How long can you tread water? Would sixty months be unreasonable? Marketers, get yourselves in shape for the long haul. Marketing budgets will once again receive scrutiny in the wake of fallout from the debt ceiling crisis and the U.S. credit downgrade, and marketers must be ready to respond.

The impact of those sixty months? Marketers will now be asked to move faster than ever before to create value – and drive revenue growth. If marketers are to hold onto (or grow) existing budget dollars, it will come with the requirement for faster product launches, faster process improvements, faster innovation teams – faster cycle times for everything.

If you believe CED panel moderator Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist magazine’s Washington based economics editor, we’ve now officially shed 300 years of the Industrial Age economy and are experiencing the third biggest economic revolution in world history. This new thirty year cycle is yet to be named, but some pundit will no doubt label it shortly.

But as the chart below reveals, the current job recovery rate, at sixty months, is ten times slower than the length of time it took to pull out of recessions just thirty years ago, when jobs were replaced in as little as six months:

Key questions: When the word comes down from senior management, do you have a needs identification process that allows you to move fast? Can you rapidly gain agreement around customer needs not only within marketing but also across other stakeholder groups?

Here is a two-step approach that speeds agreement on the nature of customer needs without tossing innovation out the window. This approach can accelerate your ability to create high-impact/high-value initiatives rapidly in today’s volatile economic landscape.

Connect “Needs” and “Jobs to Be Done”

Tony Ulwick, business author and founder of innovation consulting firm Strategyn, has written in depth on customer needs and how to identify them. Credited for coining the term “outcome-driven innovation,” his book, What Customers Want, as well as his published articles in the Harvard Business Review, are widely cited when linking customer needs to desired “outcomes.”

Ulwick believes that customers’ desired outcomes relate to “jobs” they want to have done. Customers buy products or services because of their ability to complete these desired jobs. Jobs can have functional outcomes (“transport me to work every day”) or emotional outcomes (“make me look cool”). Ulwick’s philosophies contemporize those of renowned marketing guru Theodore Levitt, who coined the term “marketing myopia” and also famously said:

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

– Theodore Levitt, 1975

Defining customer needs has long been a treacherous swampland for marketers. Ulwick’s approach was developed years ago following his own frustrations in dealing with inconsistent language used in defining customer needs. He found that popular approaches like “Voice-of-the-Customer” and “lead user” methodologies often used language that was vague and laced with terms like “easy to use” or “low maintenance.”

He felt that without a paragraph long explanation of these terms, no engineering or manufacturing group could effectively incorporate such concepts into a successful development process.

Step 1: Create a “Needs” Statement Using Unambiguous Language

The first step in Ulwick’s approach to defining customer needs focuses on use of language that’s simple and unambiguous. He uses language that readily spans all functional groups and allows everyone participating in the needs identification process to create a context for how the identified needs can be fulfilled (see Step 2 further below).

Ulwick begins by creating needs statements via linking one of two directional terms to a measurable outcome. Options are shown in the chart to the right.

Ulwick connects the term “increase” or “decrease” with one of the measurable outcome options shown. By generating several statements using these terms that all relate to one primary “job,” a robust picture of the needs that lie within that primary job emerge (This information also helps guide Step 2, which focuses on who – or what can fulfill – these jobs.).

Using this formula, here are a few possible statements of needs for the “job” of Downloading Music:


  • Increase the number of songs available for selection.
  • Minimize the time it takes to locate a song when key information is missing, such as song name or artist name.
  • Minimize the likelihood of accidentally selecting the wrong song.
  • Minimize the time it takes to queue up songs in the order in which they are to be played.
  • Increase the likelihood that sound quality remains constant from song to song.
  • Minimize the time it takes to remove a song from the playing queue.

Notice that each of these statements is objective. No statement offers a solution (Needs statements must always be free of solutions!). This ensures that all parties creating the needs statements don’t allow favored agendas to emerge and keeps bias out of the process.

Step 2: Identify the Job Executor

In Step 2, marketers have more latitude to employ creativity. Once a stream of needs and their desired outcomes has been identified, it’s possible to disrupt the existing playing field and identify an entirely new target group to fulfill these job(s). Ulwick calls this identifying the job “executor.”

Beyond the benefits of tapping a new target audience, identifying a new job executor can drive numerous forms of innovation: business model innovation, technology innovation, process innovation – and more.

For example, when considering how to address the burgeoning population of aging Baby Boomers that wanted to look younger, Procter & Gamble realized they could fulfill a huge emotional need for this audience through the job “whiten teeth.”

After developing needs statements (Step 1) associated with teeth whitening, P&G knew it could completely disrupt the professional whitening market. Instead of requiring a dentist to complete the whitening process, the company discovered a breakthrough way for consumers to conduct the whitening process at home without ever setting foot in a dentist’s office.

By applying the lens of innovation to Step 2 – identifying a new job executor – P&G successfully launched Crest Whitestrips driving millions of dollars in new revenue.

Below are several examples of how “job executors” have changed based on new thinking about who – or what – can fulfill a job:

Work with your colleagues to consider how needs, jobs, and outcomes relate. Create a stream of needs statements using the process identified in Step 1. In Step 2, let your creativity run wild and identity who/what can deliver the desired outcomes. Watch the breakthroughs emerge!

This two-step approach is similar to the “needs first” approach Thomas Edison used in driving his world-famous innovations. Edison also added diverse investment scenarios to the opportunities he identified…a great option which helped him secure funding.

Use this two-step approach now to rapidly open white space to new markets, new usage contexts, and new delivery platforms that will power-up your innovation process!