Jobs to be done

In a recent study ‘being the voice of the consumer in the Boardroom’ was top of a list of the things effective CMO’s should do. There’s no doubt this is the intent of most top marketers, but in reality how often do we – really – advocate for the people who ultimately pay our wages?
One of the reasons I like the ‘jobs to be done’ (JTBD) theory, originally developed by Clayton Christensen of Harvard, is that it has given rise to a language and frameworks that help plant the consumer firmly at the heart of marketing.
In his famous book ‘Marketing Myopia’ Theodore Levitt asks readers “what business are you really in?”
A quick primer – JTBD theory
Christensen explains both in his book (Competing against Luck) and a number of HBR articles, that it is helpful to think not about what products consumers are buying today, but instead to think about what underlying “job” they are trying to do. The theory goes that they “hire” products & services to do that job – sometimes they improvise and other times they may do without.
Thinking about the “jobs” consumers are trying to do – and why they want to do them – helps marketers to more realistically identify what options they might consider. A famous quote from economist Theodore Levitt sums it up: “people don’t want a drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”.
Cinema brands don’t really compete with each other, they play in a much wider competitive field of entertainment
For example, if we think about a family trip to the cinema on a rainy Sunday. It would be tempting for a cinema brand to see itself in the film business and consider other cinemas as the direct competition, and possibly Netflix as a peripheral threat.
However, by following an JTBD logic we’d might conclude that for the parent the JTBD is to keep children entertained (and feel a good parent). In this case, the true competitive set might include a theme park, a soft play centre or trampolining place.
Ikea is one of Christensen’s favourite examples – hired by money-conscious shoppers when they need “to furnish their place immediately”
How it was developed
McDonalds was looking to increase its sales of milkshakes in the US. Rather than asking consumers want they wanted to figure out what to do, instead the team did an 18-hour observation one day, followed the next day by talking to customers about their behaviours.
The observers noticed that 40% of thick milkshakes were bought in the early morning by commuters traveling by car. The customers would typically join a long line, normally buying just the milkshake and no food, then leave with the beverage in hand.
Commuters have almost endless snack choices, but most didn’t answer all the key needs in the customers’ job definition
When asking customers about their behaviour, they learned that car drivers expected a long commute and the thick viscosity of the drink made it last longer. The customers were keen to stave off the hunger they anticipated in the mid-morning. It was important for drivers to be able to hold the snack with one hand and not risk messing up their work clothes. A thick milkshake delivered against these needs better than alternatives, like doughnuts, fruit or confectionery.
Based on this understanding, McDonalds introduced self-service thick shake machines at the front of store to minimise waiting times for commuters who just wanted a milkshake. As a bonus innovation, they also introduced thinner shakes for kids (based on learning that the high viscosity valued by commuters acted as a dis-benefit for parents who didn’t want to wait long in store while their children wrestled with a pint of dairy-based sludge).
Snapchat lacks much of the functionality of Facebook and Instagram, but gives teenagers a space of their own and frees them from anxiety about needing to look perfect in permanent posts
Why it’s easy to get knocked off course
Many things conspire against our intent as marketers to be consumer-led. Firstly, we are very often conditioned to think like a manufacturer – we are in the XYZ category, or we make ABC type of products. For practical reasons, the data that we rely on is usually bought and reported in categories that impose boundaries that do not exist in the consumers’ world.
FMCG manufacturing has historically relied on scale & investment, often capital assets determine which innovation projects are prioritised today
Second, JTBD is especially helpful for innovation development, but in organisations the processes we use to invent new things sometimes don’t help. For example, we choose the strongest looking innovation projects from a pool of ideas (even if they’re all a bit weak), we naturally tend to prioritise things where we have an existing capability (eg manufacturing line) or where the payback is shorter. We often rely on research techniques (eg for concept screening or development) that require consumers to interpret their own behaviour; while comparatively little time/money is spent on the upfront observation and “job” definition.
Third, we frequently start with a point of reference that limits us. For example, developing a product that targets part of an existing market, in a pre-defined packaging format, or in response to a competitive launch. Christensen and others would argue that genuinely disruptive innovation has to start from a ‘stripped back’ understanding of what the consumer is trying to do and why, or otherwise just be lucky.
Startup Starling Bank already boasts 1m customers and made its TV debut last month. So-called challenger banks have reinvented ‘managing money’ by addressing traditional banking pain points
Why disruptors catch us off guard
The term ‘disruptor’ is one of the most over-used in marketing today, but what drives its frequent usage is an interest (more accurately, fear) among established brands about the myriad of examples of new entrants apparently “coming from nowhere” and taking chunks of market share.
Being a startup business is far from easy. However, one advantage is that it’s easier to think about the consumer when you don’t have a business already. The considerations of an existing business (you might flippantly say “baggage”) normally comes into play – our existing capabilities, how we currently make money, whether something is margin dillutive or accretive, etc.
Starting from a JTBD perspective is especially helpful for a smaller business that initially lacks big advertising budgets. Understanding and serving a consumer need better, or perhaps even delivering against an unmet need, is how a firm can win without the heavy ‘marketing investment ‘firepower’.
By serving jobs like “working out to stay healthy without being judged”, US gym chain Planet Fitness is expanding fast and growing sales at 7% pa
Practical application
I’m currently reading “Jobs to be Done – A roadmap for customer-centered innovation” – this builds on the original JTBD theory and proposes a set of logical steps for marketers to follow.

The process for mapping “jobs” is broadly –

  • Understand what jobs customers are trying to get done & understand why customers have different jobs
  • Explore what people are currently doing/using & understand the associated pain points
  • Define from the customer’s point of view what a ‘win’ looks like for a particular job
  • Look at obstacles that get in the way
  • Assessing what value the customer places on the job (pricing by value, not cost-plus)
  • Understanding your competition based on what alternatives the customer might consider – then designing to win on functional & emotional benefits

Then, the authors present a framework for designing and testing ideas against the definition earlier developed. They are critical of current practices – like brainstorming workshops – that many companies employ, saying they’re typically resource intensive and generate low quality outputs.

If you get the opportunity, I recommend both books. If you prefer, there are a number of videos on on YouTube and a couple of HBR articles exploring Jobs to be Done, including contributions from the incredibly likeable Professor Christensen.
Let’s return to where we started – the noble aim of better representing the voice of customer in the boardroom. In this endeavour, JTBD theory – and the frameworks which help land it – can act as a valuable compass for marketers to go beyond good intentions and create the conditions for demand-led growth.

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