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A few years back McDonalds set themselves the task of selling more milkshakes. First they went about it in the usual marketing way. They segmented their market, looked at their product categories, found out exactly who the milkshake buyers were, and held a focus group. They asked the group what would make the milkshakes even better: should they be creamier? Crunchier? More chocolatey? Armed with the feedback, McDonalds went back and improved their product. Which had precisely zero effect on sales and profitability. So they did the smart thing and hired Professor Clayton Christensen, the guy who’d coined the term ‘disruption.’ The first thing he did was send one of his colleagues down to a McDonalds restaurant. Their job was to spend 18 hours in there, with just one question in mind: ‘What job do people hire a milkshake to do for them?’

This colleague carefully observed people buying milkshakes: what they were wearing, whether they bought a meal as well, whether they were alone, etc. Turns out, half of all the milkshakes were bought early in the morning, it was usually the only thing those customers bought, and they were always alone. It was a very particular type of person. Christensen’s colleague asked them why they were buying the milkshake. Here’s what he found out.

These milkshake buyers all had long and boring drives ahead, and needed something that would make the early hours more palatable (pun intended). So a milkshake was absolutely perfect. Even though they weren’t hungry yet, they knew they would be by about 10 o’clock. They just wanted something to fill them up in the morning. They said they’d tried many other snacks. But bananas were too quick to eat. Donuts made their hands all sticky. And bagels left them covered in crumbs. The only product that did the job well was a milkshake. It would take around 20 minutes to drink, so by 10:00am they were still full. It wasn’t messy, unlike other snacks. And it sat in their coffee cup holder perfectly. McDonalds listened, had a think, and released a milkshake that was thicker than normal. They added in chunks of fruit, as well. It was an absolute hit.

What McDonalds had done, with Professor Christensen’s help, was learn that the market they were serving was not the milkshake market. It was the market of consuming food while travelling. And they soon found that this market was seven times bigger than they had thought. In short: they sold a lot of milkshakes.

So if you’re trying to sell more of your product, start by asking: what problem is it really solving?



Solved is a problem-solving blog for entrepreneurs, creators, and anyone else who uses their brain for a living. 


Some articles are anti-BS action plans to help your business grow. Others are questions that help you crack problems laterally and creatively.

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