Hiring Milkshakes (and other secrets to product development)

chocolate milkshakes

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

– Theodore Levitt, Professor of Marketing, Harvard Business School

Stop thinking of your product as something customers buy. Think of it as something customers hire. Imagine you own a fast food restaurant. What job is your milk shake hired to do?

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M Christensen, along with Intuit founder Scott Cook and Taddy Hall, published a phenomenal Harvard Business Review article about jobs-to-be-done. Here’s an excerpt below.

Hiring Milkshakes

A “job” is the fundamental problem a customer needs to resolve in a given situation. To illustrate how much clearer the path to successful innovation can be when marketers segment by job, consider an example from the fast-food industry, where companies historically have segmented their markets along the traditional boundaries of product and customer categories.

When a fast-food restaurant resolved to improve sales of its milkshake, its marketers first defined the market segment by product — milkshakes — and then segmented it further by profiling the customer most likely to buy a milkshake. Next, they invited people who fit this profile to evaluate the product. Would making the shakes thicker, more chocolaty, cheaper or chunkier satisfy them more? The panelists gave clear feedback, but the consequent improvements to the product had no impact on sales.

Then a new researcher spent a day in a restaurant documenting when each milkshake was bought, what other products the customers purchased, whether they were alone or with a group and whether they consumed it on the premises or drove off with it. He was surprised to find that 40% of all milkshakes were purchased in the early morn- ing. These early-morning customers almost always were alone, they did not buy anything else and they consumed the milkshakes in their cars.

The researcher then returned to interview the morning customers as they left the restaurant, each with a milkshake in hand, and essentially asked (but in language that they would understand), “Excuse me, but could you please tell me what job you were needing to get done for yourself when you came here to hire that milkshake?” Most of them, it turned out, bought their shakes for similar reasons: They faced a long, boring commute and needed some- thing to keep that extra hand busy and to make the commute more interesting. They weren’t yet hungry but knew that they’d be hungry by 10 a.m.; they wanted to consume something now that would stave off hunger until noon. And they faced constraints: They were in a hurry, they were wearing work clothes and they had, at most, one free hand.

When the researcher asked what other products the customers might hire to do this job, it turned out the milkshake did the job better than any of its competitors. Bagels were dry; with cream cheese or jam, they resulted in sticky fingers and gooey steering wheels. Donuts didn’t carry people past the 10 a.m. hunger attack. Bananas didn’t last long enough to solve the boring-commute problem. In contrast, it took 20 minutes to suck a viscous milkshake through a thin straw, hands remained clean and stomachs were satisfied until lunch. It didn’t matter that the milkshake wasn’t a particularly healthful food because that wasn’t the job it was being hired to do.

Once it was understood which jobs the customers were trying to do, it became very clear which attributes of the milkshake would do the job even better and which improvements were irrelevant. How could they better tackle the boring-commute job? Make the shake even thicker, so it would last longer, and swirl in tiny chunks of fruit — not to make it healthy, because customers didn’t hire the milkshake to become healthy. But adding the fruit could make the commute more interesting — drivers would occasionally suck chunks into their mouths, adding a dimension of unpredictability and anticipation to their monotonous morning routine. Just as important, they could move the dispensing ma-chine in front of the counter and sell customers a prepaid swipe card so that they could dash in, gas up, and go without getting stuck in the drive-through lane.

Understanding the job and improving the product on dimensions of the experience so that it does the job better would cause the company’s milkshakes to gain share against the real competition — not just competing chains’ milkshakes but donuts, bagels, bananas and boredom. This would grow the category, which brings us to an important point: 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 who they are competing against from the customer’s point of view.

