When Innosight speaks about jobs-to-be-done we frequently focus on finding important and unsatisfied jobs that represent market opportunities for a company savvy enough to spot them and develop compelling value propositions and business models to capitalize on them. But a thorough understanding of the jobs-to-be-done of your target consumers can also help companies identify competitive threats that may emerge from far outside their traditional market landscape.

In this article posted today at Forbes.com  we see how apparel retailers are no longer fighting each other for the shrinking back-to-school budget, but find themselves competing on a much broader front against big box electronics stores and specialty producers like Apple. Traditionally, research methods in the fashion industry have consisted of trend analysis, looking at the leading edge epicenters of trend makers and fashionistas in Paris, NYC, and Los Angeles, and trying to predict which of these avant garde styles would catch on with the mainstream consumers. This works if you are focused on solving the job of “have a relevant wardrobe” but in the schema of a teen’s life, wardrobe is but one dimension of projecting who they are. A higher-order job for them might be “be seen as current,” with sub-jobs under that of “know current events/movies/bands/catchphrases” and “use latest technology” and “have a relevant wardrobe”.

Over time, the importance of each of these sub-jobs has shifted. Peer pressure determines which will spike most for a teen in terms of contribution to the higher-order job and thereby claim the lion’s share of the back-to- school budget. In the hyper-consumptive 80s, fashion was seen as the way to project currency, with Madonna and Don Johnson-like celebrities leading multiple fashion movements through the decade (neon leg warmers anyone?), while those sporting an Apple IIe in their living room were seen as odd at best. In the 90s, with the explosion of the neo-punk/grunge scene and new online tools enabling global awareness of diverse forms of music and entertainment, fashion took a turn towards flannel and in terms of making a statement, took a back seat to Nirvana, anime, and grassroots music festivals. This past decade has finally seen the rise of machines, where the belt wasn’t nearly as important as what was clipped to it. Smartphones, MP3/media players and handheld video game consoles have become the symbols of “connectedness” and with them, the means to project how current you are, with the Motorola RAZR and the iPhone being icons.

As technology performance becomes more homogenous (who doesn’t have a 3G/4G web-browsing, texting, 5mp video camera-enabled phone that works globally?) and every possible taste in entertainment becomes available on demand, are we once again poised for a resurgence of fashion as the means to project currency? Designers and retailers who recognize this potential will put their marketing dollars into promoting the wardrobe and their brand in particular as the only true way to be current. Without this shift in job importance among teens, an updated line of brighter colors and patterns simply can’t compete with today’s rechargeable bling.

Kevin Bolen is a partner of Innosight.

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