Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Milkshakes Can Teach Us About Marketing

The first step to designing an effective marketing strategy and creating compelling marketing content is to understand what your potential buyers are trying to accomplish when they purchase products or services like those you provide. In most cases, people don't buy a product or service because they want that product or service itself. More often, when people become aware of a job that they need to get done, they look for a product or service that they can "hire" to perform the job. Theodore Levitt, the legendary marketing professor at the Harvard Business School, captured this concept in a memorable way when he said, "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole."

Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor also provided a memorable example of hiring a product to get a job done in The Innovator's Solution. In their example, a fast-food restaurant chain wanted to increase sales of milkshakes, and it commissioned market research to determine how to accomplish this goal. The most surprising finding of the research was that almost half of all milkshakes were purchased in the early morning. The milkshakes were usually the only item purchased, and they were rarely consumed on the premises.

Digging a little deeper, the researchers found that most of the morning milkshake customers were people on their way to work. Many of the customers faced a long commute, and they needed something to make the drive more interesting. In addition, while they weren't necessarily hungry when they bought the shake, they knew if they didn't eat something, they would be hungry by mid-morning. Most of these customers also faced similar constraints. They were in a hurry, they were usually wearing their business clothes, and they only had one free hand.

These customers sometimes "hired" other foods to fill their morning needs, but most of the alternatives had significant disadvantages. For example, bagels got crumbs on their clothes, and breakfast sandwiches made their hands and the steering wheel greasy. It wasn't so much that these customers "liked" milkshakes better than bagels or breakfast sandwiches, but milkshakes were better than these alternatives at performing the job the customers needed to get done.

It's not difficult to find examples of this idea in the business world. For example:

  • Most business owners don't really want accounting software, but many buy such software because they realize they need to generate invoices faster, know how much they owe to vendors, and understand how well their company is performing financially. Accounting software enables them to perform these jobs more efficiently than a manual accounting system.
  • Most business owners don't really want property insurance, but most will purchase insurance because they know they need to protect themselves financially in case of a fire. Insurance is the best-available tool for performing this job.
  • Most business owners don't really want a company brochure, or a direct mail campaign, or for that matter, a website, but many will invest in these marketing resources because they see them as effective tools for performing the job of increasing sales.
As marketers, it's easy for us to forget that most potential buyers aren't really interested in our products or services per se. What they are (or can become) interested in is what those products or services can help them accomplish. Our products or services are simply the means to an end, and it's critical to keep this fact in mind when planning our marketing efforts. To use Professor Levitt's analogy, our marketing strategy and our marketing content should be more about quarter-inch holes than quarter-inch drills.

To develop an effective marketing strategy and create compelling content, you have to know what jobs your prospects are trying to get done, why those jobs are important, what happens if those jobs don't get done, and what issues or problems can prevent your prospects from performing those jobs.

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