective because it helps streamline operations. The factory stocks a certain number of component parts and reconfigures them to client’s specifications.
But this strategy is equally vital so the customer does not get overwhelmed. With the Mod Shop, for instance, a client can has 70,000 variations to chose from, including fingerboards and pickups. If Fender gave customers free rein to alter every part of a guitar, they would have 1.3 million choices. “That’s about 1.2 million options too many for me,” Mooney says.
The same was true at Nike. The fundamental structure of the shoe stayed the same, but customers could personalize enough parts to feel like they were investing in a unique sneaker, entirely their own. “The reality of what we are offering is variations on a theme,” Mooney says. “You’re dealing with existing midsoles and existing outsoles.”
Ultimately, this is important from a branding perspective. If customers can change a product’s every last component, that product may not even look like your brand at all. It’s important to have a set of quickly identifiable silhouettes or design language. For Fender, the classic guitar shape always stays the same. At Nike, it’s the basic outline of the sneaker.
“The age of brands is far from over,” Mooney says. “But the brands that thrive are the ones that offer the customer an elevated level of service, which often means giving them the option to create a product that is perfectly suited to their needs and is one of a kind.”