Quote of the day: MILKSHAKES

May 13, 2012


One of the big fast-food chains was trying to beef up the sales of its milkshakes. These were sophisticated marketers. They had developed a profile of the quintessential milkshake customer – actually, I fit right in the mold. People like me gave them very clear feedback, and they would improve the milkshakes on those dimensions, but this had no impact whosoever on sales or profits.

We decided to try a different approach, which was to ask, “I wonder what job a customer is trying to do when he hires a milkshake?” We stood in one of their restaurants for eighteen hours one day and took very careful notes on what time each customer bought a milkshake, what was he wearing, was he alone or with other people, did he buy other food with it or just the milkshake, did he drink it in the restaurant or go off with it? It turned out that nearly half the milkshakes were sold in the very early morning. It was the only thing the person bought, and he was always alone. He always got in his car and drove off with it.

We came back the next day and confronted these people as they came out of the restaurant, surreptitiously holding their milkshakes. And we asked them, in language they could understand, “What job were you trying to do that caused you to hire that milkshake?” It turned out that they all had the same job: they had a long, boring drive to work, and they needed something to do while they were driving. One hand had to be on the wheel, but, jeez, somebody gave me another hand and there isn’t anything in it. And I’m not hungry yet but I know I’ll be hungry by ten o’clock. So what do I hire? If you promise not to tell my wife, I hire doughtnuts a lot, but they crumb all over my clothes and they’re gone too fast. I’ve hired bagels, but they’re dry and tasteless, so I have to steer the car with my knees while I put the jelly on, and if my phone rings I’m in big trouble. But, let me tell you, this milkshake is so viscous that it takes twenty-five minutes to suck it up that little straw. And you can turn it sideways and it doesn’t fall out!

Once you understood what job the customers were trying to get done, how to improve the product became clear: you make the milkshake even more viscous. You stir tiny chunks of fruit into it, not to be healthy, because they didn’t hire it to be healthy, but to make the commute more unpredictable – they’re driving along and – upp! – a lump of fruit. And you move the dispensing machine to the front of the counter and give people a prepaid swipe card so they can just gas up and go.

— Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, interviewed in the New Yorker

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