What is the IKEA Effect?

In the 1950s, the Betty Crocker brand was in crisis. They needed to sell more of their instant cake mixes. The product seemed like a winner — just add water, and you’ll have a delicious cake, ready to bake.

But sales struggles led parent company General Mills to seek outside help. Ernest Dichter, the “father of motivational research,” came in to assist.

Dichter discovered that a totally instant cake mix was too easy. Home bakers of the time felt it undervalued the skill of making a cake. “Remove the powdered egg,” Dichter advised, “and have bakers add a fresh egg themselves. Give the baker more ownership of the final result." Puzzled but desperate, General Mills reworked the recipe.

When adding an egg, bakers felt more involved in the process. Soon, sales of Betty Crocker’s semi-instant cake mix were through the roof. All because they asked customers to become co-creators of an instant mix cake. (source)

But why did this solution work so well? It’s down to a behavioral science principle known as the IKEA Effect.

What is the IKEA Effect?

Coined by researchers at Harvard, the IKEA Effect states that people attribute more value to products they’ve helped create.

In an excerpt from their research, the team describes the results of the experiment.

“Two groups were given IKEA boxes, with one group given fully-assembled versions, and the other given unassembled boxes, which they were told to put together. This second group were willing to pay much more for their box during the subsequent bidding process than those with pre-assembled boxes.”
Harvard Research on the IKEA Effect

Source: Harvard Business School (Credit: Harvard Business School/CC BY 4.0)

Customer co-creation can take many forms: assembling the finished product, coming up with new product ideas, solving problems, or even designing technical solutions.

Examples of companies that use co-creation include:

1. Hello Fresh

Photo by Brandless on Unsplash

The most popular meal kit delivery service in the U.S., Hello Fresh sends customers a recipe and ingredients for a delicious meal. Then customers use the kit to cook their dinner.

With 2.4 million international subscribers, Hello Fresh has turned meal co-creation into big business.

2. LEGO

On their open innovation platform, LEGO IDEAS, the brand gives customers a chance to submit product ideas. The community then votes for their favorites, and LEGO produces the kits.

The IDEAS platform is credited with helping turn LEGO into a culturally relevant and profitable business.

Source: LEGO IDEAS

3. Build-a-Bear Workshop

Source: New York Times, “Build-A-Bear Goes High Tech

Build-a-Bear, a customizable stuffed animal shop, allows children to co-create plush toys. Build-A-Bear has an eight-step personalization process: “Choose Me, Hear Me, Stuff Me, Stitch Me, Fluff Me, Dress Me, Name Me, and Take Me Home.”

Harvard researchers Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely describe the process this way:

“Build-a-Bear offers people the ‘opportunity’ to construct their own teddy bears, charging customers a premium even as they foist assembly costs onto them.”

The strategy is clearly working. Build-a-Bear has sold more than 160 million plush animals since the company started in 1997.

Does Co-Creation Impact the Bottom Line?

To understand how co-creation impacts business performance, consulting firm Iris created a Participation Brand Index

According to Iris, brands that use co-creation methods “are outperforming the competition without outspending them.” The financial return of these companies is strong. For example:

  • Investing in the top 20 brands in the Participation Brand Index over three years would have seen 4x higher ROI than investing in the brands at the bottom of the ranking.
  • Investing in the top 10 brands in the Participation Brand Index over three years would yield a return 2x higher than the S&P 500.

The bottom line

Customer co-creation is proven to make customers value your product, pay more for it, and become more attached to your CX. Look for small ways to integrate it into your experience. Ask yourself:

  1. If there’s a problem area in your product or retail experience, ask yourself if customers can be more involved in the process. Do they feel left out, like there’s no transparency, control or participation?
  2. Are we clearly framing the co-creation as a way for people to add value, and not as a way for the brand to save time or money?
  3. Can we provide personalization options early in the experience to give customers a sense of ownership?

You don’t have bet the farm on co-creation to see its impact. Instead, run a small experiment using co-creation elements and learn from it.

If applied correctly, the IKEA Effect can unlock untold value for your brand.


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