Throughout history, innovative solutions have often come out from unaddressed needs, unsolved problems, and unpatched holes in the market. Companies and businesses of all industries have invested a great deal into developing countless products. However, it is still nearly impossible to develop a single solution that works best for everyone.
On the other hand, customers have first-hand experience with all sorts of products. They know what features are necessary but missing and sometimes develop a workaround to alleviate issues. In the last decade, a growing number of companies have turned to their customers’ ideas and insights for new product designs through open innovation practices, known as crowdsourcing. Here are just a few.
In 2014 at an iMedia Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, Olga Patel (the former senior manager of Open Innovation at Mattel, the parent company of Fisher-Price), shared a story about how the brand’s Little People line of toys benefited from crowdsourcing. Thanks to a collection of ideas gathered from its social network, Fisher-Price was able to create new characters from the toy line in a matter of four weeks and with a budget of $10,000. Had the brand used a conventional design approach, it would have taken several months and cost at least $50,000.
Although Mattel presumably still handled the manufacturing, quality control, and most of the marketing, the amount of saving in both time and money demonstrated the true potential of crowdsourcing. As a bonus, the direct collaboration with customers encouraged them to promote the products. Those who proposed the ideas became unofficial brand ambassadors eager to get involved in the marketing campaign through word-of-mouth strategy.
Launched in early 2018, Co-Create IKEA is a digital platform that focuses on gathering ideas from customers and collaborating with university students on product solutions. IKEA started the crowdsourcing campaign by first inviting IKEA FAMILY members to co-create new products before opening up to the world.
The company may license the technology for every viable product design or offer investment. Since the promise comes from the world’s largest furniture retailer, it is a massive incentive not only for subscribers but the professional community as well. Participants are eligible for financial rewards if their ideas meet IKEA’s standards and are selected for further development. Co-Create IKEA has so far channeled countless ideas from the public to the company for new products or variations on existing ones.
A similar yet unofficial crowdsourcing platform called IKEA Hackers actually predates the official version by more than a decade. The site launched in 2006 and has been home to furniture modifiers all around the web.
In June 2010, General Electric, in collaboration with Emerald Technology Ventures, Rockport Capital, Foundation Capital, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, announced a massive innovation competition called the “GE Ecomagination Challenge,” with total prize money of $200 million. The challenge was to propose a technically feasible idea on how to improve America’s smart grid technology. Over a ten-week period, the competition generated nearly 4,000 ideas from 1,600 companies and many individuals based in 150 countries. GE was willing to provide an initial investment of $45 million for a dozen winning ideas. The rest of the money would be from the venture capital firm partners.
In November, GE announced the winners. Some winning ideas included a lightweight inflatable wind turbine, an intelligent water meter capable of generating its own power, a wind turbine with a de-icing feature so that it never slows down, and electric grids with precise control of flow and power to prevent outages.
At a time when modern crowdsourcing was still in its infancy, Intel Corporation took an early leap of faith in the newly refreshed open-collaboration practice by launching a worldwide competition in 2008 in the search for technology that could improve the global need for education, environment, healthcare, and economic development. The intention was to provide an incentive for individuals and organizations to come up with clever methods of applying technology to solve problems in the four areas of interest.
During the eight months that the competition was open, Intel received more than 200 submissions from individuals, non-profit organizations, NGOs, universities, and companies in 44 countries. Two of the four winning ideas were:
- Mobile Solar Computer Classroom: solar-powered computers for schools in under-developed countries/areas with limited access to IT applications.
- Cellscope: a telemicroscopy application that converts the camera on a cellphone into a microscope to monitor diseases like malaria.
Prize money was $100,000 in development funding for a winner in each category.
On Zazzle, an online marketplace where customers can create their own products or collaborate with company partners, Disney has its own merchandising page. Outside of that page, but on the same website, there are more than 100,000 products anybody can buy. It is not clear whether all are officially licensed merchandise. Despite the confusion, any of the unofficial Disney-related items are essentially the products of a successful crowdsourcing campaign because they are for sale anyway.
