James C. Gunter

James C. Gunter

My Milkshake Brings All the Boys (and Girls) to the Yard

This following is based on a presentation I gave February 12, 2014, for the Social Media Club of Salt Lake City’s monthly get together. The theme for the night was “Battle of the Sexes.” I was asked to join a panel of other presenters to talk about how to craft messages to men vs. women. This was my response.

My MilkShake Brings All the Boys (and Girls) to the Yard credit

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that gender doesn’t matter that much when we’re talking about determining how to message an audience. In fact, thinking that gender should play a big role in your messaging can actually very problematic.

gender doesn't matter...that much credit

For an example of what I mean, let’s take a look at some statistics.

Women make up 51% of the world population. That's 3.5 billion women credit

If you’re going to target “women” as a group, keep in mind that women make up about 51% of the worldwide population. That’s roughly 3.5 billion women with different backgrounds, from different cultures, speaking different languages.

Granted, they are all basically the same physically, but differences between them make it highly unlikely that any one message is going to resonate with all of them equally.

But maybe that’s a bit unfair. If you’re here in America, you’re probably just trying to message American women.

155 million women in the US

That still leaves you with about 155 million women. That group is still too large and diverse to message effectively.

So, let’s say you don’t have time to translate your message into Spanish, Korean, or Japanese. Maybe you’re only going to target English-speaking women in the US.

124 million English speaking women in the US

Well, there are still 124 million of those.

And if you still want to try and whittle that down further, you could isolate just white women.

78 million English speaking white women in the US

But even then that’s still 78 million women with wide variety of attitudes, political views, familial organizations, regional cultures, dialects, and more.

So, if you’re trying to target “women,” how do you speak effectively to that many people at the same time?

How do you message that?
You don’t.

And when you try to create broad messaging to reach an ill-defined audience, the tendency is to fall back on stereotypes.

Walmart ad featuring stereotypical boys and girls toys

Boys like to build things and play war, and girls like to play house and bake in the kitchen.

Essentially, when you try and target broadly, based solely on gender, the message won’t end up resonating with anyone and no one will care.


So what’s the solution?

Well, Harvard business professor Clay Christensen has been researching the effects of demographic-based marketing messages for the last 10 years. And overall, he’s come to the conclusion that they aren’t effective at all. Instead, he’s be working on a “functional” model of messaging.

Essentially, he says, consumers “hire” products to do a job for them.

Customer hire products to do the jobs they need done

Do you need to open a bottle? You hire a bottle opener to do the job for you.

Need to get from point A to point B quickly? You hire a car to get you there faster than if you were to walk.

At the heart of this theory is the idea that demographic correlation does not equal cause of purchase.

Demographic correlation does not equal cause of purchase

Essentially, people don’t buy products because they are of a certain gender, race, age, or economic class. They buy them because they have a specific need they need met.

In marketing, you’ll often hear things like, “Our target is a 18-24 year-old white males.” When this is all you have to go on, the messaging generally centers on what research has revealed that 18-24 year-old white males think is cool, instead of messaging that audience based on the need they need met.

Of course, you don’t buy products because you’re an 18-24 year-old white male. You buy products because you have a need you want filled.

We all know this. But in marketing sometimes we forget that real people buy our products and not just demographics.

So, how does this relate to milkshakes?

The Milkshake Study credit

One example that Christensen uses to illustrate his theory of functional marketing messages is the milkshake case study.

A fast food restaurant wanted to increase milkshake sales, so they did the normal thing that marketing departments do. They identified their demographic, surveyed people in the demographic, and asked them what they liked about milkshakes.

They offered responses based on their ideal milkshake, like, “smooth,” “creamy,” “sweet,” etc.

So, the marketing department went back to the rest of the company and said, “Let’s create, smoother, creamier, sweeter milkshakes—that’s what’s going to increase sales.”

So they did that and they used those attributes as the messaging to kick off their milkshake campaign.

And milkshake sales went absolutely nowhere.

