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Brand democracy: Established brands tiptoe into crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are a hit with start-ups in the industry, but can bigger and more established brands take advantage too?

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This story is brought to you in partnership with the Outdoor Industry Association.

Smaller, start-up outdoor brands continue the trend of collecting feedback from consumers during early product development. Instead of waiting to test the waters at retail, companies such as Kammok garner consumer opinion via social media, crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding throughout the product’s creation. Other businesses, such as Beyond Clothing, go so far as to offer completely custom gear, known as metailing. But are these methods too farfetched for bigger, well-established outdoor companies? SNEWS caught up with several deep-rooted brands to find out.

Controlled crowdsourcing
In spring 2014, the hydration pack and equipment company Ultimate Direction, part of the American Rec family, used crowdsourcing to launch the Jenny Collection, the first-ever female-tailored line of hydration gear. Unlike non-traditional crowdsourcing — which essentially collects unbounded, volunteered opinions — UD took a somewhat controlled, yet grassroots, approach to the initiative.

Behind the scenes, 10 women were invited onto a local prototype-testing team dubbed the “Women’s Collective,” in January 2013. Product designer and ultrarunner Jenny Jurek was elected to lead the development, thus becoming the face-and-name of the project. The remaining tester-pool accrued via word of mouth — each participant was an “active runner” — ranging from the recreational jogger that logs several miles a week to professional racer Michele Yates, who won the 100-mile Run Rabbit Run race in 2013.

The group’s breadth of perspectives resulted in products that befit an array of athletes, from ultrarunners to recreationalists, said American Rec Public Relations Manager Scott Kaier. Plus, it was advantageous for women to test the gear and provide direct feedback, because the UD team is male dominated.

“We saw an opportunity in the market to create a complete line of women’s specific hydration,” Kaier said. “[But], the majority of our team are male runners, so to be able to do justice to a women’s collection, we wanted to get as much input, feedback and direction from female runners as possible.”

In such cases where the brand’s identity, product goal, and consumer are well defined, streamlined crowdsourcing can be a more efficient and effective strategy than widespread solicitation.

A clicking clock
One challenge to crowdsourcing, be it controlled or broad, is that it takes more time to synthesize a myriad of opinions than it does to have one viewpoint steer the design.

“[Crowdsourcing] takes time — dictatorships are the most efficient, but deliver the worst results,” Ultimate Direction Brand Manager Buzz Burrell said.

Collecting a splay of opinions can split hairs when designers are searching for a universal solution or fit that works for everyone. But ultimately, taking the time to consider and fuse together that collective beta has huge benefits.

“Distilled to its essence, the object of all product development is to give the consumer what they want. So, if you deliberately ask them first, and even involve them in the process, you should be successful,” Burrell said.

Who’s got the best beat on the consumer?
Some product designers at the larger brands are skeptical of using more modern pretailing methods such as social media or other online platforms, because it could be difficult to hone in specific, legitimate feedback regarding fit and feel versus superficial comments regarding appearance and color. Others point out that they just don’t need to.

“We’ve been around for a long time,” explained Osprey Marketing Director Gareth Martins. “The bottom line for us is that rather than using crowdsourcing to learn what our customers want, we already have a strong connection with our customer.”

Osprey has had 40 years to develop its customer service department and attends consumer events annually, Martins explained. Social media conversations via Facebook and Twitter — which frequently begin regarding Osprey’s lifetime guarantee policy — do often evolve into valuable product feedback. But, as a company with an established customer and financial base, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding aren’t critically useful.

“For a small start-up company getting funding to develop an innovative, new product depends on whether or not they can get things going,” Martins said. “For us, we’re a successful and financially solvent company, so really our core is to look at categories and listen to ongoing demand for what types of product we should be bringing to market, and we’re able to do that without tapping into something like crowdsourcing to afford it.”

Unlike companies at the starting block, big brands can pull data from an already-made queue of successes and failures. Also, pairing up with athletic icons, which —beyond mutual endorsement opportunities — allows designers to tap into the insight of those with the most experience.

“It’s no secret that outdoor specialty is teeming with great athletes who know product and consumers better than anyone,” said Jeff Dill, Keen Footwear’s outdoor business unit director. Targeted groups of ambassadors, athletes and retailers provide more focused input, Dill explained. Case in point, KEEN’s spring 2015 Zambezi sandal is being created from the feedback of whitewater guides and kayakers, which need the protection of a Class 6 but a more-open upper. Plus, those suggestions are backed by the individual’s experience.

Progress isn’t cookie-cutter
Not every consumer will relate to a pro-athlete, however. In a less controlled platform, Keen collected feedback and suggestions from people all over the world to make alterations on the Durand. “The result is one of the best hiking boots we have ever produced,” Dill said. “So, I could argue that crowdsourcing is an effective tool, if the people that make the crowd up are users of the products.”

And while bigger and more established companies often offer customizable products, SNEWS hasn’t heard from any that are metailing — at the moment.

Still in discussion, Osprey is brainstorming a direct online portal for customers to design their own pack. “The ability to completely customize a pack for an individual would allow for some incredible innovations across the line, and our technology platform is ready for that,” Martins said. “It could be a really interesting way of melding the feedback that we already get.”

–Morgan Tilton

How is your brand reaching out to the consumer to help design and develop new products? Let us know by commenting below or emailing us at