Milkshake Marketing: Give the people what they (really) want

Milkshake marketing: know what job your customers want to get done

Talk all you want about buyer personas, psychological triggers and pricing strategy, but the bottom line is that companies succeed when they offer a service or product that customers find irresistible. And what makes a product irresistible? It’s probably not what you think.

Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor and the author of the bestselling book “The Innovators Dilemma,” recently shared customers’ key motivator, which most companies overlook when developing products: doing a job. In his keynote presentation at Qualtric’s Insight Summit on March 2, he explained his job-to-be-done (JTBD) approach and how it guides the development of products that disrupt the market. Christensen argues that customers don’t buy products; instead, they hire a solution to help them complete a specific job at a specific time.

Why do people buy milkshakes?

Christensen’s JTBD framework is rooted in the results of product research McDonald’s recruited him and other researchers to conduct. Previously, McDonald’s sought to boost milkshake sales by surveying their ideal milkshake-buying customer. Should they make the milkshakes colder? More chocolatey? Sweeter? They incorporated the feedback, but, alas, sales remained flat.

Enter: Christensen and his colleagues. Instead of focusing on flavor preferences, they studied why those particular customers were buying milkshakes at that particular time. They noticed 40 percent of sales were made in the morning by lone males who ordered little or nothing else and consumed the milkshakes in their cars. Customers “hired” their milkshakes to occupy themselves during a long, boring commute each morning. They chose milkshakes over, say, bagels or bananas because they weren’t messy, could be wrangled with one hand, took a considerable time to ingest and curbed the 10 a.m. hunger attack.

McDonald’s responded by making their milkshakes even thicker, swirling in tiny chunks of fruit to introduce unpredictability and moving dispensing machines in front of the counter to help customers avoid drive-thru lines. The results? They saw the dramatic bump in milkshake sales they’d hoped for.

One-size-fits-all? More like one-size-fits-none.

McDonald’s actually had another sizable audience of milkshake-buyers: parents. Parents would purchase milkshakes for their kids — an easy “yes” after shutting down requests all day. But … they’d get frustrated waiting for their kids to slurp up their treat so slowly. Thicker shakes wouldn’t work here. The parents had a different job to do.

As the McDonald’s study shows, the job — not the customer — is the fundamental unit of analysis. The circumstances are more important than customer characteristics and even product attributes and buying trends.

Use this framework to inform your marketing.

Today, we have more data than ever about our customers. Despite the volume and variety, though, JTBD advocates assert that “innovation is still painfully hit-or-miss.” In fact, about 95 percent of new products fail.1

As such, more and more companies are approaching product development with a JTBD mindset:

  1. Does a subset of your customer base use your product in a nontraditional way? NyQuil found some customers used their cold remedy to help them sleep. In response, they developed ZzzQuil to do the job of helping customers get a good night’s sleep (without the active ingredients they didn’t need).
  2. Can you identify so-called struggle moments, particularly moments of non-consumption or non-use? 5-hour ENERGY built their energy shots — small, portable and quickly delivered — specifically for those moments when making, buying and drinking coffee would be inconvenient.

Your marketing message should follow suit. For example, watch how Don Draper pitches Kodak’s slide projector: It’s not a fancy new piece of technology; it’s a portable nostalgia generator.

Have you used the JTBD framework in your product or service development? If not, how do you think you can incorporate it into your efforts to make your products irresistible to customers?

1. Nobel, Carmen. “Clay Christensen’s Milkshake Marketing.” Harvard Business School. 14 Feb. 2011.