While the principles of marketing change very little, occasionally an academic will put a new twist on an old concept.  This is the case with Harvard Business School Prof. Clay Christensen.

The basic premise involves the extreme difficulty in creating successful new products.  Prof. Christensen notes that each year approximately 30,000 new consumer products enter the marketplace and 95 percent of them fail.  How then can product developers find that needle in the haystack?

The conventional wisdom, according to Prof. Christensen, is to thoroughly research the market and determine what segments of the market are likely candidates for the new product and seek to differentiate the new offering from existing products and somehow find some niche in the market that will enable the new product to gain a foothold and eventually become profitable.

The new twist coming from Prof. Christensen is that people “hire” a  product to perform a task and that’s why they buy it.  The term ‘milkshake marketing’ stems from work that the professor and his students did in the fast food industry.  He observed that a fast food chain wanted to improve sales of its milkshakes and discovered that this heretofore ”dessert” product was being put to use in a different manner.  He observed that the chain was selling an inordinate quantity of shakes first thing in the morning to a blue collar market or commuters who ordered the shakes to go?


In questioning the buyers of the shakes, it was learned that these people were starting out on a long, boring commute and were looking for something they could hold in one hand and make the commute more interesting.   In other words, they were hiring the milkshake to do a job.  The alternatives – food such as a bagel or doughnut or a hot drink like coffee– simply didn’t do the job as well as the milkshake.   As Prof. Christensen points out, the shake was relatively tidy and appetite-quenching and trying to suck the thick shake through a straw gave the commuter something to do during the commute.

The implications of milkshake marketing are rather compelling.  One obvious lesson is the need to market benefits rather than features.   If you are going to “hire” a product to do a job you had best understand what this new product will do the job better than competitive offerings.  In addition to the benefit, there is the positioning of the product in the marketplace and the branding of the product in such as way as to focus on the job the product is expected to do.

Therefore rather than arbitrary or fanciful names that might focus on the image of the product maker but provide no clue as to function, the best names might  be descriptive or suggestive names that focus on function.   One example Christensen gives is the Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp.   Milwaukee is a leading power tool brand.  One of the new products in question was named “Sawsall,” which tells the customer that this saw will cut almost everything.   Another new Milwaukee product group is its “hole-hawg” drills, which make big holes.  Prof. Christensen notes that the family brand name, Milwaukee, “doesn’t give you any market whatsoever.”