The Use of Social Media Hype for Product Co-Creation: 5 Lessons Brand Managers Can Learn From the Unicorn

Ronja Böhlke

The unicorn chocolate by Ritter Sport is a good example of customer co-creation. © Screenshot

The unicorn chocolate by Ritter Sport is a good example of customer co-creation. © Screenshot

In recent years, it has increasingly become a trend for firms to involve customers in the process of idea generation and product development. Well-known exemplary platforms are My Starbucks Idea, Dell’s Idea Storm or Idea Incite, on which McDonalds collects new ideas. However, what sounds simple for a moment is still a much-debated issue, in particular among Brand Managers. Ritter Sport, a famous German chocolatier, has recently introduced a co-creation to its customers and social media followers, a so-called ‘unicorn chocolate’. Reading through Ritter Sport’s success story and our 5 valuable lessons will encourage you to reconsider customer co-creation for your own brand.

Customer co-creation explained

Co-creation occurs, when firms involve customers as partners in the process of product development (Prahalad & Ramaswamy, 2004). They interact with the aim to create joint value (Van Dijk, Antonides & Schillewaert, 2014). By so doing, firms use inflows of knowledge to accelerate innovation (Pee, 2016). So, besides co-creation, the terms open innovation or co-innovation are often used in a similar manner. By way of example, Starbucks introduced the Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew a couple of months ago. The coffee house developed the beverage as customers kept suggesting new ideas for a lower calorie option.

Besides idea generation customers can also engage in idea selection or testing (Füller, Bartl, Ernst & Mühlbacher, 2006; Pee, 2016). Co-creation provides you with two options that vary in the degree of control you as a Brand Manager have to cede. Upstream co-creation enormously incorporates the customers’ potential for innovation (Vernette & Hamdi-Kidar, 2013). On the opposite, downstream co-creation rather concentrates on the individually made customer experience with a certain product after the purchase (Vernette & Hamdi-Kidar, 2013).

The emergence of customer co-creation

Customer co-creation is still a relatively new phenomenon. New Media and its digital, pro-active, visible, real-time and ubiquitous network character have favored the spread of joint product development (Hennig-Thurau, Malthouse, Friege, Gensler, Lobschat, Rangaswamy & Skiera, 2010).

Now you would say that the task of branding is exclusively reserved for your Brand Management team. And that only you control the brand and build it in consumers’ minds with the help of marketing activities. This way of thinking is barely compatible with the disruptive features of New Media. To make the concept of co-creation successfully work, you have to be flexible and able to adapt (Fournier & Avery, 2011). If you are willing to try, customers may create value and become an important competitive advantage (Ramaswamy & Gouillart, 2010).

From co-creation to unicorn

You probably wonder how the given information relates to the unicorn, a fabulous creature. You will find out in a couple of minutes. Ritter Sport is one of the most popular confectionery brands in Germany and famous for its quadratic shape. The chocolate manufacturer has a turnover of € 470M and exports to more than a hundred countries (Ritter Sport, 2016).

Ritter Sport has an important online asset, which is an interactive webpage called Sortenkreation (translated: chocolate creation). The platform encourages customers to generate ideas for new products and, in this way, to participate in co-creation. They can choose ingredients, add a description and create a design. Additionally, users can like, comment and share their own or other ideas with friends in social media.

Lately, a chocolate with the logo of Ritter Sport and the given name ‘unicorn glitter’ has randomly made its way through social media. Users all over the web have immensely engaged with these unicorn chocolate posts. The chocolate was a fake, yet it helped Ritter Sport to measure and identify enormous potential for a co-creation with a unicorn theme.

Ritter Sport’s successful formula: co-creation, a unicorn and the power of social media

On 1st of November Ritter Sport unexpectedly introduced a non-fake unicorn chocolate with yoghurt and raspberry-cassis flavor and of course a pink design. You can consider the market launch a smart move, since it was one of the surprisingly many International Unicorn Days and communities in social media virtually met to celebrate the fabulous creature.

Ritter Sport manufactured the unicorn chocolate as a limited edition and announced its launch online in social media. Moreover, its communication agency worked with Influencers to spread the product awareness even more. The results are fabulous, like the unicorn. The chocolate bars were sold out within hours, however the online shop was often unavailable due to server problems. The demand was so extreme that users, who successfully bought a unicorn chocolate bar, resold it on eBay for a price up to 333 times as high as the initial selling price of € 1.99. Prices for the unicorn chocolate bar on eBay vary from € 10 to € 666. 

The unicorn chocolate co-creation was highly priced on eBay. © Screenshot

The unicorn chocolate co-creation was highly priced on eBay. © Screenshot

Because of the high customer demand and the massive eBay commerce, Ritter Sport decided to reproduce 150,000 unicorn chocolate bars and officially restart the sale on 14th of November. However, no customer was able to buy the unicorn chocolate because the website was unavailable again, even though Ritter Sport ensured to improve the server capacities. Only the day after, Ritter Sport managed to fix the problem and the bars were sold out in ten minutes. Ritter Sport counted more than 500 times as many hits on the webpage as on usual days. The unicorn co-creation induced such hype that, according to conversations in social media, some fans have spent 30 hours online without sleep to reload the page every minute. Google Trends illustrates the hype about both Ritter Sport and the unicorn

The interests over time in Ritter Sport (blue line) and the unicorn (translated from German (Einhorn), red line) have their peak on 14th of November, the start of the second sale. © Screenshot

The interests over time in Ritter Sport (blue line) and the unicorn (translated from German (Einhorn), red line) have their peak on 14th of November, the start of the second sale. © Screenshot

5 lessons that make your co-creation a success

So far, so good. We can define 5 essentials from the Ritter Sport case that assist you with the implementation of co-creation for your own brand.

