The concept of the product life cycle (PLC) is one of major tools used in developing marketing strategy. This theory is more and more popular in recent years, because many marketers desire for a tool to help them understand the product’s development which means all products have their own life time as they eventually decline and disappear. Based on that understanding of the product, the marketers can adapt their marketing strategy and find a new product to replace the dying one.
According to Brassington and Pettitt (2003), the PLC concept explains the life of a product in terms of birth, growth, maturity, decline and eventual death which is based on the assumption that the product has a life like a human. During its life, the product goes through different stages, and in each stage it has different performance in the market which includes different market growth rates and different competitive conditions. This implies the marketer must set up different marketing strategy for each stage to suit for the development of product.
The aim of this essay is to discuss the concept of product life cycle which can give the marketer some basic information about this popular concept. Firstly, the general background of the product life cycle is given which includes the concept and the stages of PLC. Secondly, the strengths and weaknesses of the product life cycle are discussed. At the same time, some recommendations to mitigate the negative influences of the product life cycle are presented. Finally, a general conclusion is draw.
Concept of Product Life Cycle
The concept of PLC is a useful marketing tool to describe the change of the sale for the product during its lifetime. According to Armstrong and Kotler (2000), product life cycle (PLC) is the course of a product’s sales and profits over its lifetime. The product life cycle is a useful concept to describe how products develop from first introduction into the market to eventual obsolescence. The theory is that products, like living things, have a natural life cycle beginning with introduction, going through a growth phase, reaching maturity, then going into decline, and finally becoming obsolete (Blythe, J. 2001). The classic PLC involves four distinct stages: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline (Jobber, D. 1998). But Blythe (2001) thought there are five major stages of PLC, which are product development, introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. In this essay, the product development is introduced firstly which is seen as the first and necessary stage in product development process. The reason is explained in the following section.
At the product development stage, it begins when the company recognises the customer need for a special product. Then the company design and develop the new-product idea based on that demand. During the stage of product development, sales are zero and the company’s investment costs mount (Armstrong, G. and Korler, P. 2000). Although it seems useless to analyse the sale and cost in this stage, it is still a very important part of a product life cycle. Its length will affect the whole cycle in some way.
Then, the product enter into introduction stage which the company push the product into markets. In this stage, only the marketers understand the characteristics of this stage, they can make the right decision about the product strategy which is suitable for the new product. Because the recognition of customer for the new product needs a period, this introduction stage is a period of slow sales growth as the product is just introduced in the market. Profits are negative because of the low sales and the huge expense in advertising and promotion. Advertising and promotion are the key activities for business to attract the customer to try the new product. That huge investment is reasonable and necessary. And also the company needs to consider the investment to attract the distributors and build the inventory. At the same time, it is few competitors at this stage.
If the new product satisfies the market, it will enter a growth stage, which is a period of rapid market acceptance and increasing profits (Armstrong, G. and Korler, P. 2000). At the beginning of this stage, the sale and profit grow quickly. More and more customers accept the product and buy it, the investment of promotion and advertising is lower than the introduction stage. And market share is increased accordingly and quickly. At the same time, more and more companies recognise the product has big profit. Therefore, more and more competitors enter into this market. After the development of the market, profits may become to decline in the end period of growth stage as more competitors enter the market, driving prices down and creating the need for heavy promotional expenses (Jobber, D. 1998). In this stage, company has to choose between the high market share and high profit when they make the strategy decision.
Fourthly, when the sale growth is slowdown, the product enters to the maturity stage of its PLC because the product has achieved acceptance by most potential buyers. Dibb and Simkin (1997) thought that this stage is characterized by severe competition, with many brands in the market. Competitors use many different strategies to gain the market share such as product improvements, advertising, sales promotion, dealer discount and price cutting.
Finally, decline stage is the period when sales show fall off and profits erode (Armstrong, G. and Korler, P. 2000). According to Jobber (1998), sales and profits fall during this stage as new technology or changes in consumer tastes work to reduce demand for the product. In this stage, the market lost interest in this product and the companies are unable to up-grade and support it. Therefore, marketers may cut promotion efforts, eliminate distributors, and finally plan to walk out from this market.
However, not all products follow the classic product life cycle which explained above. There are variations of the product life cycle. Some of the products may have more than five stages and more fluctuant curves. For example, the high-tech products which are more than one S-Shape curve. This type of product can be up-grated and development many times which lead the sales and profit up and down. When the customer accepts the product, the profits fall. When the product has been developed and improved, the profits rise. With the continuous process of products development and customers’ acceptance, the profits keep rising and falling such as computers, mobile phones.
Although different products have different product life cycle and different products move through their life cycle at different speed, the theory of PLC still seem as a very useful method to help marketers identify the sales trends and plan appropriate marketing strategy and activities.
Strengths and Weakness of PLC
The product life cycle is a common and popular marketing concept that it appears at every standard marketing text. The strengths of the PLC are very obvious. Firstly, based on the theory of Jobber (1998) the PLC is benefit for the product planning. It can help marketers to develop product marketing strategy and it is also used as a forecasting model. PLC can forecast the future development of market and product which is big competitive advantage when the companies plan their marketing strategy for the product in every stage.
However when the companies use the PLC concept to forecast product sale or to develop marketing strategies, they find many problems in practices (Korler, P. Armstrong, G. Saunders, J. and Wong, V. 1996). It is not easy to identify which stage of the PLC the product is in, especially the definitions of each stage is not very standard which could lead the confusion between stages. This is the precondition that the PLC concept can perform correctly. When the product enter to the next stage of PLC, if the company can not notices, the marketing strategy and plan will not appropriate for the new stage of the produce. Only when they recognise the change in PLC, they can make the right strategy based on the analysis for the crucial factors in the new stage.
