The trouble with Trix: Why healthier foods strike out at check-out

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Dec 7, 2017

Who wouldn’t want a healthier cereal? A lot of people, it turns out.

As The Wall Street Journal reported, customer outcry against the “new and improved,” healthier Trix launched early last year was swift and broad. This may come as a surprise to marketers who see that consumers are more concerned with the health and wellness attributes of their food than ever before.

But our study of consumer purchase decisions reinforces exactly what General Mills learned when their less sweet, less luridly-colored Trix hit supermarket shelves: Consumers don’t want what marketers are selling. Rather, we have a “job” to do—some kind of progress we seek in a particular set of circumstances—and we “hire” products, services and experiences to help us do it. This is the premise of Jobs Theory, which Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, Andrew Waldeck and I apply to the topic of healthcare innovation in our recent paper, Health for hire: Unleashing patient potential to reduce chronic care costs.

Applied to the vastly less complex topic of lawncare, the theory reveals that I didn’t buy an electric grass trimmer because I wanted an effective way to trim the borders of my garden. I bought one because I just moved to a new house and want to be seen as a good neighbor. And after receiving a couple friendly offers to lend me an electric trimmer, I realized that my cul de sac status depends on cropping garden borders more neatly and frequently than I could do with my manual trimmer. Other solutions I might hire for the job “help me be a good neighbor” include baby books for the expectant parents down the block, and gifts of homemade baked goods at the holidays (more an aspiration than likelihood).

Cereal—like any product—can do a lot of different jobs. As General Mills learned, people were hiring the original Trix to do jobs like “help me indulge my kids,” “help me remember happy moments in my childhood,” and “help me stick with my comfortable routine.” So when the company made the cereal healthy, it was no longer a special treat for children; it didn’t mentally whisk adults back to saturday mornings as a kid in the 1970’s; and, perhaps worst of all, it demanded a change in breakfast protocol. Loath to alienate loyal customers, the cereal giant hastened to return original Trix to supermarket shelves, and will sell the healthier version alongside it.

The battle for shelf space is fierce and, as the woeful tale of all-natural Trix attests, consumer purchase decisions are complex. But taking a jobs approach to product development gives companies an edge. It enables them to see beyond purchasing trends to uncover the real progress consumers seek as they browse the supermarket aisles, and design solutions consumers will want to hire to do the job. For General Mills, it might just do the trick.

As Senior Research Fellow for the Christensen Institute, Rebecca’s research focuses on business model innovation in healthcare delivery, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care.