How to Build a Successful Product Line

Learn the strategic science behind developing a thriving product suite or catalog.

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By Marco Ludwig Originally published

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Companies like Spanx, Roku, and Michelin prove you can create and keep a business going based on just a single, properly-priced product or service that truly solves an issue for customers. More often than not, though, staying successful or scaling your organization means coming up with a product line and offering your customers more than one thing. So assuming you've laid the foundation and produced an in-demand, properly priced item that solves an issue for customers, how can you develop a whole suite or catalog?

Take a second look at customer needs

When you do market research for a product or service and develop a customer profile, you might discover that your customers collectively have other, typical needs you aren't addressing. For instance, a busy parent could need a daily calendar app/organizer just as much as a car seat. Reviewing the big picture of the customer's life and typical experiences can give you fresh eyes about what buyers would welcome from you.

Related: 3 Ways To Put Your Customers' Needs First -- And Increase Your Profits in the Process

Start a revolution

Revolutionary products and services are items customers can't really tell you they have a need or desire for because they don't even know they need or want it yet. These are things that the customer is surprised by but always appreciates.

A good example might be the iPhone from Apple. No one had produced anything like that device before, so customers didn't have any experience with something similar and didn't really have a concept of how it could change their life. But once they saw how it worked, everyone wanted one.

Revolutionary products can get a lot of initial resistance or criticism because they can seem so different from what everyone has done or is used to. But once you've convinced people that the product or service actually is viable and they see how much it improves their life, the item takes off really quickly.

Related: How to Take Your Idea From a Thought to a Revolution

Expand what you have

Sometimes the easiest way to create a product line is to look at what you've already got and then expand options and features. This could mean changing colors or materials, for example, or you could include an entirely new functionality. Software programs that are available in free/basic, intermediate and professional levels are good examples here.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Expanding Your Product Line

Make it simpler

Customers don't always want a lot of bells and whistles, especially if they're trying to save money and those extras they don't even need are expensive. So whereas some companies do well by making what they've created more complex, you also can go in the opposite direction and scale items down. This can mean removing features or just putting them in a more convenient package. Examples here could include:

  • a model of food processor stripped down to basic settings to appeal more to beginner cooks.

  • a traditional straight-edge razor compared to an electric, multi-blade razor.

  • The iPod Mini compared to the iPod classic.

Related: 3 Tips to Declutter Your Product Offerings

Connect products together

This option is really systems thinking. It means that you develop all the interconnected parts someone needs to achieve their end goal. For example, if you wanted to build a shower, you wouldn't just need tile. You'd also need a waterproofing membrane, a drain, and other products. Similarly, if you want to use an electric drill regularly, you'd probably need items like a power source/batteries and bits. By being a one-stop-shop for your customer, you can increase value for them and reduce the risk that they might encounter problems by trying to piece parts together from several different manufacturers.

Hit the refresh button

Markets change incredibly fast. To accommodate them really well, you have to be willing to let go of what you had. Sometimes this means updating and improving what's in your line. But it can also mean getting rid of old products completely to make room for new ones. The technology industry, which has one of the fastest product cycles of any industry, has to do this almost constantly. Your own refresh rate will depend on your unique customers, but once you've updated or innovated, make sure that you're marketing well. After all, people can't buy improvements or new innovations they don't know about.

One critical theme that ties all of these product line development strategies together is putting yourself in your customers' shoes. Regular marketing research work can complement this, and you can learn a lot from connecting with experts. But don't miss the opportunity to reach out to customers directly. It's imperative to build trust and ask them about their experience. What did they like? What can you improve? Take what they tell you seriously and apply it. Done well, this will have tremendous, long-lasting benefits for your business, allowing you to create a truly and continuously successful product line.

Marco Ludwig

Chief Executive Officer & President at Schluter Systems

Marco Ludwig is CEO and president of Schluter Systems, a provider of innovative solutions for tile installation.

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