one size fits none

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole,” an HBS professor named Theodore Levitt famously told his students.

Too often, marketers get wrapped up in the features and functions of their products, rather than solving the actual problems of the consumer. That leads to a lot of one-upmanship versus competition and over-bundled products that don’t handle any one feature particularly well. Marketers also tend to average out all of the feedback from consumers, ending up with one-size-fits-none products.

I recently heard Clayton Christensen, one of my favorite HBS professors, give a lecture at our 10-year business school reunion. He said that marketers frequently focused on the wrong things, leading them to target “phantom needs”.

“Don’t sell one-size-fits-none products,” he said. “Instead, find the job your customer is hiring your product to do”.

To illustrate the “jobs-to-be-done” method of marketing, Professor Christensen told the story of milkshake development (which he also described in this fascinating HBR article). A fast food restaurant wanted to increase milkshake sales. They first asked target consumers if they wanted their milkshakes more chocolatey, cheaper, or chunkier. This approach had no impact.

The fast food restaurant then investigated the jobs consumers actually hired the milkshakes to do. They discovered that many milkshakes were consumed, surprisingly, early in the morning. It turned out that the morning milkshake was “hired” to solve a “boring-commute” problem. Once they understood that “job”, they optimized that milkshake with prepaid swipe cards and made them thicker to last longer in the commute. They found another very different “job” in the afternoon, with dads who were tired of saying “no” to their kids all day and wanted an easy win.

By focusing on the “job”, the fast food restaurant realized they were competing, not against other milkshakes, but against other products that consumers were hiring for the “boring commute” job or the “hero dad” job. Christensen shared this insight:

“Job-defined markets are generally much larger than product category–defined markets. Marketers who are stuck in the mental trap that equates market size with product categories don’t understand whom they are competing against from the customer’s point of view.”

In the pursuit of new products and new features, there is value in understanding the “jobs-to-be-done”.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)

Here’s a 4-minute video I found of Professor Christensen sharing the insights from the milkshake story:

  1. Bill Carlson says

    The fast food restaurant did two things of interest: 1) they actually embraced what they found in their “investigation” (cleverly not called “research”, at least in this article); and 2) they were willing to take a step back from “feature-vs.-feature” to consider the bigger picture, i.e. the consumer perspective of needs/interests.

    This can take some courage on the part of the marketer – willing to serve up a different thought process, do battle with those favoring the “tried and true”, etc. And yet I’m guessing the more memorable marketing efforts we might recall likely sprung from that (but with a dose of caution regarding overdoing it as Tom and we loyal followers covered in a recent post about “brand laddering”).

    Research is a frequently debated topic, it’s been a subject here in the past, not wanting to rehash it but just pointing out that it played a positive role here – because someone was willing to accept the results and in this case, push past the first round to dig deeper. And then work with the findings.

    Seeing the consumer’s needs and interests through their eyes would be considered fundamental “marketing 101” but we can limit ourselves by ignoring “peripheral vision” – in this case, the product itself (thick, chocolaty, etc.) might be the product focus but it took a broader look at the consumer’s overall experience with the product to uncover a unique perspective.

    Some things to be learned from this, I think, but one final thing which occurs to me in particular is that this is all about a milkshake. A relatively simple product which I’m guessing most of us don’t think much about nor would we consider it a complicated product to market. Like many such products, easy to take it for granted and yet here’s a good example of the benefit of applying the same process to milkshakes as we do for power tools!

  2. DSprogis says

    I find that all too many of my stakeholders want the “Swiss Army Knife” of software. They are unwilling or unable to rank their needs which would enable me to deliver the high-value pieces first – an approach that is the core of the Agile methodology. This puts me in the role of mind-reader.

    In many ways, I suspect that most in marketing feel that they are mind readers. It’s not always easy to understand the “job” that people want done.

  3. Ruth says

    I’m in the business of marketing early education. People have very specific ideas about the “job” they want us to do with their children. We are always most successful when we discover their needs/wants. The hard part for us is getting the front line people on board with this. This week’s cartoon and article are a great jumping off point for a fabulous discussion. Thanks!

  4. ECotter says

    At Toyota, they believe in genchi genbutsu (“go and see” for yourself). The best way to understand the “job” to be done is to get out of the office and observe or actually experience how your customers are using the product.

  5. Jeff Domansky says

    Tom, enjoyed your insight very much. While social media allows us to interact with many more people, it’s important to remember the importance of face-to-face conversations. Customers may “like” you on Facebook but not really love your brand or your product.

  6. Mitch Riese says

    Reminds me of Job’s 1989 interview comment to Inc. magazine: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give it to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

  7. Susan says

    Yes Derek Christensen… thanks for the reminder of where I heard the milkshakes for breakfast story…Clay Shirky pointed out that they found they were bought at the drive thru not to make a boring commute more interesting, but to provide “portable sustenance” that could easily be consumed while driving …not exactly how I think about milkshakes (I think of them as fattening/dessert/a rare treat) but apparently many Americans are willing to drink icecream for breakfast.

    (I also remember the opening season of The Apprentence when the winner of the ice cream contest was the team that mixed donuts in the recipe and thus could sell it as a breakfast food with the suggestion, “Hey, it’s donuts!” while the other team (Red Velvet Cupcake icecream) didn’t make any sales til after lunch!

  8. says

    Hi all,

    What great commentary on this cartoon, thanks! I even saw that Clayton Christensen shared the cartoon with his audience. Thanks to Derek and Michael for sharing the more details on the research.

    This week’s print goes to Bill. It’s an important reminder that research, when done well, can be very powerful. Too often, research is a C.Y.A. checkmark, but there’s a lesson here for research that challenges our assumptions and status quo.



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