A Product Line is a set of related products that purposely boost one another.
A product line is based on a system of parts and forces. And the system uses workflows, information flows, and decision flows to manage the parts and forces purposely to create, deliver, and manage the products.
A Product Line system is a key contributor to a business. It works to improve free cash flow, drive greater customer satisfaction, and fend off competitors. The Product Line’s performance depends on how well managers create and orchestrate the interplay of the system’s parts and forces.
This definition is more than what you’ll find in marketing textbooks. Most simply state: A Product Line is a set of related products.
But the short definition isn’t helpful. It doesn’t suggest why the products are related. And it doesn’t say why lines of products are so important to a business.
Info on Product Lines
There’s little published on Product Lines. But you’ll find much on single-product thinking toward markets and customer needs. Other topics, those that cut across multiple products, come up short. This includes subjects like design, engineering, and supply chain practices. Each appears as an afterthought.
The world away from academia is different. Here, many topics converge in Product Lines. And they lead to important subjects like strategy, innovation, and responsive roadmapping.
Well-managed Product Line systems contribute markedly to a business’s well-being. That’s why product lines are key to business models. It’s also why a business model’s transformation will demand change to at least one system that drives a line of products.
A Deeper Dive into Product Lines
So let’s get a better look at the definition by breaking it down. At its core, a Product Line is a set of related products plus a system of parts and forces.
- The products boost one another. In other words, there’s synergy across the products.
- The products come from a system comprised of:
- parts or objects that must be managed; and
- forces (drivers and hindrances) that must be directed and influenced.
- The system’s purpose is to
- create products (more proactive than reactive)
- develop and deliver products (purposely and coherently) and
- manage the products (from deliberate promotion to retirement)
- The system carries out its mission by using
- information flows, and
- decision flows
More than Products
The definition suggests that if you wish to understand a Product Line, you should look at more than just its products. Spot its parts, forces, and flows. And see how the line may be managed as a system.
There are many parts in a Product Line system. These include technologies, market segments, and products. The parts also include customer needs, product attributes, and platform-levers. Plus, the parts include innovation targets, skills, and Jobs-to-be-Done outcomes.
A critical Product Line force is the match between each product’s features and the customer’s needs. Managers will boost this force with platform-leverage and organizational alignment. And when forces act in the wrong direction, they hinder Product Line performance.
Brands and Product Lines
It’s common to see experts confuse brands and Product Lines. These are not the same. Sometimes brands relate only to one Product Line, and the other way around. But other Product Lines may serve multiple brands, and a brand may also cut across multiple Product Lines. It’s a mistake to assume brands and Product Lines are the same.
Consider how the Samsung brand is applied to consumer electronics, kitchen appliances, and even industrial insurance. There are several Product Lines within each of these categories, yet they all stress the Samsung brand. Or, consider how a consumer Product Line may serve both a famous brand and store-specific private brands at the same time. One Product Line can serve more than one brand. The brand becomes a part or object accounted for within the Product Line system.
You may see the term Product Lining to describe adding products under a common management. Unfortunately, this wonky term conflates the notion of Product Family with a Product Line. A Product Family can include multiple Product Lines, where each Product Line is its own system with its own parts, forces and flows. But companies may share parts (e.g., technologies) across several lines within a product family. Yet the Product Lines remain as separate systems.
Product Line Complexity
Every Product Line has more than one SKU. And the more SKUs, the more complex the Product Line. If the Product Line system doesn’t perform well with more SKUs, the complexity can create problems. It often translates into disproportionately greater overhead and longer development duration.
Product Line systems that combine hardware, software, content or services also increase complexity. And they too demand unique management of the parts, forces and flows. Failing to adjust the Product Line system for these product combinations can hinder the line’s performance.
More on Product Lines
Here are some resources to better understand Product Lines and their management.
- Responsive Roadmapping: A proactive approach to manage a Product Line system
- Product Line Strategy: Setting up the game plan to drive a Product Line’s performance
- Product Line System Parts: See a more complete discussion
- Multi-Generational Product Plan (MGPP) Vs. Product Line Strategy and Roadmap
- Trapped in a Single Product Mindset
- Other Sources