It’s always about the audience—the broader lesson of milkshake marketing

by | Sep 9, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

“A good teacher, like a good entertainer, first must hold his audience’s attention, then he can teach his lesson.” – John Henrik Clarke

When I was a young PR professional, I was lucky enough to have a great mentor. Among the most important things he taught me was to always keep the audience in mind. His words, “What’s in it for the audience?” continue to ring through my mind—even 20+ years later. This is why, when I came across a marketing article from 2011, it resonated. It also still applies.

For any PR professional at any stage of their career, the article, “Clay Christensen’s Milkshake Marketing,” from the Harvard Business School’sWorking Knowledgesite is worth a read. The main takeaway: communicate from the perspective of the consumer, the audience.

The job of a milkshake

When deciding how to market a product, a common line of thinking is to act on statistics such as demographics to find a supposed match. However, as Christensen points out in this article, this is a misleading piece of information on which to base sales as it does not take into account the needs of the consumer. Rather, Christensen proposes that marketers should look at it from the perspective of a job that needs to be done. His preferred analogy is the job that a milkshake performs.

As Christensen writes, “The jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: why did she do it that way?”

It’s always about the audience—the broader lesson of milkshake marketing

Christensen and his team spent an entire day at a fast-food restaurant, observing and documenting those who purchased milkshakes and when they did so. They also performed interviews to find out why. Christensen found that the people who purchased milkshakes in the morning did so in order to disrupt the monotony of a boring commute along with staving off hunger. The milkshakes allowed for them to keep their free hands busy and were thick enough that they could not be consumed quickly. Moreover, these shakes eliminated the hunger that they would otherwise feel around 10:00 a.m. so that they would be satisfied until their lunch breaks.

In contrast, milkshakes performed a very different function as an after-school treat for children. The difference was that these consumers wanted much thinner milkshakes than their morning counterparts in order to keep the parents from waiting extended periods of time while their children drank them.

Had the restaurant continued to strictly act on time-of-use and demographic data, these completely different milkshakes likely would not have been made, and their sales would have stagnated below their potential.

The bottom line

As Christensen’s milkshake marketing example shows us, looking at statistics alone will not necessarily lead to maximum sales. Instead, ask yourself what job the product can fulfill, adjust the product in such a way that it can get the job done, and then release it to the market. If the product can serve more than one function, such as the thick versus thin milkshakes, then there is that much more in it for the audience.

This article originally appeared on the St. Conti Communications blog; reprinted with permission.

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Donna St. Jean Conti

Donna St. Jean Conti, APR, is president of St. Conti Communications, an award-winning, full-service, marketing communications agency specializing in public relations, social media, and writing support. We are based in Mission Viejo, Calif.


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