Understanding audiences is an important part of brand strategy. And working on a large financial brand, I’m constantly looking for new ways to map our client’s offerings to specific consumer needs. 

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes it takes both research and a leap of the imagination to look beyond what a client thinks they’re selling to identify the unexpected functional, emotional or social needs people buy your brand to resolve. 

This had me thinking how much harder it must be for R&D departments to identify what customers want. It’s already challenging to figure out how people are *really* using existing products and services. To predict how/if people will ultimately see value in a new product or service seems like that much more of a shot in the dark. 

The relationship between audiences and innovation

Apple and Ford are famous for putting highly disruptive products on the market. Both company’s founders also seemed to have little faith in peoples’ ability guide product invention: 

Steve Jobs is known for expressing the view that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Explaining, “that’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” 1

Henry Ford also is known for postulating, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” 2

Lyft’s VP of Design, Lily Dill, and many other leaders of disruptive companies point out – these kinds of quotes shouldn’t be interpreted as reason to abandon efforts to understand people’s needs. Rather, Jobs and Ford’s points of view highlight the heightened need to understand audiences. 3

These quotes also remind us of what we intuitively know: people won’t always be able to say what they want… but their actions can explain a lot of what’s not said.

The “Jobs to Be Done” Theory 

Recently, I listened to the surprising story behind McDonald’s milkshakes. The podcast was powerful and reignited my questions around audience research and R&D. 

The HBR Ideacast episode explained Clayton Christensen’s ” Jobs to be Done” theory. In the interview, Christensen tells about the time that McDonald’s set out to sell more milkshakes. The Golden Arches started by carrying out a number of focus groups asking customers what would make their shakes better, then worked with R&D to implement customer suggestions. After much investment in recommended milkshake upgrades, the fast food company was frustrated when sales remained the same. 

Christensen and his team, who had recently developed the “Jobs to Be Done” theory, were eventually brought in to help McDonald’s get to the bottom of this conundrum.

Rather than starting with questions, Christensen and his team took 18 hours to observe in-store and drive-thru behavior. They were surprised to observe a peculiar milkshake customer that arrived at McDonald’s early in the morning, bought only a milkshake, and always drove off with it. 

So, the team set out to intercept this curiously behaving customer and ask them what they were hiring their milkshake to do. While this question initially caused said customers to scratch their heads, when Clayton’s team rephrased the question to, ‘when you don’t hire a milkshake, what else do you hire?’ These early-morning-milkshake buyers began to catch on. When answering this rephrased question, they would start listing off poor experiences relying on bananas, donuts, bagels, and even Snickers for “the job.”

As the podcast later explained, Christensen’s team discovered that in fact all these early-riser milkshake buyers “had the same job to do. That is, they had a long and boring drive to work. And they just needed something to have while they were driving to stay engaged with life and not fall asleep.” 3

I tell this story because it hit me that so often we judge our brand’s offerings against competitors’ offerings, rather than the particular lifestyles of our brand’s unique audience. 

Christensen’s team used their discovery to think about ways to make milkshakes easier to grab-and-go when workers might be late to work. And they considered making the shakes thicker so it would take more time to slurp down during a long commute. These improvements weren’t the kinds of improvements a different restaurant might take, but knowing what McDonld’s did about the “job” of milkshakes bought before 8am, they could now innovate around a known need state. 

There are many other examples of this theory’s ability to drive wildly successful innovations. And many of the “disruptive” innovations that have leveraged the “Jobs to Be Done” theory weren’t technological intense to implement. Take the Kodak double print example. That innovation was an analogue solve. The secret ingredient isn’t technology: It’s developing around a known demand.

Who would have expected so much innovation and audience insight could be gleaned from a McDonald’s shake!


  1. Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done,” HBR, 09/2016 link 
  2. Six Steps to Put Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-Done Theory into Practice, Forbes, 02/2012 link 
  3. What everyone gets wrong about this famous Steve Jobs quote, according to Lyft’s design boss, Business Insider, 04/2019 link
  4. How Understanding Disruption Helps Strategists, HBR, 11/2015 link

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