In our discussion of the product life cycle we saw that competition generally increases as more competitors are drawn to high-growth markets. As more brands enter the marketplace and lock into a particular share of the market, it becomes more difficult to win and hold buyers. Apart from these competitive factors, other market factors can shift, too. For example:
- Changes in consumer tastes
- Changes in the size and characteristics of particular market segments
- Changes in availability or cost of raw materials and other production or marketing components
Internally, a company might have a proliferation of small-share brands that were introduced to address market opportunities but never saw significant growth. This can reduce efficiencies in production, marketing, and servicing for existing brands.
In product portfolio management there is an assumption that a company has an existing set of products. The number may be small or large, but each brand, product, and product line has an impact on the external market view of the others and on the internal resources available to the others. For this reason, portfolio management requires marketers to consider each product individually but also understand the way the products fit together collectively.
In order to optimize the product portfolio, marketers may change the marketing mix for a product, change a product line, delete products, or introduce new products.
Marketing Mix Strategies
When a product is introduced, it’s not locked down forever. Marketers continually gather market data about products so they can refine the product and its position in the marketplace.
It is normal for a product to be changed several times during its life. Certainly, a product should be equal or superior to those of principal competitors. If a change can provide superior satisfaction and win more initial buyers and switchers from other brands, then a change is probably warranted.
However, the decision to make a significant product change introduces risk and cannot be approached in a haphazard manner. First, the marketer must answer the question “What specific attributes of the product and competing products are perceived to be most important by the target customer?” Factors such as quality, features, price, services, design, packaging, and warranty may all be determinants. Each change introduces the risk that it may not align with customer needs. For example, a dramatic increase in product quality might drive the price too high for the existing target consumer, or it might cause him to perceive the product differently and unfavorably. Similarly, the removal of a particular product feature might be the one characteristic that’s regarded as most important by a market segment.
The product modification decision can only be made if the marketer has a strong understanding of the target customer. What new information is the marketer learning about the buyer persona? Perhaps additional market research is needed to understand the improvements buyers want, to evaluate the market reception of competitors’ products, and evaluate improvements that have been developed within the company. In determining product improvements, sales teams and distributors can provide valuable information. Sales is likely to hear objections from target customers or learn the reasons why they are choosing not to buy. Distributors often deal with a range of products in a category and provide helpful insights into what is tipping the purchase process toward a competitor’s product.
In an earlier module we discussed product positioning, which requires finding the right marketing mix for a product in order to distinguish it from competitors and give it a unique position in the market. As competitors’ offerings and customer preferences change, marketing may need to make a significant change to the marketing mix to reposition the product. This involves changing the market’s perceptions of a product or brand so that the product or brand can compete more effectively in its present market or in other market segments.
For example, since its heyday in the late seventies and early eighties, Cadillac sales have dropped by more than 50 percent as the Cadillac customer base aged. In order to restore sales, General Motors is trying to redefine the Cadillac product and brand for a new generation of consumers. This is a dramatic example in which a substantial change is needed. Product repositioning can also involve a very subtle change, such as updating the packaging or tweaking the pricing approach, but it is an important way to shift perceptions as market factors change.
A product line can contain one product or hundreds of products. The number of products in a product line refer to its depth, while the number of separate product lines owned by a company is the product line width.
There are two overarching strategies that deal with product line coverage. With a full-line strategy the company will attempt to carry every conceivable product needed and wanted by the target customer. Few full-line manufacturers attempt to provide items for every conceivable market niche. Instead, they provide many products for a particular market segment.
Companies that employ a limited-line strategy will carry selected items. Limited-line manufacturers will add an item if the demand is great enough, but they make that decision based on the market opportunity for the product rather than on a desire to meet all customer needs with their product line.
A line-extension strategy involves adding new products under an already established and well-known brand name. The objective is to serve different customer needs or market segments while taking advantage of the widespread name recognition of the original brand.
For example, when Frito-Lay adds Dinamita Mojo Criollo Flavored Rolled Tortilla Chips to its Doritos line, that is a line-extension strategy. Frito-Lay is able to take advantage of a strong brand with existing shelf space and add a new product that has an appeal to shoppers seeking a spicier snack than the traditional nacho cheese flavor. Similarly, Clinique provides high-end skin care products and has extended its line to provide anti-acne products.
Generally, line-extension strategies are lower risk because they introduce a product change but are able to take advantage of other proven elements of the marketing mix. Still, there is a risk of cannibalizing the market for existing products or, if the product is not well received, damaging the brand. Also there a danger in overextending the product line by offering so many products that consumers can’t find unique value, and company resources get stretched across many, low-volume products.
Line-filling strategies involve increasing the number of products in an existing product line to take advantage of marketplace gaps and to reduce competition. Many businesses use line filling to round out an already well-established product line and to help increase the market success of new related products.
Before considering such a strategy several key questions should be answered:
- Can the new product support itself?
- Will it cannibalize existing products?
- Will existing outlets be willing to stock it?
- Will competitors fill the gap if we do not?
- What will happen if we do not act?
Assuming that a company decides to fill out the product line further, there are several ways of going about it. The following three are most common:
- Product proliferation: the introduction of new varieties of the initial product or products that are similar (e.g., a ketchup manufacturer introduces hickory-flavored and pizza-flavored barbecue sauces and a special hot dog sauce).
- Brand extension: strong brand preference allows the company to introduce the related product under the brand umbrella (e.g. Jell-O introduces pie filling and diet desserts under the Jell-O brand name).
- Private branding: producing and distributing a related product under the brand of a distributor or other producers (e.g., Firestone producing a less expensive tire for Costco).
In addition to the demand from consumers or pressure from competitors, there are other legitimate reasons to engage in these tactics. First, the additional products may have a greater appeal and serve a greater customer base than did the original product. Second, the additional product or brand can create excitement both for the manufacturer and distributor. Third, shelf space taken by the new product means it cannot be used by competitors. Finally, the danger of the original product becoming outmoded is hedged. Yet, there is serious risk that must be considered as well: unless there are markets for the proliferations that will expand the brand’s share, the newer forms will cannibalize the original product and depress profits.
Eventually a product reaches the end of its life. There are several reasons for deleting a mature product. First, when a product is losing money, it is a prime deletion candidate. In regard to this indication, it is important to make sure that the loss is truly attributable to the product. If the product appears not to be profitable when it is actually covering costs of other products, then deleting the product could negatively impact other products in the portfolio.
Second, there are times when a company with a long product line can benefit if the weakest of these products is dropped. This thinning of the line is referred to as product-line simplification. Product overpopulation spreads a company’s productive, financial, and marketing resources very thin. Moreover, an excess of products in the line, some of which serve overlapping markets, not only creates internal competition among the company’s own products but also creates confusion in the minds of consumers. Consequently, a company may apply several criteria to all its products and delete those that are faring worst.
A third reason for deleting a product is that problem products absorb too much management attention. Many of the costs incurred by weak products are indirect: management time, inventory costs, promotion expenses, decline of company reputation, and so forth.
Missed-opportunity costs constitute the final reason for product deletion. Even if a mature product is making a profit contribution and its indirect cost consequences are recognized and considered justifiable, the company might still be better off without the product. Each product requires focus and resources that are not available to grow other products or create new ones.