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  • Writer's pictureMarie Brand

When unique is not unique enough – a one-of-a-kind conversation with Emanuel de Bellis

Updated: Mar 2

Written by Marie Brand, PhD Candidate at WU Vienna

Many companies offer customization options for their products. With Nike By You, instead of just grabbing a pair of shoes off the shelf, you get to pick the colors, the materials, and even add your personal style with custom text or graphics. Now you're strutting around in kicks that are uniquely yours. 

But why be simply unique if you can be one-of-a-kind instead? In their new paper “One-of-a-kind products: Leveraging strict uniqueness in mass customization”, Emanuel de Bellis, an Associate Professor at the University of St. Gallen, and his co-authors take a closer look at uniqueness.


Emanuel explains it like this: imagine you are designing your customized car. You can customize the engine, exterior and interior color, the rims, and additional features. There are many options available for each of these attributes producing billions, maybe even trillions of individual combinations. As a result, many of the products that consumers configure are one-of-a-kind, meaning that their product exists only once with these specific attributes. Emanuel and his co-authors refer to this as “strict uniqueness”, which goes beyond the traditional conceptualization of uniqueness in the literature.

Strictly unique: a VIP in a room full of regulars

“We visited the Porsche headquarters where they showed us this green-yellowish car, a one-of-a-kind color that a customer came up with. And that customer paid more than 50,000€ for just the color.”

– Emanuel de Bellis

Although Emanuel confesses that he is not much of a car guy - he rides a 40-year-old racing bike to work - he and his co-authors thought this phenomenon was too interesting not to pursue.

“We propose a simple solution to increase value for both consumers and companies. If a customer created a design that is one-of-a-kind, let them know that! Simply saying “Hey, your product is one-of-a-kind” makes people value the product more.”

– Emanuel de Bellis

Consumers are aware that there are many different possible combinations for a customized product, even though they likely underestimate the actual number. They should know that the chances of another person designing the exact same product are quite low.

“It was surprising to us because rationally speaking, this feedback should not really have an effect, as many customized products are one-of-a-kind anyway. But nevertheless, if they are informed that their product is one-of-a-kind, it has a positive effect.”

– Emanuel de Bellis

No duplicates are allowed but beware of the product domain

Even better, companies can leverage what Emanuel and his co-authors call “future-oriented feedback”, which informs consumers that by blocking certain feature combinations, their product will also stay one-of-a-kind in the future. Going back to Porsche, if you have more money to spare, you can pay around 10,000€ (that’s not just hyperbole, it’s actually how much it costs) to have a hold placed on the specific configurations of your car.

Despite this positive effect of on-of-a-kind feedback, Emanuel and his co-authors identified one area where this feedback can backfire. In many cases, mass customization systems are related to product domains that are susceptible to subjective quality, like whether black or a dark shade of grey is considered better or worse. However, there are also product domains that are matters of objective quality.

“Laptops, alarm systems or audio systems, for instance. For these product domains, where specifications are a matter of objective quality, one-of-a-kind feedback tends to be detrimental. If you're informed that you're the only one with a specific laptop configuration, that triggers concerns about the functionality of the product.”

– Emanuel de Bellis

Read the paper

Interested in reading all the details about strict uniqueness in mass customization? Read the full paper here.

Want to cite the paper?

Krause, F., Görgen, J., de Bellis, E., Franke, N., Burghartz, P., Klanner, I. M., & Häubl, G. (2023). One-of-a-kind products: Leveraging strict uniqueness in mass customization. International Journal of Research in Marketing 40(4), 823-840.


Meet Emanuel De Bellis

What’s next for you in terms of research projects?

I now focus on another emerging technology, namely the psychology of automation, and how it impacts people and society at large. Imagine everything in your household has been automated. You no longer have to do the dishes, mow the lawn, or vacuum. That’s convenient and time-saving. But isn't there something that is missing? Those little success moments where you've just finished something or done something manually, which can be quite meaningful to us. I’m intrigued to learn more about this and how new technologies are perceived as a double-edged sword.

Any other technologies you’re examining?

I’m interested in crypto-marketing and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are by definition one-of-a-kind. For example, in one research project, my colleagues and I demonstrate a darker side of strict uniqueness, namely that it can trigger issues of entitlement and selfish behavior within online communities.

What makes working at the University of St. Gallen unique?

I have co-founded and served as the director of the Institute of Behavioral Science and Technology (IBT) at St. Gallen. Instead of having a Department of Marketing, we have these institutes which allow us to be more focused and entrepreneurial. It’s great to have people in the same institute who have a background in many different disciplines, like psychology, econ or finance.

If you were not in Academia, what would you be?

I typically say that I would be a medical doctor, but who knows. I would certainly want to work with people. I would also like to travel, see many more countries and cultures, and I would like to spend more time outdoors. In my free time, I like to go for hikes or snowboarding in winter, St. Gallen is surrounded by beautiful nature including a spectacular mountain range nearby.

What would a perfect day look like for you?

I would spend as much time as I could with the people I care for: my family including my not-so-small-anymore kids, as well as friends and colleagues, of which many turned into good friends.


This article was written by

Marie Brand

Ph.D. candidate at the WU, Vienna

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