Lessons learned from a successful and iconic consumer-driven company

Customers are increasingly engaged in the 21st century both as producers and consumers of commercial objects. This calls into question just who is in charge of the respective brand, and therefore whose insight is most valuable in making appropriate commercial, creative and architectural decisions.

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Threadless, for example, is a hugely successful and iconic consumer driven company. Customers are invited to submit their own graphic artwork for printed T-shirts and other decorated merchandise,  the online community then vote for their favorites, and the most popular designs go on to be produced and sold back to the consumers as limited editions. This rigorous consumer engagement process results in popular products that always sell out fast. The company limits the production of each design as they have no shortage of innovative, proven popular, incoming ideas. These limited editions in fact create an air of originality and uniqueness definitive of the company’s brand.

However back in 2007 Threadless opened their very own retail outlet in Lakeview, Chicago. Effort was made to construct a three dimensional ‘brand-scape’ that remained true to the company’s core identity, with the walls decorated by a blend of the week’s most popular consumer generated designs. The outlet proved profitable and plans emerged to develop a chain of stores across the country, calling into question the future integrity of the company’s original identity. One consumer wrote on Threadless’ store announcement page, “please promise me that this will be the ONLY store you will be opening…I’d hate for a franchise to saturate the market… It kinda takes away from being genuine.” The title of another post on a Threadless fan website read, “Threadless To Launch Retail Stores, Everybody Panic…”

The CEO’s reaction to this was that of inevitability. He likened the company to a popular new band, the core fan base of which moves on as the band becomes mainstream. Threadless’ consumers, however, did not abide wholly by this conventional analogy as they additionally form the core production team; the actual producers of commercial value. Subsequently the company’s plans for retail expansion stalled, and in January 2014 the Lakeview store closed down along with the cancelation of plans for other branded retail outlets. The company announced that they now intend to focus more attention on developing and improving the web platform to better serve their creative community.

Alexander O.D. Lorimer is an architectural theorist and computer programmer. His research focuses on the use of emergent properties within self-organising systems in order to solve complex design problems, as well as facilitating mass collaboration in the process of design.