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Clay Christensen: Why People "Hire" Your Product

When you sell a new product, it's probably been developed in response to a perceived need and marketed to a subset of consumers that research tells you would be interested. A new breakfast cereal? Find out what ingredients your target audience of younger mothers want and get it into stores.

But what if you thought of your product in an entirely new light. Not as something they want to buy, but rather as something that consumers hire to get a job done. Milkshakes, for example.

In a recent issue of Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge, Clay Christensen -- most renowned for his innovator's dilemma and disruptive innovation theories -- adds some twists to the traditional marketing take that's heavy on demographics and segmentation.

If you talk to buyers of milkshakes along a busy thoroughfare, for example -- as his company did -- you would find out that many purchasers bought them not to finish off a meal or quench a thirst, but rather to perform a job. And the job was to occupy the otherwise underutilized hand of drivers on long, boring commutes. The milkshakes not only gave drivers something to do, but took care of hunger pangs until lunch time.

They hired milkshakes because they were not as messy on work clothing as other competitors for the job such as bagels and donuts, could be consumed with one hand rather than the two needed by breakfast sandwiches, and lasted longer than other competitors, like candy bars.

So knowing that your customers are hiring milkshakes for this job, what would you do to grow the business? Christensen throws out a number of suggestions, such as moving the milkshake machine out to the front of the store so your customers can avoid the food line and get right back to the commute. You might also make your commute shake more thick than the lunch shake, so it lasts longer on the ride. Another possibility: throw in bits of fruit or other ingredients so the drinker encounters a pleasant surprise every once in a while.

"The fact that you're 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product," Christensen tells HBS Working Knowledge. "It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn't cause it. We developed this idea because we wanted to understand what causes us to buy a product, not what's correlated with it. We realized that the causal mechanism behind a purchase is, 'Oh, I've got a job to be done.' And it turns out that it's really effective in allowing a company to build products that people want to buy."

He notes a number of big-time retailers that have started thinking along the same lines. IKEA, for one, is hired to provide apartment furniture right now. OnStar is hired to provide peace of mind. Kodak's FunSaver camera isn't hired to take pictures, it's hired to preserve memories.

To many marketing pros, Christensen's ideas will have a familiar ring. It's the concept of selling a solution, not a product. Identify the need, not the market segment. One of Christensen's readers concurs, recalling some old advice: "You're not selling the drill, you're selling the hole."

Can you see your product portfolio in terms of jobs to be done? How does that change how you market, who you market to, and what the final product looks like?

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(Photo by Flickr user gregor_y, CC 2.0)