But we did everything right, said the failed marketing executive

“Wait! We did everything right!,” yells a frustrated marketing executive. “We identified our demographic, asked them what they wanted, and then we gave it to them. That should have worked!”

But it didn’t.

This is when Christensen came into the picture.

Instead of starting with demographics, Christensen went into the fast food locations to observe not only who was buying milkshakes but when they were buying them and what they were doing with them.

One of the interesting things they observed was that 40% of milkshakes sold every day were being sold before 8am. And they noticed that most of the people buying milkshakes weren’t sticking around the restaurant to drink them. They were leaving with them—off to do something else.

To follow up, he went back to the restaurant and talked to the customers who were buying milkshakes in the morning and leaving the restaurant to drink them.

And he found some interesting similarities.

A long commute

A lot of these people told Christensen that they had a long commute ahead of them, and they wanted something to do while they drove. That is, they were using the milkshake to keep them entertained through their commute. They liked having something they could suck on and keep their mouths occupied throughout drive to work.

Additionally they liked the fact that a milkshake would keep them full during the morning, so they wouldn't get hungry before lunch. The milkshake was also easy to drink in the car and wasn’t messy (like a breakfast sandwich).

Christensen then went back to the fast food company and told them to re-focus their efforts on thickness and the long-lasting nature of the milkshake. In fact, they should throw in some fruit chunks to make the experience of drinking the milkshake more interesting.

re-focus on thickness and the long-lasting nature of your milkshakes credit

So the company changed the milkshakes and changed their messaging. Then they finally had some success increasing milkshake sales.

This example points to a basic fact: understanding the needs of your audience is more important that understanding their demographic group.

Understanding audience need is more important than understanding demographic groups

Let’s take a look at another example: the NFL.

NFL logo

The NFL has also had some struggles with stereotyping their audience through demographics.

We all know the NFL is a guy thing. All men love football, and women couldn't care less. Right?

Girl football fans are usually seen like this:

“I’m just here with my boyfriend who bought me this cute pink jersey!”

Well, not necessarily.

After doing some research on football fans a few years ago, the NFL found that 45% of NFL fans are women.

45% of NFL fans are women
That's nearly half.

In fact, if you’ll notice the picture above (tweeted by Moz just before the Seahawks vs. 49ers game a few weeks ago), of the people who dressed up in their office to show support for the Seahawks, 4 were men and 7 were women.

So, based on their research, the NFL decided to launch a campaign for their women’s clothing line in 2008

Take a look at this commercial titled, “Cat Fight,” that exemplifies their early efforts to reach the female NFL fan demographic.

These early efforts didn’t resonate with female fans for a number of reasons.

Primarily, they illustrated the fact that the NFL didn't take female fans seriously. In the commercial, you’ll notice the mimicking of “male” fan behavior followed by cheek kissing, booty bumping, and “cutesy” mannerisms. And it ends as one woman judges another for wearing the opposting team's jersey.

Additionally, the clothing is extremely feminine. This isn’t the clothing that men wear--what might be termed "authentic" NFL clothing. Rather, it’s clothing that is skimpier and more feminine in nature.

The basic message of this ad and other NFL marekting targeted at women is that female fans are a different kind of NFL fan. They’re not authentic fans. They exist to look cute and mimic the behavior of male fans—-who are, by extension, the “real” football fans.

Needless to say, early efforts didn’t create a tidal wave of women buying NFL clothing.

In 2010, the NFL retooled their efforts to reach female fans with the “Fit for You” campaign.

The NFL's 'Fit for You' campaign

Unlike the NFL’s previous efforts, the Fit for You campaign wasn’t about gender stereotyping.

Instead of treating female fans as a separate type of inauthentic fan, this campaign featured taglines like…

Fashion for every fan

Together we make football
The message of this campaign is not, “You’re a girl fan.” It is “You’re a fan, and we have clothes to fit your body.”

NFL Fit for You images

What the NFL had to go back and ask itself was, “What are female fans hiring official NFL clothing to do for them?”

