How One Company Keeps Changing the Game by Selling the Same Thing

From startups to Fortune 500 companies, organizations are constantly thinking about how to come up with the next big idea — the true game changer. But just as in baseball, companies that swing for the fences tend to strike out a lot. While innovation is certainly about taking smart risks and experimenting with the unknown, coming up with that breakthrough product doesn’t necessarily mean stretching the organization far beyond the core. Great ideas — wildly successful, game-changing ideas — can come from familiar product categories, and they can actually look quite simple once you’ve come up with them. In fact, for the better part of the past century, Sargento has repeatedly rocked the food and beverage world by finding new ways to sell cheese. Let’s look at how Sargento has turned under-satisfied jobs to be done into decades of success.

According to a theory popularized by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in the early 2000s, customers “hire” products to satisfy certain “jobs” they’re trying to get done in their lives. Those jobs can be functional, such as making sure your children get the nutrients they need from their meal. They can also be emotional, such as ensuring that your partner appreciates the effort you put into preparing a meal. Companies create game-changers when they offer customers a way to solve for jobs that are highly important but difficult to satisfy with the current set of available solutions. Sargento has shown us at least three different ways to innovate around a job to be done.

Leverage a unique or emerging technology to better satisfy a job

Despite being a cheese company, Sargento has also been a leader in technology, bringing the industry frequent improvements in how cheese is cut and packaged. In 1958 Sargento became the first company to market packaged shredded cheese. By handling the shredding of cheese for customers and packaging it to preserve freshness, Sargento was able to bring cheese to more occasions and broaden its overall consumption. Because shredding cheese requires a grater and a fair bit of time, dishes such as lasagna or pizza were often left for restaurants or weekend gatherings. Sargento made it easier for customers to make real meals — not microwaved TV dinners — that satisfied emotional needs for occasions where it was previously challenging, such as during the week or in a minimally-equipped kitchen.

Beyond slicing or shredding cheese in different ways, Sargento has consistently been a pioneer in cheese packaging. From vacuum-sealing to resealable bag technology, the company has consistently been at the forefront of innovation. In doing so, Sargento has used these advances in packaging to change the way people purchase cheese. By making it easier to keep cheese fresh for longer periods of time, cheese has become more of a household staple instead of an ingredient you buy for a specific recipe.

Balance the satisfaction of functional and emotional jobs

Companies that focus only on functional jobs miss opportunities to differentiate their products or find lucrative niches. Sargento has embraced Jobs to be Done thinking in a way that retains that crucial focus on emotional jobs. According to the company’s Vice President for New Platform Development Rod Hogan, “Sandwiches do a number of jobs extremely well, and cheese is a key ingredient…Some consumers were cutting back on meat, and others found that their ham and turkey staples weren’t terribly exciting.” Sargento recognized that customers wanted to eat healthier while also ensuring that their meals were interesting and capable of offering variety. For many, lunch sets the tone for the entire afternoon, which makes a boring sandwich a real problem.

Hogan went on to explain how in-person ethnographic research highlighted an opportunity for innovation. “Consumers loved cheese, but they didn’t love the fat and the calories associated with the cheese they crave. What we found was that consumers were adopting a number of compensating behaviors to manage the tradeoffs. Sometimes they’d have cheese one day but not the next. Sometimes they’d keep the cheese on the sandwich but feel like they needed to ‘make it up elsewhere’ in their meal. Finally, some consumers would add the cheese but feel guilty.”

To help customers satisfy both their functional and emotional jobs, Sargento introduced its Ultra Thin line in 2012. Rather than trying to push reduced-fat cheeses, which sacrifice on taste, Sargento offered thinner slices of the full-flavored cheeses its customers loved. Customers could get the taste they were used to while still enjoying natural, lower-calorie cheese that satisfied key health objectives. First-year sales for the Ultra Thin line exceeded $50 million, and sales nearly doubled in year two. Taking a broader look, the product line drove 6% growth in the sliced natural cheese segment.

Capitalize on a trend that is making a particular job more prevalent or important

Even since its Ultra Thin launch, healthy-eating trends have continued to drive the food and beverage industry. This has made certain “natural-food jobs,” such as removing chemicals and artificial ingredients from diets, rise in popularity. According to a Consumer Reports survey, 62% of shoppers usually buy foods labeled as natural. Of those shoppers, 87% said they would pay more if the term met all of their expectations for what a natural food should be.

Responding to this trend, Sargento launched its Balanced Breaks — snack boxes that pair the company’s natural cheeses with dried fruits and nuts. By riding the health trend and satisfying these newly prominent jobs, the company has been able to grow its business in two important ways. First, the Balanced Breaks have helped Sargento play a bigger role during daytime snacking occasions. While many of the company’s products are typically used for lunches and dinners, these snack boxes are meant to keep the organization top of mind at all hours. Second, the new product line represents Sargento’s first expansion beyond cheese. By adding fruits and nuts to its repertoire, it is building its credibility in non-cheese adjacencies should it choose to grow further beyond its core business.

What Sargento has shown us is that it’s possible to create game-changing new products without just shooting for the moon and hoping for the best. Being able to consistently launch breakthrough new products requires a disciplined, repeatable process for understanding and solving for under-addressed jobs to be done. Once you’ve done your research on what customers need and how they’ll react to new offerings, Sargento has shown us how several common techniques — leveraging unique technologies to better satisfy a job, satisfying both functional and emotional jobs, and capitalizing on trends to solve for emerging jobs — can provide a simple basis for a game-changing idea.

Dave Farber is a Boston-based growth strategy and innovation consultant at New Markets Advisors. He is a co-author of the new book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation, which was named as a finalist for the best general business book of 2016.

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