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gari jenkins

Companies that are large enough to be organized into strategic business units face the challenge of allocating resources among those units. In the early 1970's the Boston Consulting Group developed a model for managing a portfolio of different business units (or major product lines). The BCG growth-share matrix displays the various business units on a graph of the market growth rate vs. market share relative to competitors:

      BCG Growth-Share Matrix

Resources are allocated to business units according to where they are situated on the grid as follows:

  • Cash Cow - a business unit that has a large market share in a mature, slow growing industry. Cash cows require little investment and generate cash that can be used to invest in other business units.

  • Star - a business unit that has a large market share in a fast growing industry. Stars may generate cash, but because the market is growing rapidly they require investment to maintain their lead. If successful, a star will become a cash cow when its industry matures.

  • Question Mark (or Problem Child) - a business unit that has a small market share in a high growth market. These business units require resources to grow market share, but whether they will succeed and become stars is unknown.

  • Dog - a business unit that has a small market share in a mature industry. A dog may not require substantial cash, but it ties up capital that could better be deployed elsewhere. Unless a dog has some other strategic purpose, it should be liquidated if there is little prospect for it to gain market share.

The theory underlying the Boston Matrix is the Product Life Cycle concept (below), which states that business opportunities moves through 'life-cycle' phases of introduction, growth, maturity and decline.  These phases are typically represented by an anti-clockwise movement around the Boston Matrix quadrants in the following order:

> From a market entry position as a 'Question Mark' product. Products are usually launched into high growth markets, but suffer from a low market share.

> To a 'Star' position as sales and market share are increased. If the investment necessary to build sales and market share is successfully made, then the product’s position will move towards the star position of high growth / high market share.

> To a 'Cash-Cow' position as the market growth rate slows and market leadership is achieved. As the impact of the product life cycle takes effect and the market growth rate slows the product will move from the star position of high growth to the Cash Cow position of low growth / high share.

> Finally to a 'Dog' position as investment is minimised as the product ages and loses market share.

At each position within the matrix there are a number of opportunities ‘open’ to the company. For example, at the Cash-Cow stage the options are either to invest to maintain market share, or to minimise investment in the product, maximise the cash returns and grow market dominance with other products.

Question Mark Products

It is much more common for new products to be launched into high rather than low growth markets, as the perception is that high growth markets will eventually generate a greater return. However the drain on cash at this stage can be great. Initially the volume of product sold will be low and significant marketing expenditure will be required to raise market awareness and stimulate volume sales. If the corporate objective of building sales to achieve market leadership is pursued, then the combination of high market growth rates and high promotional expenses will create a large demand for cash.

Moreover, the technology involved in production may also be at the growth phase of its life cycle. This results in a proliferation of product types, step jumps in terms of quality (compared with previous generations of the same utility) and presence in the market only for a relatively short period of time. All of this requires a significant investment to fund the continuous development programme and (quite probably) an expensive manufacturing operation.

If the initial investment decisions were sound, and sales follow on at a faster rate than for other competing products, the product will move into the 'Star' category as increases in relative market share are achieved. If such investments are not made, then the product will at best maintain a static market position and in time, lose market position to other competitive products. Its ultimate demise will be into the 'Dog' category.

The two extremes of strategy available for managing 'Question Marks' are:

  • To make the major investment decision, gain a disproportionate share of new sales, or achieve sales by acquiring competitor’s products. The objective is to turn the ‘Question Mark’ into a 'Star'.

  • To divest and exit from the opportunity if the stakes are too high.

The adoption of a segmentation strategy – i.e. use more limited resource and focus in on key market niches in which one can play a leading role – may be an alternative and lower risk strategy.

  • Almost all new products start life as Question Marks

  • Focus is the keyword to maximise the chances of success

Star Products

'Stars' are successful products for which there is significant market demand. Usually they have grown from 'Question Marks' by gaining a high relative market share. They may be approaching the mature phase of their life

Like 'Cash Cows', 'Stars' are in market leading positions; unlike 'Cash Cows', 'Stars' must have sales which continue to grow at a high rate in order to maintain their market positions. Whilst 'Stars' will yield a significant cashflow to the business, they will also require high levels of cash injection to finance growing sales. 'Stars' are therefore prime candidates for investment.

Sustaining high sales growth requires that new users for the product be found as well as penetrating further into existing markets. Therefore the appropriate strategies for 'Stars' are those which protect existing market share and result in increased volume supply into the market, e.g. product enhancements, improved distribution, cost efficiencies etc.

When the market growth rate slows, 'Stars' should become the business’s 'Cash Cow' products.

  • Desirable market position where brand and product image and market position are also strong.

  • Coincident with positive gradient phase of the market life cycle.

  • If high market growth rate continues, cash investment would probably be required to maintain or increase cash dominance.

Cash-Cow Products

'Cash Cows' are well established and are likely to be in the mature phase of their life cycle. These products are well entrenched and sales will have grown to a stable maximum level. Generally 'Cash Cows' are very profitable and by the time they are classified as such they will be making a major positive contribution to the company’s cashflow.

Investment in product development resulting in the launch of product variants (causing brand proliferation), or any effort toward market extension, should be avoided unless there is opportunity for a very good return. Instead, the surplus cash generated from 'Cash Cows' should be used for investment in newer products associated with higher growth markets.

