The theory of a product life cycle was first introduced in the 1950s to explain the expected life cycle of a typical product from design to obsolescence. Writing in Marketing Tools, Carole Hedden observed that the cycle is represented by a curve that can be divided into four distinct phases: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. The goal is to maximize the product's value and profitability at each stage. It is primarily considered a marketing theory.
This is the stage where a product is conceptualized and first brought to market. The goal of any new product introduction is to meet consumer's needs with a quality product at the lowest possible cost in order to return the highest level of profit. The introduction of a new product can be broken down into five distinct parts:
* Idea validation, which is when a company studies a market, looks for areas where needs are not being met by current products, and tries to think of new products that could meet that need. The company's marketing department is responsible for identifying market opportunities and defining who will buy the product, what the primary benefits of the product will be, and how the product will be used.
* Conceptual design occurs when an idea has been approved and begins to take shape. The company has studied available materials, technology, and manufacturing capability and determined that the new product can be created. Once that is done, more thorough specifications are developed, including price and style. Marketing is responsible for minimum and maximum sales estimates, competition review, and market share estimates.
* Specification and design is when the product is nearing release. Final design questions are answered and final product specs are determined so that a prototype can be created.
* Prototype and testing occurs when the first version of a product is created and tested by engineers and by customers. A pilot production run might be made to ensure that engineering decisions made earlier in the process were correct, and to establish quality control. The marketing department is extremely important at this point. It is responsible for developing packaging for the product, conducting the consumer tests through focus groups and other feedback methods, and tracking customer responses to the product.
* Manufacturing ramp-up is the final stage of new product introduction. This is also known as commercialization. This is when the product goes into full production for release to the market. Final checks are made on product reliability and variability.
In the introduction phase, sales may be slow as the company builds awareness of its product among potential customers. Advertising is crucial at this stage, so the marketing budget is often substantial. The type of advertising depends on the product. If the product is intended to reach a mass audience, than an advertising campaign built around one theme may be in order. If a product is specialized, or if a company's resources are limited, than smaller advertising campaigns can be used that target very specific audiences. As a product matures, the advertising budget associated with it will most likely shrink since audiences are already aware of the product.
Author Philip Kotler has found that marketing departments can choose from four strategies at the commercialization stage. The first is known as "rapid skimming." The rapid refers to the speed with which the company recovers its development costs on the product—the strategy calls for the new product to be launched at a high price and high promotion level. High prices mean high initial profits (provided the product is purchased at acceptable levels of course), and high promotion means high market recognition. This works best when the new product is unknown in the marketplace.
The opposite method, "slow skimming," entails releasing the product at high price but with low promotion level. Again, the high price is designed to recover costs quickly, while the low promotion level keeps new costs down. This works best in a market that is made up of few major players or products—the small market means everyone already knows about the product when it is released.
The other two strategies involve low prices. The first is known as rapid penetration and involves low price combined with high promotion. This works best in large markets where competition is strong and consumers are price-conscious. The second is called slow penetration, and involves low price and low promotion. This would work in markets where price was an issue but the market was well-defined.
Besides the above marketing techniques, sales promotion is another important consideration when the product is in the introductory phase. According to Kotler and Armstrong in Principles of Marketing, "Sales promotion consists of short-term incentives to encourage purchase or sales of a product or service. Whereas advertising offers reasons to buy a product or service, sales promotion offers reason to buy now." Promotions can include free samples, rebates, and coupons.
The growth phase occurs when a product has survived its introduction and is beginning to be noticed in the marketplace. At this stage, a company can decide if it wants to go for increased market share or increased profitability. This is the boom time for any product. Production increases, leading to lower unit costs. Sales momentum builds as advertising campaigns target mass media audiences instead of specialized markets (if the product merits this). Competition grows as awareness of the product builds. Minor changes are made as more feedback is gathered or as new markets are targeted. The goal for any company is to stay in this phase as long as possible.
It is possible that the product will not succeed at this stage and move immediately past decline and straight to cancellation. That is a call the marketing staff has to make. It needs to evaluate just what costs the company can bear and what the product's chances for survival are. Tough choices need to be made—sticking with a losing product can be disastrous.
If the product is doing well and killing it is out of the question, then the marketing department has other responsibilities. Instead of just building awareness of the product, the goal is to build brand loyalty by adding first-time buyers and retaining repeat buyers. Sales, discounts, and advertising all play an important role in that process. For products that are well-established and further along in the growth phase, marketing options include creating variations of the initial product that appeal to additional audiences.
At the maturity stage, sales growth has started to slow and is approaching the point where the inevitable decline will begin. Defending market share becomes the chief concern, as marketing staffs have to spend more and more on promotion to entice customers to buy the product. Additionally, more competitors have stepped forward to challenge the product at this stage, some of which may offer a higher quality version of the product at a lower price. This can touch off price wars, and lower prices mean lower profits, which will cause some companies to drop out of the market for that product altogether. The maturity stage is usually the longest of the four life cycle stages, and it is not uncommon for a product to be in the mature stage for several decades.
A savvy company will seek to lower unit costs as much as possible at the maturity stage so that profits can be maximized. The money earned from the mature products should then be used in research and development to come up with new product ideas to replace the maturing products. Operations should be streamlined, cost efficiencies sought, and hard decisions made.
From a marketing standpoint, experts argue that the right promotion can make more of an impact at this stage than at any other. One popular theory postulates that there are two primary marketing strategies to utilize at this stage—offensive and defensive. Defensive strategies consist of special sales, promotions, cosmetic product changes, and other means of shoring up market share. It can also mean quite literally defending the quality and integrity of your product versus your competition. Marketing offensively means looking beyond current markets and attempting to gain brand new buyers. Relaunching the product is one option. Other offensive tactics include changing the price of a product (either higher or lower) to appeal to an entirely new audience or finding new applications for a product.
This occurs when the product peaks in the maturity stage and then begins a downward slide in sales. Eventually, revenues will drop to the point where it is no longer economically feasible to continue making the product. Investment is minimized. The product can simply be discontinued, or it can be sold to another company. A third option that combines those elements is also sometimes seen as viable, but comes to fruition only rarely. Under this scenario, the product is discontinued and stock is allowed to dwindle to zero, but the company sells the rights to supporting the product to another company, which then becomes responsible for servicing and maintaining the product.
PROBLEMS WITH THE PRODUCT LIFE CYCLE THEORY
While the product life cycle theory is widely accepted, it does have critics who say that the theory has so many exceptions and so few rules that it is meaningless. Among the holes in the theory that these critics highlight:
* There is no set amount of time that a product must stay in any stage; each product is different and moves through the stages at different times. Also, the four stages are not the same time period in length, which is often overlooked.
* There is no real proof that all products must die. Some products have been seen to go from maturity back to a period of rapid growth thanks to some improvement or re-design. Some argue that by saying in advance that a product must reach the end of life stage, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that companies subscribe to. Critics say that some businesses interpret the first downturn in sales to mean that a product has reached decline and should be killed, thus terminating some still-viable products prematurely.
* The theory can lead to an over-emphasis on new product releases at the expense of mature products, when in fact the greater profits could possibly be derived from the mature product if a little work was done on revamping the product.
* The theory emphasizes individual products instead of taking larger brands into account.
* The theory does not adequately account for product redesign and/or reinvention.