Explore Pixar‘s Relationship with Their Customers

Explore Pixar‘s Relationship with Their Customers

Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, was asked to comment on kids as consumers. Specifically, the question asked about Pixar’s views on the trends they see amongst their five-year-old demographic (skip to the 24:10 mark in the video). His answer:

Five year olds actually haven’t changed as much. Clearly, the teenage world has changed a lot more because of the way media is spread. So that’s actually the bigger change. For the children, we haven’t seen much. In terms of the way we think about our stories though, we don’t segment them in that sense. That is, we do make movies that children can enjoy but we also make films that we [adults] can enjoy. And we believe very strongly that children live in an adult world. So we want things in the films which they don’t understand. Not that we’re trying to do it. But what makes things interesting for children is they’re figuring out the world. And if you try to make something in a movie so that it’s all easy for them to figure out, you’re actually having a distortion of the world they operate in and that they like to be in.

Does his response indicate that Pixar takes a jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) approach to their films? It’s certainly a stretch to definitively say they do based on one question and answer exchange, but let’s dive in a bit as a thought experiment.

A tenet of JTBD is that segmenting markets by people (i.e. demographics) is the wrong unit of analysis when building products. Instead, the jobs and the  situational context within which they exist provide a clearer link between people and their actions. It would appear from the exchange that Pixar does not ask “what movie will five-year-olds like and want to see?” but rather “what job do people hire films to get done?” Are they hired to entertain? To act as cheap, temporary babysitters? To momentarily escape from normal, daily life?

We can analyze and debate films’ JTBD and the situations in which people hire them, but instead of going down that path let’s consider how Mr. Catmull thinks about it based on his Q&A session.

For Catmull, Pixar isn’t making movies for five-year-olds, he’s making movies that transcend the simplicity and one-size-fits-all mentality that comes with demographic segmentation. He acknowledges that children are customers, but also acknowledges that the end result doesn’t revolve around them to the exclusion of others. He’s more motivated to tell a story about the world we live in—a world in which kids and adults are participants. Therefore, Pixar is less interested in telling a story that only addresses the cognitive abilities of children and more interested in telling a universally accessible story about the world we all experience, young and old. This approach cuts across demographic segments making them an ineffective and counterproductive way to consider customers.

We could argue, upon deeper reflection, that a Pixar film’s JTBD is to explore and examine the human condition through the perspective of fictional characters that resemble the world, but are not of this world in order to reconnect with our own humanity. In essence, Pixar reminds us we’re human in a world that so often doesn’t treat us as such. If you buy that (and it’s not important that you do—this is an mental exercise after all), then it’s a small step to realize how such a job wouldn’t fit neatly into carefully considered demographic segments.

Catmull provides additional information for our exercise at various other points in the interview. At one point, he explains Pixar’s belief that personal investment on the part of a director is key to making a film special. He citesUp’s achievement in this regard. It went “…above and beyond the standard vocabulary that’s used in storytelling.” In essence, Pixar entrusts new product development (and the massive investment that comes with it) into a single person’s vision. And it’s expected that the director’s vision will connect with moviegoers on a deep level. We could translate that to mean this: Pixar expects their films to address the unmet or underserved needs amongst their customers to feel human instead of creating films to fit perceived opportunities in a demographically sliced and diced market.

Catmull also suggests that Pixar doesn’t focus group their films. Instead, directors periodically and regularly present their films to a brain trust of internal staff who give feedback and offer commentary. What this tells us is that, again, the vision that drives the film is not limited by superficial market segments. It succeeds because it addresses a latent need that exists in the world. You don’t have to be five to enjoy Up nor do you have to be 35. You don’t have to be male or female, wealthy or poor. None of that matters because the film taps a deeper link with people along the jobs-to-be-done spectrum that would otherwise be missed if demographic segmentation were the only yardstick.

What’s most interesting about the lead quote from Catmull’s above is that Pixar avoids the trap of considering itself a maker of films for kids which ultimately drives their success with them.