Marketing, Milkshakes and Innovation


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As many of you know, I’m a fan of innovation; whether its product innovation, service innovation or innovative marketing. I’ve embraced the tenants of low-end market disruption as espoused by Clayton Christensen, but I’ve also embraced the systematic innovation framework written about by Tony Ulwick and Lance Bettencourt, called Outcome-Driven Innovation TM (ODI). Both parties articulate their theories and frameworks around something most others ignore: the job that the customer is trying to get done.

Christensen has framed the job-to-be-done concept around a compelling story about milkshakes. The reason it is so compelling is not only because he’s such a great story teller; it’s because we can all relate to the object he is talking about. I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all had a milkshake at one time or another (the lactose intolerant excluded). The premise of the story is about a fast food franchise that was trying to understand how it could sell more milkshakes (as investigated by the milkshake man, Bob Moesta). This is clearly a marketing story; and less of a product development story.

As far as I can tell, there is no systematic framework (measureable and repeatable) around Christensen’s view of jobs-to-be-done other than, perhaps, interviewing techniques similar to that proposed in The Customer Case Tookit (Berstell & Nitterhouse). The milkshake story is clearly about a product, not a job-to-be-done; which is reinforced by the question “What job are customers hiring my milkshake to help them get done?” While improvements to the product’s positioning and related experience ultimately had an impact on sales, it was done at a high level; a clear picture of the ever-changing landscape of value was not a by-product of this research.

While Ulwick has used cases about product manufacturers trying to penetrate a market (e.g. Bosch circular saws) with an existing product, he wrote a piece called Market Segmentation is Soured by Milkshake Marketing which asks us to consider if the milkshake marketing story is flawed. His opening analysis of the milkshake presentation suggests that Christensen is defining the job-to-be-done as:

  • Keeping the extra hand busy on a long commute
  • Make the commute more interesting

Frankly, when I first read the milkshake story I had a different take; I thought the job-to-be-done was clearly to get morning nourishment that would carry the buyer through to lunch time; with various needs like “increases use of leftover hand (kidding)” and “minimizes spills and crumbs on my clothing” and “reduces boredom of the commute”, etc. The latter item Ulwick calls context (the commute), which is fair. Ulwick then goes onto to say the job is to “get breakfast on the go“; which is similar to what my take was (on the go is context). Therefore, “get dinner on the go (with kids)” is a completely different job to be analyzed and will have its own set of desired outcomes and solutions.

While Christensen frames the job around the milkshake, Ulwick clearly takes exception to that implementation of job-to-be-done theory. But that’s not really the issue here. In my mind, the consulting engagement that was being performed here was clearly to find a way to sell more milkshakes. While that sounds product-centric (and it is) most companies can’t drop everything and come up with a new product; at a minimum they need to optimize what they already have (if possible) while also looking at innovative new products (most don’t do this). I think it’s fair to say, however, that if ODI had been implemented before the milkshake, we may have seen dramatically different results in how the job gets done for various different segments of need within the definition of the job. I think it would have been a better fit in this case as well simply because it would highlight priority now and potential for the future through its metric-based output; which is unique to ODI.

Why do people hire milkshakes? This is probably the central theme of the critical analysis by Ulwick. While Christensen suggests that the segments would be the morning commuters and the afternoon moms with kids, Ulwick views these as completely different jobs-to-be-done. While Christensen continually asks “What job are people hiring a milkshake to do for them, Ulwick contends that a better approach is to ask:

  • What job are people trying to get done when the stop at a quick-service restaurant in the morning?
  • What job are people trying to get done when the stop at a quick-service restaurant in the evening?

Ulwick’s point is that these groups are trying to get completely different jobs done, and from an innovators viewpoint, he is absolutely correct. However, from a marketer’s viewpoint (and note marketing in milkshake marketing) they need to find ways to get traction with an existing product (although ODI would have been powerful). It’s simply the reality they live with; and most SMB or SME organizations are not going to invest in a full-blown implementation of ODI. That’s just a fact: it’s hard work and not cheap. Unfortunately, it’s also a fact that these companies will never see the sustained growth they excitedly predict in their business plans.

This all gets rather complicated for a short blog post, but there are definitely some similarities here. While Christensen is known for his low-end disruption theory, what we are talking about here is market penetration. Ulwick has been talking a lot about developing innovative products that get more jobs done, get them done better and get them all done on a single platform; something customers will pay a premium for. As clearly outlined in the Bosch circular saw case, however, the modified product was introduced at, or below, competitor pricing but penetrated deeply into the market because it satisfied more of the important desired outcomes that competitors probably didn’t even know about.


As we come back to the Bosch circular saw case study, the company was clearly using an existing product (category) but wanted to know what they could do to penetrate the North American market as a new entrant. I hope I’m not mistaken, but I believe a number of jobs related to “making a straight cut” were identified and desired outcomes were catalogued for each. For making a straight cut, some of these needs were:

  • Minimize the time it takes to change the blade.
  • Increase the time it takes to set the blade to the desired cut depth.
  • Minimize the likelihood of inadvertently moving off the cut line/path.

There are also related consumption chain jobs in areas like maintenance that also have desired outcomes that the Bosch could help with:

  • Minimize the cost of repairs due to cut cords
  • Minimize the likelihood of snagging the cord on the material

Because they identified all of the jobs, and all of the needs, they were able to add features to address them; all on a single platform. Note: it was always possible that this could have resulted in a completely different product; but I wonder if simply improving the design and messaging of an existing product wasn’t Bosch’s true goal.

Now to the Milkshake

The milkshake story is also clearly about an existing product that wanted to penetrate a current market more deeply. Unlike the Bosch story the two jobs outline were not related. I agree that they are not segments, either. Nevertheless, some valuable information comes out of the story. For getting breakfast on the go, there were clearly some needs:

  • Minimize the likelihood of getting hungry before lunch
  • Increase the feeling of fullness later in the morning

Not to be funny, but drinking a milkshake is a consumption chain job: A related job, or need, might be to ensure your business attire remains neat and clean. Certainly, the dry cleaner might be cleaning your suit, but you’re responsible for keeping it that way as you wear it.

  • Minimize crumbs and/or spills on your business attire

And maybe there is an emotional job related to the primary job; maybe keeping a positive attitude at the beginning of the work day:

  • Minimize the level of boredom during the commute
  • Increase the level of inclusion your extra hand feels (just kidding)

While Bosch added a detachable power cord to minimize replacement cost incurred when cords got cut accidentally (related job), the milkshake is housed in a nice tight container that fits in a car’s cup holder (as well as a person’s personal cup holder) to reduce spills; as compared to competitors (bananas, bagels, etc). While Bosch implemented a clever blower to remove sawdust to improve cutting line visibility which enabled straighter cuts, the morning milkshake was made to be more viscous and implemented with a thinner straw, so it would consume more of the commute time.

I’m an ODI fan. I’m a Christensen fan. However, there are times when either approach would be problematic. Applying a comprehensive framework like ODI to a simple marketing challenge might be overkill. On the other hand, believing your existing product can be configured to add value can also be problematic if someone else introduces a platform that gets more jobs done better (like the iPhone did). Can we afford to view the world through the eyes of our existing products? No. Are kids going to forget about milkshakes? No.

I recommend everyone begin using an approach like ODI to investigate your future offerings. However, the reality of most marketing departments is that they live in a product-centric organization. If I purchase McDonald’s franchise, I had better be certain that I’m comfortable with the products, because my only option is to nibble around the edges, and the milkshake marketing piece highlights a simple way to approach the problem when a new product is not an option.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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