And in practice, it is difficult to forecast the sales level at each PLC stage, the length of each stage and the shape of the PLC curve (Jobber, D. 1998). The basic reason is this PLC concept can not help the marketer to understand the product and market in detail. It is theoretic and unclear.
Secondly, the strength of PLC as a coordinating tool is to help marketers to coordinate 4Ps which include product, price, promotions and place.
Thirdly, the PLC also can remand the marketers to pay more attention to the development of the product and its market. It warns the marketers that the product would not grow continually forever (Jobber, D. 1998). Normally, there is a danger that management may have high emotion in a particular product. The PLC can help the company understand that the product has its own lift cycle which means the company have to face the face that products need to be terminated and new products need to be developed to replace them. It also tells them that at the introduction stage, the phenomenon that the sale is low and expense is high are reasonable which is unnecessary to panic or give up. It is good for companies to recognise the realistic market, not through the book records only.
Nevertheless, there are some weaknesses about the PLC. Although in the above, some of the problems are discussed. The following section explains very detailed concepts. Firstly, according to Jobber (1998), the duration of the PLC stages is unpredictable which is very difficult for marketer to identify the stages of product. The PLC outlines the four or five stages during a product life without defining their duration. Blythe (2001) states that the PLC is useful to describe what is happening, but is not much use for predicting what is going to happen, since it is virtually impossible to tell how long the maturity phase will continue. This weakness makes it difficult to use this concept as a decision-making tool because marketers can not easily know which part of the product life cycle the product currently in.
The solution of this problem is to find a comparable product which seems as a template for predicting the length of each stage. There are two sources of comparable products. One is same product has already been on the market which is in other countries. The other one is that the similar products are in the mature or decline stages of their life cycle but they are thought to resemble the new product in terms of consumer acceptance . Of course, when the marketer use the comparable product to analyse their own product, it still many problems in reality, such as the different the economic and social conditions of countries which may effect the result of the analysis and make it invalid to transfer the duration of the stages from one country to another.
Secondly, Jobber (1998) notes that the critics argue that the stylized marketing objectives and strategy prescriptions can be misleading. It is very difficult to predict how long the product will move from one stage to another stage in its life cycle. Because the products, companies and market are different, the length of the PLC is diverse. The problem is that the length of the PLC is affected by many factors which include the pace of change in the external environment and the company’s marketing strategy of the product throughout its life (Brassington, F. and Pettitt, S. 2003). The company’s objective and capability to make the correct marketing strategy in each stage of PLC for the product and to communicate effectively and efficiently with the consumers, and its method to develop and refresh its product will all affect how the PLC in some way.
Thirdly, the weakness of PLC is that there is no common shape (Doyle, P. 1994). Through the analysis the data from different products, it is very clear that the PLC has not standard curve at all. In the real unstable markets, not all products follow the classic S-shaped PLC (Lancaster, G. and Massingham, L. 1993). Sometimes, although two brand products seem as same, they are in different types of PLC. Many factors determine the types of PLC for the product, which include the external environment changes and the strategy change of the company or the competitors. It is easy for marketers to analyse which curve their product belong to which lead confusion when companies use this theory to analyse their product.
Fourthly, according to Doyle (1994), PLC has not clear implication which is a weakness every marketer knows. Although PLC concept defines the stages of the product life cycle for the common products and list all of the characteristics for each stage. But for some cases, the tradition has been proved as inaccurate. Some of the products have different characteristics compare with the tradition concept which will mislead the marketer’s conclusion about the product’s development.
Finally, there is another weakness of the PLC has been revealed that PLC is a product-orientated concept. More and more marketers recognise the marketing is about how to satisfy the customer’s need. The company should pay more attention to analyse the change of the customer’s need, rather than focus on its product’s development. In other words, focusing on the product like the concept of PLC the company might not understand other key concepts of marketing such as the 7P’. Product is just one of the important things of marketing, but not the core one. For the modern age, customer is the core thing that the company should focus on. Therefore, for the marketers, they need focus on the factors cause the change of the product stage not the PLC.
Because of so many uncertain factors in the concept of PLC, some experts debate that PLC is a useless tool in reality. As Cowell (1984) state that it is not surprising that the life cycle concept has critics. Some attempts to derive the conventional S-shaped curve of the cycle with its stages of introduction, growth, maturity and decline have not been altogether convincing. In fact, some theoreticians have even suggested that the concept of PLC should be forgotten altogether (Dhalla and Yuspeh, 1976). Carman and Langeard (1979) argue that using the life cycle concept to build a product portfolio in services contexts is not very helpful. All those debates suggest that the concept of PLC is still immature and it still need to improve.
In conclusion, the product life cycle is a marketing tool, which is an aid for managerial decision-making. It can help marketers to do planning and think strategically. However, it also has many weaknesses which affect the practicability of the concept. Therefore, marketing managers must monitor the real changes that are happening in the marketplace before setting up the appropriate objectives and strategies for marketing. Using the PLC concept to develop marketing strategy can also be difficult because strategy is both a cause and a result of the product’s life cycle (Armstrong, G. and Korler, P. 2000).
The product’s current PLC position suggests the best marketing strategies and the resulting marketing strategies affect product performance in later life-cycle stages. Of course, when it is used carefully by the marketers who understand it clearly, the PLC concept still a very useful theory in developing good marketing strategies for different stages in the product life cycle anyway.