Are You Making “Milkshake Mistakes”?

 A McDonald's Milkshake

Among  the many great ideas and insights in Clay Shirky’s book  “Cognitive Surplus“,   I came across one that was particularly interesting.  It has some valuable lessons for anyone involved in  product development, market research or strategy.

Shirky describes a market research project conducted at McDonald’s aimed at improving their milkshakes.  The intent was to  learn what attributes could be changed to improve sales.  As one would expect,   the researchers  prepared questionnaires and polled random customers about the quality and characteristics of McDonald’s milkshakes.    A  typical outcome  might have been a report with  detailed  analysis of customer preferences about product attributes – sweetness, taste, flavors – with specific recommendations about changes to improve sales.  One of the market researchers – Gerald Berstell, however,  adopted a completely different approach.  He spent several days sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant all day  observing customers who bought milkshakes.  He discovered something  unexpected  – many customers were buying milkshakes during breakfast hours.  He further noticed an unusual pattern – a)  most of these customers came in alone, b)  generally purchased just the milkshake and nothing else, and c) did not consume the milkshakes in the restaurant – it was always “to-go”.    What could be causing this puzzling consumer behavior?  He quickly learnt that all of them were commuting  to work alone in cars.   The McDonald’s milkshake was serving as  the  “breakfast meal”  that they could easily consume  while driving. Its attributes made it perfect for the role it was being assigned – it was filling,  nutritious and  consumed easily with one hand on the wheel!

Almost everyone missed the unexpected use of the milkshake because they focused on the product in isolation rather than the customer. They also missed it because they had preconceived notions of how and when a milkshake is consumed.  They had certain fixed ideas about what constituted a typical breakfast meal.   The role they had assigned the milkshake was not the role that many  McDonald’s customers had assigned it.  As Shirky puts it ““What job is a customer hiring that milkshake to do at eight A.M.?”

Shirky uses the wonderfully evocative and mnemonic  phrase “milkshake mistakes”  to describe the error made by the researchers:

“..they made two kinds of mistakes, things we might call “milkshake mistakes.

The first was to concentrate mainly on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes, without regard to what role the customers wanted it to play—the job they were hiring the milkshake for.

The second mistake was to adopt a narrow view of the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents. Neither the shake itself nor the history of breakfast mattered as much as customers needing food to do a nontraditional job—serve as sustenance and amusement for their morning commute—for which they hired the milkshake.”

There are many valuable lessons and insights here  and let me just elaborate on a few here :

First, a product or service cannot be viewed in isolation from the market it serves.  A  product is defined not just by its intrinsic features but by the customers and markets it serves.  While this may seem pretty obvious and is Marketing 101 – it is surprising to see how commonly it is missed.

Second, your own vision for the product’s  intended use may not always coincide with your customers.  You may design the best widget in the world to do ABC – but if your customers may use it do XYZ.

So, if you want to improve an existing product or service, first observe how and when a customer uses that product or service.   Try and discover every possible way your product or service is being used.    Remember that customers may use your product or service in ways that you least expect or designed for.   Customers can be very creative and confound you with their ingenuity – learn from them. Consider  every non-traditional use of your  product as an  unfulfilled need  that defines a new market niche.  Try and find what customers are “hiring your product to do”.  These could in turn be  brand new markets and huge opportunities for growth overlooked by others.

Look around  and you will find   “milkshake mistakes”  are quite common – from small startups launching products to billion dollar corporations. For example, Twitter launched initially as a way for a group of people to stay connected  via short, quick updates via SMS and email.  It prompted you  to update your status with the question “What are you doing?”.  However,  most users ignored this question and instead used the status update to share interesting information, links and news.   It appears now that Twitter’s viral growth came  from this usage and not from users sharing mundane details of their daily life.  Users were “hiring Twitter” to do a different job than what its founders intended it to do.   However, even in  November 2009,  Twitter continued to prompt users to share  “What are you doing?”. It appeared then that Twitter was making a milkshake mistake in misunderstanding how users were using the service.

More recently,  Microsoft  launched Kinect – an add-on device to the XBox 360 system that  uses cameras and futuristic motion-detection technology to detect gestures and movements to allow users to control games – no controllers required. Shortly after it was launched, however, users “hacked” it and found creative ways to use Kinect to do stuff it was never intended to do    – from creating  3D holographic images using gestures and another to a  3D mapping program for robotic devices.   Microsoft at first threatened to take legal action against such users in order   “to keep Kinect tamper-resistant” – but quickly changed their stance to one that praised these innovation.  They certainly were making a huge “milkshake mistake”  – but thankfully corrected course.

You may be an entrepreneur or an experienced brand manager tasked with the job of creating a new product or improving an existing product.  If so remember to avoid making “milkshake mistakes” !  It may help to keep in mind this great quote  from Eric Ries, who believes that : “Every product is an experiment that tests a specific hypothesis.”

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