What do women hire NFL clothes to do?

The answer: The same thing male fans are hiring NFL clothing to do--show support for their favorite team.

Both male and female fans want to achieve the same thing. The only difference is their body types.

This approach has been much more successful for the NFL.


By fall 2012, NFL women’s apparel had experienced triple-digit sales growth, and 6 of the top 10 best-selling jerseys on NFLShop.com were women’s jerseys.

Additionally, a study done by researchers at the University of Central Florida in 2013, found that women’s apparel accounted for 63% of clothing sales at live NFL games, and 53% of the women who bought clothes bought more than one item.

Again, demographic correlation doesn’t equal cause of purchase.

Demographic correlation doesn't equal cause of purchase

The first mistake made by the NFL was thinking that women want to by women’s clothes simply because they are women. The NFL didn't think about the reasons behind the purchase or what female fanes were trying to achieve. After realizing that female fans aren't all that different in their desire to be fans, they were finally able to message their audience in the right way and get the results they were trying to achieve.

I’ve experienced the same principle in my own work.

I recently had the opportunity with work with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (CMNH) on redesigning their home page.

Children's Miracle Network Hospitals

CMNH traditionally receives about 40% of their annual online donations during the month of December. This past year (2013), they wanted to take advantage of the increased site traffic to encourage more people to donate.

Their existing website was focused on the CMNH corporate image as well as recent and upcoming events—not on gathering donations. They wanted to change that.

CMNH already had some data that explained a little bit about the types of people that generally donate to theri cause.

#1: Their largest demographic group of patrons where older, white, women who tended to be somewhat affluent.

Old white women

#2: One of the biggest reason people donated to CMNH was the “warm fuzzy” feeling they felt when they donated—knowing that their donation was going to help children get medical care.

Warm fuzzies

In a meeting with the team that was going to design the page, the first idea that was suggested was a demographic-approach to the content.

Let's focus on identifying with the demographic

The idea focused on placing pictures of the target demographic on the home page (older, affluent, white women) along with testimonials about why these women liked donating to CMNH.

The logic was, “if you’re an older white woman who comes to the website, you’ll see people like you on the home page and feel the desire to donate.”

Keeping in mind the idea that demographic identification doesn’t equal cause of purchase, I had a feeling that this may not be the most effective approach.

Essentially, I asked myself, “What’s their milkshake?”--what are these older, white women hiring CMNH to do for them?

What's their milkshake? credit

These women wanted to feel good about donating to a charity that was going to use the money to help sick kids get care. In short, they wanted the warm fuzzies.

So I proposed a different approach that would maximize the emotions the audience wanted to feel. Below you’ll see the result.

New Children's Miracle Network Hospitals's home page

The main message was clear; donation money goes directly to help local children. (A state name would be inserted dynamically in the headline depending on the visitor’s location.)

Follow up messages focused on the fact that CMNH was in need of help, stories of actual children who were helped by donations, and some messaging about the amount of children than need help as well as the how CMNH helps kids get the care they need.

The result blew me away

Nearly doubled the number of donors

Between Thanksgiving and December 31st of 2013, the number of online donors nearly doubled over the same period in 2012.

Now, this wasn’t an A/B test. I can’t say we tested both approaches and the “milkshake” version got more donations.

However, I do believe that the increased donations were due (at least in part) to the fact that we didn’t try and message demographics at all. Instead we focused on maximizing the job that that potential donors were hiring CMNH to do for them. And they responded to it.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying that demographics should be ignored. However, what I’m trying to get across is that demographics are the very least you should know about your audience.

Demographics are the very least you should know about your audience

Demographics, including gender, are great for helping you massage your messaging and they should be taken into account when thinking about tactics and overall tone.

However, using demographics as the primary basis for your messaging is less effective than focusing on what your audience is trying to achieve with your product or service.

So, the next time you’re thinking about how to create an effective message for your demographic. I want you to ask: What’s your milkshake?

What's your milkshake? credit