Threadless, a crowdsourced apparel manufacturer, has also sponsored design contests for Disney brands since 2010. For Disney, the competition is an effective marketing strategy to make their characters relevant to adult fans as well as teenagers and children. For participants, the opportunity to make money by capitalizing on Disney’s popularity is a major motivation.
The largest food company in the world, Nestlé, once crowdsourced ideas for its Milkybar brand on eYeka. Nestlé wanted a new snack that could help strengthen the bond between mothers and children. The challenge was to invent a new treat that contained natural ingredients so that mothers knew they were giving a healthy choice to their kids. Nestlé required participants to propose an entirely new product along with the packaging and presentation. The winner received a $5,000 prize money. Learn more about other Nestlé crowdsourcing opportunities.
Another contest on eYeka sponsored by a large food company ran between 2014 and 2015. This time the sponsor was PepsiCo, as the company searched for three new snack ideas in the following themes:
- Couples & Friends: a snack that would help adults host a successful social reunion.
- Break to Reset: a snack for busy people to eat within a 15-minute break from their job. It had to be refreshing enough to help workers recharge their energy and clear their minds.
- Munching Partner: a snack for working people to eat while sitting in front of their computers without distracting them from their jobs.
Every idea submitted had to be well-presented with illustrations and text. The winner in each category received a $3,000 prize.
8. Hyundai, KIA, and LG
Between June and August 2020, three major companies, Hyundai, KIA, and LG, launched a global competition, EV Open Innovation Challenge, to look for potential collaboration and investments in innovative ideas in the electric vehicle industry. New Energy Nexus, an international start-up support organization, organized the contest. The main focus was on environment-friendly transportation, especially high-performance electric vehicles powered by an efficient battery. Hyundai, KIA, and LG wanted every participant to submit more than just ideas: every submission had to present a validated concept and a functional prototype.
The finalists, 18 of them, have been selected and will go to further develop their proof of concepts. It remains unclear if any of the ideas will make it to Hyundai and KIA production cars.
In collaboration with HYVE Innovation Community, BMW has sponsored a number of open innovation contests since the early 2000s. For the 2013 competition, the automaker asked participants to propose new ideas on how to improve the luggage compartments of BMW vehicles, especially SUVs. Within a month of the contest starting, BMW received more than 750 ideas, with illustrations and texts.
A jury of BMW managers narrowed the submissions down to the three most technically feasible ideas. Winners received prize money of €5,000, €2,500, and €1,000. In addition, BMW invited them to the automaker’s workshop in Munich to see how their ideas work in real-world applications. Learn more about future opportunities at The BMW Crowd Innovation Platform.
An open competition sponsored by Google and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in July 2014 offered prize money of a million dollars to the winner. The challenge was to build a smaller version of the existing power inverter so that the device could fit into home appliances and electronics. A typical power inverter is about the size of a cooler box; by shrinking it down to about one-tenth of the size, many households would be able to benefit from solar energy in a more practical way. The winner, announced about a year later, was a Belgian electrical company called CE+T Power’s Red Electrical Devils. Read more about the Little Box Challenge.
Over the years, McDonald’s has launched a series of “burger builder” crowdsourcing contests in many different countries. One of the most memorable and successful of them all was the “My Burger” campaign in Germany. To join the contest, participants used an online burger configurator, with which they could design and create their own versions of a burger. The campaign generated around 330,000 different variants of burgers with individual names.
About five million people voted; the winner was a burger called the “Pretzelnator.” All McDonald’s across Germany began selling it, starting in late April 2012. The crowdsourcing idea took the world by storm and set an example for McDonald’s in other countries, including Spain and Netherlands, to launch similar campaigns.
Among all the companies on this list, Pebble is the only one that exists thanks to crowdsourcing. Not only does Pebble depend on the crowd for ideas, but it also relies on public investment. Not long after the company made a blistering success with the Pebble Time smartwatch, another crowdsourcing campaign took off to generate engineering concepts for the “smartstrap” feature. Pebble ended up offering an option for its customers to use an electronic strap fitted with sensors that work together with the interface on the smartwatch. As for the investment, Pebble originally pledged $500,000 million funding in a crowdsourced donation (crowdfunding), but it managed to secure more than $20 million at the end of the campaign.