Pricing and promotional strategies appropriate to ‘Cash Cow’ products should be aimed at maintaining their hard won market share. Attempting to increase market share when all the competing players are entrenched may prove to be a costly and unsuccessful strategy. Unless there are good reasons for doing otherwise, the maximum investment limit in 'Cash Cows' should be sufficient only to maintain their market position.

The market growth rates for ‘Cash Cow’ products have slowed. The most likely potential threat to the maintenance of stable business conditions may be the introduction of low cost substitute products offering more benefit to the customer. The new competing product may utilise a different (or new) technology in its manufacture or to function. If this new competing product is successful, the original product’s life cycle could be shortened, thus reducing its financial return.

  • Very desirable position where brand and product image and market position are strong

  • Coincident with the mature phase of the market life cycle

  • Should be cash rich and generate significant cash surpluses.

Dog Products

Products sold into segments in which the company is not one of the leaders, and in which the market is not growing, are classified as 'Dog' products. These products are likely to be in the mature phase of their product life cycle. Their markets exhibit slow, static or even negative growth. There will be little new business to compete for and any strategic moves to increase market share are likely to provoke vigorous competitive reaction.

'Dogs' may be linked to low profits, and the prognosis for investment is generally low. Unless some new competitive advantage can be introduced it is likely that these products or businesses will not be able to compete and will not attract the resources necessary to improve the product’s position within the market. If future market demand is considered likely to last for some years, then the commercial risk of building market share may be worth while. Generally however, alternative more attractive investment decisions could probably be found elsewhere. Therefore 'Dogs' should remain within the portfolio so long as they contribute something to the business (other than being the personal hobbyhorse of the Chairman)!

Strategists should be looking to 'Dog' products for:

  • Positive cashflow

  • Contribution to overhead expense

  • Strategic need.

If (as is often the case with Dog products) the opportunity is moribund, decisive action should be taken such as:

  • Focusing attention and resources to other segments that will provide a better return

  • Focusing attention and resources to other segments which can be ring-fenced.

  • Maximising cashflow from the product by reducing to a minimum all production and marketing costs.

  • Disposing of the product, selling the rights to the product or the business.

  • Dropping the product from the portfolio.

  • Generally not a very strong or particularly desirable market position

Strategic Implications

The importance of achieving a balanced Product / Market portfolio cannot be underestimated, but what exactly constitutes a winning portfolio is more difficult to determine.

A policy of continuous product development resulting in the steady launch of new products is essential to corporate health. It therefore follows that a portfolio in equilibrium will include a number of 'Question Mark' and 'Star' products, though the number of 'Question Marks' should be greater than 'Stars' to allow for market failures. To achieve the required balance, branded products with strong market positions can either be acquired or developed in-house. The frequency at which new products should be developed will be different for each market and industry but will be linked to:

  • Rate at which competitors launch new products

  • Market’s history and current trends for product development

  • Market’s / Industry’s typical product life cycles.

  • Scope for actual or perceived product differentiation.

There also needs to be sufficient cash rich product to generate a cash surplus. A healthy portfolio will have a number of 'Cash Cow' products (minimum of two) to reduce the obvious risks associated with the business being dependent upon the sales of a single product. Ideally there should be relatively few 'Dog' products.

A portfolio with all of the products positioned in the bottom of the matrix where all the company's products are sold into low growth markets does not represent a balanced portfolio. Although it does not represent an immediate potential threat to the health of the business it should be cause for concern in the medium to long term. A preponderance of products in the lower half of the matrix suggests the possibility of either or a combination of the following:

  • A dearth of new 'Question Mark' and 'Star' products being launched.

  • Incorrect or 'low' market growth rates specified for the company’s segments.

Based upon the portfolio distribution it may be possible to determine the company's overall strategic intent as follows:

1.  Hold Strategy

To enjoy continued strong cashflow. Relatively high market share / low market growth rate ‘Cash Cow’ opportunities should be able to maintain market share at or around existing levels.





2.  Build Strategy

To grow the business. Relatively low relative market share / high market growth rate ‘Question Mark’ opportunities need investment in order to grow.






3.  Harvest Strategy

To develop short term cashflow irrespective of the long term damaging effect to the product or business. This strategy is appropriate for any weak products where disposal in the form of a sale is unavailable or not preferred due to high exit barriers.





4.  Divest Strategy

To change the capital of the business and allow resources to be used elsewhere.






Criticisms of the Boston Matrix Technique.

The BCG matrix provides a framework for allocating resources among different business units and allows one to compare many business units at a glance. Whilst it has stood the test of time, the Boston Matrix is not without its critics. Attention has been drawn to the following shortcomings of the technique:

  • The Boston Matrix assumes rigid boundaries for Products and Markets over a period of time. There is no sense of 'evolution'.

  • It is a guide to cash management and investment, and not to strategy. For example no guidance is given as to what changes must be bought about in order to achieve a lead position in a growing market.

  • It is not multivariate in nature. The underlying Market Growth and Relative Market share data takes no account of competitive strengths and customer needs.

  • The link between market share and profitability is questionable since increasing market share can be very expensive.

  • The approach may overemphasize high growth, since it ignores the potential of declining markets.

  • The model considers market growth rate to be a given. In practice the firm may be able to grow the market.

These issues are addressed by the GE / McKinsey Matrix, which considers market growth rate to be only one of many factors that make an industry attractive, and which considers relative market share to be only one of many factors describing the competitive strength of the business unit.

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