 1.    Move away from the traditional marketing perspective

The first step is to acknowledge that modern marketing has only little in common with the traditional view you tremendously hold on to. The Internet, and in particular social media, are among the greatest inventions in the 20th century and change the way brand management and product development work. Nowadays, users fill various different roles, from a retailer on eBay to a video-producer on YouTube (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2013) to a co-creator of the brand and new products or services. They are no longer passive absorbers (Gensler, Völckner, Lui-Thompinks & Wiertz, 2013).

Yet, co-creation does not work at a moment’s notice. You have to challenge internal structures and beliefs first. Common barriers to successful co-creation are organizational or managerial learning procedures, such as inertia or preference (Woodruff, 1997). Sentences like ‘I like to do it this way’ or ‘This is how we do things’ have to be abandoned from your organization’s vocabulary.

2.    Identify possibilities for co-creation that work with your brand

Once you have successfully overcome the internal barriers, it is your turn to brainstorm possible ways, in which consumers can contribute to the co-creation process. This is important because of two reasons. First, customer co-creation should fit your brand, strategy and goals. Second, if you do not pay attention to customers’ ideas, they may develop negative sentiments (Gebauer, Füller & Pezzei, 2013), which, as a consequence, may also affect your brand.

Ritter Sport manages both. The brand pursues a type of co-creation that fits the strategy but also respects collective customer views, like the shared need for a unicorn chocolate. The degree of participation, in general however, depends on the intrinsic motivation and benefits your customers associate with the co-creation. Benefits are of cognitive, hedonic, social or personal integrative kinds (Vernette & Hamdi-Kidar, 2013).

3.    Give your customers a voice and listen to them

You can either collaborate with your customers in generating ideas for co-creation, in selecting ideas or in both. Idea generation collects valuable inflows of knowledge about current customer needs and wants. The selected idea, then, highlights what the collective finds most appealing. Therefore co-creation enables you to develop innovative products that fit the consumption needs and sell better, respectively (Pee, 2016).

In the case of Ritter Sport, two events made the brand listen and realize a tremendous consumption need. First, users liked and shared the fake unicorn chocolate in social media. And second, customers handed in approximately 140 ideas for chocolates with a unicorn theme on Ritter Sport’s idea generation platform.

4.    Use a co-creation to its fullest potential

Co-created idea generation and selection can lead to great and sought after products. So if you do co-creation right, it excites increased purchase behavior, customer satisfaction and loyalty (Gebauer, Füller & Pezzei, 2013), and in the best case, positive word-of-mouth.

Once the co-created product is about to be launched, full commitment and a well-planned marketing strategy can empower customers’ buying desire. Reconsider our case of Ritter Sport and the unicorn again. Shortly before the launch, Ritter Sport has made customers curious about an upcoming, extraordinary surprise with the help of various social media channels and the power of Influencers.

But Ritter Sport went one step further, still. The unicorn is the fabulous creature that symbolizes the victory of good over evil best possible. It stands for true aspiration and break from everyday life, which is currently full of bad news. So, Ritter Sport considered these thoughts in the co-creation process and integrated them in the product description, which states, “Allow yourself a piece of happiness (…) According to rumors, the unicorn chocolate neutralizes negative thoughts and makes the world sparkle” (Ngin Food, n.d., n.p.). For the whole campaign, the brand has further changed its name into #Glittersport. Thereby, Ritter Sport enhanced the customers’ fascination towards the brand even more.

In other words, Ritter Sport as a best practice advises to empathize with your customers and identify the inner needs behind the buying desire. Also, if you highlight the co-creation behind the successful product, non-participants are said to perceive your brand as more customer-oriented and products as more desirable, respectively (Fuchs & Schreier, 2011).

5.    Be prepared

Never forget to be well prepared for troubling situations, even though you don’t expect them. Indeed, the unicorn co-creation could have been more of a success for Ritter Sport. It was not the limited amount of unicorn chocolate bars that upset the customers, rather the web shop was.

During and after the first sale, customers were lenient with Ritter Sport because they understood that it could not foresee such hype about the unicorn co-creation. However, Ritter Sport promised to optimize server capacities for the second sale, which customers could unfortunately not notice. Some of them desperately tried for 30 hours to reach the webpage and place a unicorn chocolate bar in their shopping cart. Without success, the collective of unicorn enthusiasts shared their sense of frustration all over social media then, which led to negative brand sentiments for Ritter Sport. So, whatever co-creation you have in mind, remember how it can enhance customers’ buying desire.

Successful co-creation – now it is your turn

We defined 5 tips from the Ritter Sport success story. After you have read through them, we have hopefully made the emerging trend of co-creation more appealing and worth considering for your own brand. Please do not forget that co-creation is also about trial and error. No one is born a master. The Ritter Sport case reflects the saying well. But the 5 tips point you in the right direction.


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