“Project Titan” by Nissan in 2014 was another prime example of how crowdsourcing could have an enormous effect on a company’s popularity. In the first stage of the project, Nissan asked journalists working in outdoor environments to make suggestions about what kind of a pickup truck they would want to use for a demanding job and in what environment the vehicle would be used. Suggestions came through quickly in the form of text messages and videos.
In the second stage, Nissan built a pickup truck based on the best ideas. The company finished making the vehicle in the same year. It used the Nissan Titan as the base vehicle and then implemented some modifications to the engine, suspension, exterior, and interior. The resulting vehicle, known as Nissan Titan PRO-4X, took on the first real-world test drive into the Alaskan wilderness, driven by a pair of Wounded Warrior Project alumni. According to the company, it was the first pickup truck built by the crowdsourcing model.
14. John Deere
Following the footsteps of production car manufacturers, John Deere launched a crowdsourcing campaign of its own, partnering with MindSumo. John Deere wanted a new rotary blade design for a lawnmower, with easy attachment and removal yet durable enough to sustain abuse. The company required participants to submit a detailed description of their ideas with design drawings and mockups. Every submission also had to include a comprehensive manual.
Five winners received $150 prize money. All winners were university students: two of them were from the University of Texas at Austin; the other three were from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Before Intel Corporation launched its crowdsourcing program through the Open Innovation Challenge in 2008, Dell had already embraced the idea of generating ideas from the public with the IdeaStorm platform in 2007. Back in the day, IdeaStorm was nothing more than a suggestion box, but then it was revamped in 2012 into a direct communication channel between customers and Dell.
IdeaStorm generated more than 16,000 ideas from the crowd. According to Dell, about five hundred of them made it to the engineering department and finally actual products. Most were simple tweaks, such as backlit keyboards or refinements to the Linux-based operating system. However, Dell did not say whether the ideas made a difference to sales numbers.
The French automaker once gave the public a chance to contribute to the design of an upcoming car. The Citroën crowdsourcing campaign was launched in 2012 on Facebook, where customers used an app to choose an assortment of features for the company’s new city car. Participants could use the app to make suggestions on six elements of design, including the number of doors, two equipment features, exterior color, interior color, and wheels. At the end of the campaign, Citroën had received 119,000 submissions from 24,000 individuals. The Facebook-crowdsourced car came out as the C1 Connexion, revealed in January 2013.
In March 2013, Budweiser introduced a new beer called the “Black Crown,” the winner of a friendly crowdsource competition “Project 12” that had started a few weeks earlier. The competition called for 12 brewers across the United States to create a new beer for testing by a jury of 25,000 consumers. Budweiser would make the three winning recipes available for sale the next fall. The vast majority voted for three new variants from breweries based in Los Angeles, California; St. Louis, Missouri; and Williamsburg, Virginia. On store shelves, the beers’ batch numbers represented the zip codes of their respective breweries.
When Amazon pulled the plug on its Storywriter and Storybuilder crowdsourcing projects in April 2018, the campaigns had already generated more than 27,000 submissions for both film and TV. In fact, Amazon made available 14 pilots reserved for open innovations and customer feedback. Throughout its seven and a half years of life, the crowdsource welcomed anyone to submit scripts and ideas. Viewers then voted to determine which one to develop into a feature.
Leveraging networks of customers
The whole idea of crowdsourcing is to give customers the leverage they need to contribute to the design process of new products based on their first-hand knowledge and experience as users. For companies, crowdsourcing allows them to utilize an immediate emergence of a legion of new designers without much of a hiring process. Some ideas generated in the crowdsource campaign can be useless, preposterous, or farfetched indeed, but a select few are inevitably insightful, if not groundbreaking, and can be developed further by the internal design team.
How Cad Crowd can Help
With more than 10,000 (and growing) engineers and designers of all disciplines from all around the world, Cad Crowd design services and open innovation contests are more than capable of giving your companies an edge in creating new product concepts and working prototypes. Cad Crowd caters to both small and big projects, so anyone with any budget can launch any design contest here.