Clay Shirky also wrote about that same research (and gave a few more details, such as the name of the fast-food company) in his book Cognitive Surplus:

When McDonald’s wanted to improve sales of its milkshakes, it hired researchers to figure out what characteristics its customers cared about. Should the shakes be thicker? Sweeter? Colder? Almost all of the researches focused on the product. But one of them, Gerald Berstell, chose to ignore the shakes themselves and study the customers instead. He sat in a McDonald’s for eighteen hours one day, observing who bought milkshakes and at what time. One surprising discovery was that many milkshakes were purchased early in the day – odd, as consuming a shake at eight A.M. plainly doesn’t fit the bacon-and-eggs model of breakfast. Berstell also garnered three other behavioral clues from the morning milkshake crowd: the buyers were always alone, they rarely bought anything besides a shake, and they never consumed the shakes in the store.

The breakfast-shake drinkers were clearly commuters, intending to drink them while driving to work. This behavior was readily apparent, but the other researchers had missed it because it didn’t fit the normal way of thinking about either milkshakes or breakfast. As Berstell and his colleagues noted in “Finding the Right Job for Your Product,” their essay in the Harvard Business Review, the key to understanding what was going on was to stop viewing the product in isolation and to give up traditional notions of the morning meal. Berstell instead focused on a single, simple question: “What job is a customer hiring that milkshake to do at eight A.M.?”

If you want to eat while you are driving, you need something you can eat with one hand. It shouldn’t be too hot, too messy, or too greasy. It should also be moderately tasty, and take a while to finish. Not one conventional breakfast item fits that bill, and so without regard for the sacred traditions of the morning meal, those customers were hiring the milkshake to do the job they needed done.

All the researchers except Berstell missed this fact, because they made two kinds of mistakes, things we might call “milkshake mistakes.” The first was to concentrate mainly on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes, without regard to what role the customer wanted it to play – the job they were hiring the milkshake for.

The second mistake was to adopt a narrow view of the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents. Neither the shake itself nor the history of breakfast mattered as much as customers needing food to do a nontraditional job – serve as sustenance and amusement for their morning commute – for which they hired the milkshake.

Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, pp. 12-14

Now watch this clip of the television show Mad Men where Don Draper, the main character, beautifully illustrates the jobs the Kodak Carousel is hired to do. Brilliant.

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  • Bob Moesta July 25, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Hey Derek,

    Great Post. JTBD is a very powerful framework.

    (For the record, I am not sure who Gerald Berstell is? The work that Clay has been referring to is work I did back in 90’s and i do not remember a Gerald Berstell being involved.)

    I have been applying JTBD framework going on my 19th year and this is my first time i have heard that name. Can you get me in contact with Gerald, I would love to hear his side of that story and what he is doing with it now)

    Again, great post and let me know how i can help.

    Bob Moesta

  • Derek July 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Hi Bob,

    The mention of Gerald Berstell comes from Clay Shirky’s book “Cognitive Surplus”. Shirky’s footnote references: Clayton M. Christensen, Scott D. Anthony, Gerald Berstell, and Denise Nitterhouse, “Finding the Right Job for your Product”, MIT Sloan Management Review 48.3 (2007). The full article is available here: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/2007-spring/48301/finding-the-right-job-for-your-product/

    Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps!

  • Denise Nitterhouse March 21, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Bob & Derek, I can explain! Gerry Berstell & I are HBS MBA 1977 classmates. Gerry developed a marketing research method that we called “Customer Case Research” (CCR) when we started writing articles about it in the early 1990’s. “Looking Outside the Box” introduces and explains CCR and “Asking All the Right Questions” discusses what questions CCR asks & how interviews are done. By 2002, Gerry and I had written a working paper, “Target Situations, Not Demographics,” which argues for and discusses how to do just what the title says. (for more info see http://condor.depaul.edu/dnitterh/research/)

    Ironically, we had ignored Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma work because CCR is based on listening to your existing customers, and ID said NOT to listen to your customers. When I heard Clay Christensen speak at an HBS event in Chicago, I realized how and how much our work overlapped, and asked him to read and give us feedback on “Target Situations…” After reading it, he suggested we collaborate on an article that was eventually published as “Finding the Right Job…” in Sloan Management Review (not HBR). Clay Shirky incorrectly attributes the milkshake research to Gerald Berstell.

    Denise Nitterhouse dnitterh@depaul.edu

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