The Milkshake Problem

By focusing on the job-to-be-done, you can see who a product’s real competitors are.

The Milkshake Problem
Why buy a milkshake? 'Cause it's the safest thing on the menu? | Photo by Zbysiu Rodak on Unsplash

Capital Thinking  •  Issue #715  •  View online

Bob and Rick were two consultants from Detroit. Their business was helping bakeries and snack-food companies develop new products.

Their latest project was helping a fast-food chain sell more milkshakes. So they did what companies typically do when testing out new ideas. They conducted focus groups and peppered milkshake consumers with questions like:

  • How can we improve our milkshakes?
  • Do you like our flavor selection? If not, what flavors would you like to see?
  • Is the milkshake to chunky? Would you prefer a smoother texture, etc., etc.?

After collecting feedback, they made changes they thought would satisfy the largest number of milkshake buyers.

But after a few months, nothing changed. Not an uptick in revenue, no word-of-mouth buzz, nothing.

So they decided to attack their problem differently.

-Caleb Dismuke

Caleb Dismuke | Pure Alpha

They asked:

What job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to this restaurant to “hire” a milkshake?


They staked one restaurant for eighteen hours. And tried to answer a few questions:

  • What time of day did people buy milkshakes?
  • What were they wearing?
  • Were they alone?
  • Did they buy food other than the milkshake?
  • Did they drink it at the restaurant or get it to go?

To their surprise, a large number of milkshakes were sold before 9:00 a.m. to people who came into the restaurant alone. And it was the only thing they bought. Also, most of them got their milkshake to go.

After observing this behavior, they asked them: “What job were you trying to do that caused you to come here and hire this milkshake?”

It soon became clear the early-morning customers were hiring the milkshake for the same job: to make their long commute to work less boring.

But why a milkshake? Why not something else?

It turns out, they tried to hire other products for this job.

But bananas weren’t filling, doughnuts made their fingers sticky, and a snickers bar seemed like they were eating candy for breakfast. But a milkshake was easy to consume and filling enough to satisfy pre-lunch cravings.

So alas! They finally figured out their answer to why people buy milkshakes.

I'd Buy Her a Milkshake | Photo by Alin Coman on Unsplash

Plenty of milkshakes were also sold in the afternoon and evening. What job were they hired for?

In this context, they discovered milkshakes sold in the afternoon and evening were hired to help parents connect with their children or as a reward for good behavior.

Parents say no to their children all week. An occasional yes feels great.

Same customer, but two different circumstances the milkshake was hired for.

With this information, the analysis and innovation available to the company were broadened.

Instead of asking, “How can we make this milkshake tastier or offer more flavors,” the company asked, “How can we make it easier for commuters to buy a milkshake on their way to work.”

  • How about a drive-through? So they don’t have to come in and wait in line.
  • Instead of employees’ making the milkshakes, let’s put a self-serve machine with a swipe card reader so commuters can dash in and out quickly.
  • If they want a healthier option, offer chunks of fruit, etc., etc.

Instead of an afternoon milkshake, parents could’ve hired a cookie or bought their kid a toy. Anything that would’ve helped them reward or connect with their kid competed with the milkshake.

By focusing on the job-to-be-done, you can see who a product’s real competitors are.

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*Photo by Zbysiu Rodak on Unsplash