Unintended Consequences: How Consumer Misuse Can Boost Sales

The maker of Mentos saw dollar signs with the user discovery that the candy exploded in Diet Coke. You should encourage consumers to tinker with your products.

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The year a chemistry teacher demonstrated on the "Late Show" that you could create a soda geyser several feet high by dropping Mentos into Diet Coke, the maker of the candy, Perfetti Van Melle, saw sales spike nearly 20 percent.

Oddly enough, all the effort a company might invest in market research, its next great product or marketing idea might come from a customer tinkering with the product. You can call this consumer misuse, but a positively-framed term is "bricolage," derived from a French word for making creative use of something other than for its intended purpose.

Related: Why You Should Let Customers Help Mold Your Company

To leverage misuse constructively and successfully, companies must understand the reasons why customers are motivated to use their products in new and unexpected ways and the contexts within which such behaviors are likely to emerge. Through this visualization, companies should also think through how they would then translate it into innovation across product development and marketing.

For Mentos, success came from more than just the one-time exposure on national television. Company managers encouraged user-generated video uploads to YouTube, and along with Coca-Cola, they even signed popular video makers to help them create more.

The bricolage concept can be seen across industries. Brands including North Face, REI and Patagonia have always marketed to outdoor adventurists, but they have grown revenue by finding ways to take advantage of the "wilderness chic" fashion trend among average consumers. They have done this carefully by embracing new customers in ways that has not diluted their core brand's appeal.

When it comes to innovation, research has suggested that customers can sometimes bring about more creative and useful concepts than a company's own professionals. While this has the potential to speed innovation and reduce its cost, the potential may not be realized because customer suggestions may be harder to produce or implement. However, having a constrained functional environment can be a key element to leveraging this type of misuse.

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As an example, back in 1998 eBay was known for selling collectibles such as Beanie Babies and PEZ dispensers for an average price of $3.50, so trying to sell a Ferrari 365 GT for $35,000 through its auction platform could be seen as a case of customer misbehavior. But insightful executives saw an opportunity, leading to the creation of eBay Motors, which has grossed billions in sales.

This was also the case at Facebook, where being able to observe misuse of traditional Facebook profiles within the constrained functional environment of the social network led to innovations such as Facebook "Groups," "Events" and "Pages." These innovations came at a crucial period of growth for the company amid competition from other social networks.

It's even easier for companies in the digital world to explore ways consumers might want to use their product. Software and games can be updated with automatic downloads. The rate at which developers can change their product only enhances the ability for quick customization and adaptation of new consumer uses for their products.

Take Minecraft for instance. The smash-hit game is nothing more than a virtual world for building things such as castles, roller coasters or whatever the user wants. At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew, users began to work together and create imaginative worlds. Players of the game were the main components of innovation, and the freedom that Minecraft allows users helped create the third-best selling computer game ever.

As consumers, we are attracted to these innovative companies that turn misuse into bricolage because they enable our enjoyment of the very best ideas from the creative consumers among us.

Related: Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes: User Feedback Is Everything

Kalle Lyytinen and Michael Fisher
Kalle Lyytinen and Michael T. Fisher are co-authors of The Power of Customer Misbehavior. Lyytinen is associate dean for research and Iris S. Wolstein professor of management design at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. Fisher is an adjunct professor in the Design & Innovation Department at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management and co-founding partner in the growth and scalability advisory firm AKF Partners. Follow them on Twitter: @kallelyy and @MikeFisher_AKF.

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