The Potential and Perils of ‘Jobs To Be Done’

A deceptively simple question is taking many marketing teams by storm. What, the question asks, is the ‘Job To Be Done’ (JTBD)? This simple question focuses us on understanding the outcome that the consumer is trying to achieve when they buy a product or service. The simplicity of the approach seems to be helping brands achieve real cut-through in their thinking and as such is generating real excitement. Whilst there is indisputable value in this, there has been a lack of discussion concerning the limitations. And the real value of any approach can only be realised when its boundaries can be identified and articulated.

First, let’s briefly summarise what JTBD entails. First, it focuses us on understanding that your product is only one possible solution through which a consumer may achieve their desired outcome.  So the consumer does not necessarily want a drill per se as the JTBD is actually a hole in the wall.  It might be better achieved, for example, through a tool hire service or a handyman service. With this thinking, the innovation process can become a more creative one where we look beyond the standard portfolio of ‘solutions’ that exist in the category.

Second, it means that we are less inclined to keep fine tuning the fit between products and ‘attitudinal’ consumer segments. If a brand is, for example, launching a low-cost car insurance policy, then the JTBD is quite functional – insure my car for less. In which case the focus on finding the right brand positioning is perhaps secondary as this desired outcome is one that has broad appeal, regardless of demographic or attitudinal profile.

Third, a brand can start considering how their product or service can be considered for a ‘Job’ for which it was not necessarily previously considered. It may be that consumers think of the cinema as a place to watch the latest film in comfort (perfectly reasonably) but it does not necessarily come to mind as a place to entertain kids on a rainy day. If cinemas chose to promote themselves as a solution for this job, then they may find a larger addressable market.

There is no doubt that JTBD provides useful cut-through and acts as a healthy anecdote to some of the constrained thinking around product innovation.  Whilst this approach clearly has value, there are a few look-outs that we should also be challenging.

First, JTBD moves the ‘unit of analysis’ away from the consumer and onto the ‘job’.  So market segments, for example, are no longer based and sized on groups of individuals and their needs but on the ‘jobs’ or ‘desired outcomes’.  At one level this is pretty useful.  It gives a clear measurement of the scale of the market opportunity, particularly when taking into account the adoption of current solutions for that ‘job’.  Whilst this is useful, it creates a subtle yet important shift in our thinking.  We are now less focused on the human aspects of the situation, the psychological, social and cultural issues that influence consumer behaviour. Of course, we have desired outcomes but we also have values, beliefs and attitudes that are swirling around influencing our behaviours.

Of course, the JTBD framework recognises that our needs are not purely ‘functional’ but that we also have emotional and social jobs to be done. And this signals another key look-out for market researchers as this account of human life seems rather an anaemic one.  Rather like the claim that Eskimos have fifty words for snow, so market researchers have a breadth of understanding of consumers’ inner, social and cultural lives that this categorisation simply does not adequately serve.  Of course, these categories can be expanded but the emphasis around JTBD nevertheless reflects a narrow conception of human life than one which we might recognise.

The third lookout is the way in which the broad landscape of human motivations is funnelled into a single expression of beguiling simplicity. Again, can we really sum up all human behaviour and motivation as ‘the job to be done’?  Whilst it is a useful call to action for brands to focus on delivering relevant solutions to the market, there is a danger that this elides into simplistic notions about consumer behaviour. To presume that our consumer behaviour can adequately be as ‘desired outcomes’ reduces the breadth of human behaviour into something very one dimensional.

The above points can all be mitigated through the careful integration of the JTBD framework with good quality research activity. These are not mutually exclusive. Of course, any useful model has to distil complexity otherwise it loses its power. Cut through to drive action requires simplicity. The difficulty is when that model moves from being a useful framework to guide thinking and shifts into defining the way we understand consumer behaviour.  And therefore starts to dilute the quality of the research.

And this seems to be exactly what is happening in practice (despite the literature actually often spelling out the need for comprehensive research approaches). The JTBD framework is typically accompanied by methodological approaches to researching consumer needs which look very limited by market research standards. So, these can often involve depth telephone interviews with consumers undertaken by non-researchers about their JTBD for their category.  Whilst there is nothing wrong with this in principle, the danger is that if these sorts of methodologies are all that is done then it results in a much weaker understanding of the opportunities available for brands.

JTBD has much to recommend it as a framework to guide thinking and get organisations focused on the important questions. There are many meetings where asking this simple question can provide a much-needed focus and encourages participants to think more creatively about their challenges.  However, let’s recognise that this is a way of framing business challenges but it is not a means of understanding all consumer behaviour.

Market research needs to stand for some core beliefs and respect our practitioner status.  At our core is the assertion that humans are complex creatures with rich inner lives, embedded in social and cultural contexts. We have a variety of tools and approaches for understanding, explaining and anticipating behaviours, the choice of which we carefully select based on the question that needs to be answered. JTBD is one such tool – now let’s use it and adapt it when we consider there is value but also be very clear about the limitations and boundaries.

By Colin Strong