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How To Know What Clients Want, Part 1: What McDonald’s and Snickers Can Teach Us About Health and Fitness

By John Berardi, PhD

Client and Customer Research

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Health and fitness has been historically bad at figuring out why clients really hire us. This leads to hit-or-miss marketing, confused prospects, unsatisfied customers. This 3-part series offers a better approach to knowing what clients want and delivering it every time. In part 1, an introduction to the Jobs To Be Done methodology.

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How McDonalds Engineered A Better Selling Milkshake

Once upon a time, McDonald’s—in an attempt to boost revenue from a flagging line of business—set out to improve their milkshake sales.

As most companies do, they segmented their market by product (i.e. milkshakes vs. hamburgers) and by demographics (i.e. people who buy milkshakes vs. people who buy hamburgers).

From there they surveyed large groups who buy milkshakes, asking lots of questions about milkshakes. Finally, they gathered small groups who buy milkshakes and had them taste and rate different milkshakes.

From the feedback they got, they changed their milkshakes.

Sales didn’t improve.

Disappointed, but unfazed, McDonald’s tried a totally different approach. They hired an innovative (and, at the time, controversial) team of Harvard researchers to help them figure out the “job” that people “hire” milkshakes to do. Weird concept, I know. But stick with me; it’ll all make sense.

To discover the “job to be done,” the research team spent days at McDonald’s locations, recording who bought milkshakes, when they bought them, where they drank them. They didn’t ask questions. They just watched and documented actual behavior, learning that over 40 percent of milkshakes were sold “to go,” in the morning, to people commuting to work.

Later they returned to McDonald’s and interviewed this large group of milkshake-buying commuters to figure out what “job” they “hired” the milkshake to do.

Their summary:

  • Milkshake commuters were facing a long, boring drive and needed something to keep their non-driving hand busy, an activity to make the commute more interesting.
  • They weren’t yet hungry but knew they’d be hungry by 10 a.m. So they wanted something to eat or drink that would keep hunger at bay until noon.
  • They were in a hurry, wearing work clothes, and they had (at most) one free hand.

So, instead of getting a muffin or breakfast sandwich, they chose a milkshake because it’s less messy, it’s filling, and (here’s a fascinating insight) trying to suck a thick liquid through a tiny straw gave them something to do during their boring drive.

Understanding this was the “job,” McDonald’s created a milkshake that was thicker (lasts longer, more satisfying) and added chunks of fruit (to make it “more interesting” and, no doubt, create a health halo: “Look, fruit. It’s healthy.”)

How Snickers Convinced Us That Their Candy Bar Is Really A Meal Replacement

Snickers has taken a similar approach by looking for the “job to be done.”

Even if you’ve never eaten a Snickers, you know their classic tagline “It satisfies.” For more than 30 years, Mars has poured their energy into convincing us that Snickers isn’t a “candy bar” but—much like the McDonald’s milkshake—an easy-to-grab, not-messy meal alternative.

Their 1980s ad nails the job perfectly: “I got deadlines to meet. I can’t let something like hunger get in the way. Snickers fills me up until I can grab a meal. It cuts the hunger. Lets me take care of business.” As does their more recent campaign: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

The Mars company arrived at these insights in the same way McDonald’s did. They hired the same Harvard researchers to hang out in convenience stories and airport terminals to watch people buy Snickers.

Then, as soon as someone bought a Snickers bar and walked out of the store, the team would interview them using a particular framework (which I’ll share later in this article series).

What they learned was that Snickers customers were mostly young men, hungry (in that “if I don’t get food soon, I’m gonna be angry” way), and in a hurry.

Also—and this is crucial—most of the people who bought Snickers didn’t consider any other candy bars. For them it wasn’t a choice between Snickers and Milky Way; they were choosing between Snickers and other cheap, hunger-satisfying, on-the-go snacks like sandwiches, burritos, or beef jerky.

Based on this insight, and by convincing people Snickers isn’t a candy bar at all but a satisfying meal replacement, Mars turned Snickers into the world’s #1 selling candy bar.

What Can Health and Fitness Pros Learn From McDonalds and Snickers?

McDonald’s milkshakes and Snickers bars have become iconic and recognized world-wide, not because they’re necessarily tastier or cheaper than their competitors but because they were developed and marketed based on deeper, often non-intuitive, insights about the “job” they’ve been “hired” to do by their customers.

So, milkshakes and candy bars . . . how do they relate to health and fitness? Well, they don’t (and yes, a milkshake sounds like a terribly unhealthy breakfast).

But the principle of searching for the “job to be done” does.

The health and fitness industry has been historically bad at identifying the “job” people are “hiring” our products and services to do.

The result? We end up making (and marketing) things with a kindergarten-simple view of customers and then complain that they don’t seem to understand what we’re offering or why it’s important.

It’s time we leveled up. It’s time to think more deeply about the people we’ve chosen to serve, our clients and customers, and what they’re looking for when they reach out to us.

Time invested here pays huge dividends by helping you make and market the things people will line up for, tell their friends about, and buy over and over again. And, in parts 2 and 3 of this series, I’ll show you how.

In The Meantime, Want To Learn More? Go Deeper?

Then download this FREE sample of my latest book, Change Maker.

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Whether you work as a health coach, strength coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doc, or rehab specialist, Change Maker will help you discover the right direction to take, the fastest way to make progress, and the practical steps required to build the career of your dreams in health and fitness.

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