Part 4: The Art of Graceful Exit: An Anthropological Perspective

Aug 3, 2023 | Brand Mangement, Marketing, Product Anthropology, Product Management

Part 4 of 4: The Art of Graceful Exit: An Anthropological Perspective on Product Decline and Retirement

Of 4 Part Series: Product LifeCycle Mastery: Through An Anthropological Lens

In the previous 3 articles of this series, we’ve comprehensively explored the significant role a product anthropologist plays in each stage of a product’s life cycle – from inception, through growth, to maturity.  A product anthropologist adept at deciphering human behavior facilitates not only the creation and enhancement of products but also ensures their continued appeal and functionality throughout their life cycle.

However, the journey of a product does not culminate at its maturity stage.  The product’s decline and retirement is another crucial stage that demands meticulous handling.  In this fourth and final part of our series, we delve into the anthropological perspective on managing a product’s decline and eventual retirement.

This article will illuminate the strategies a product anthropologist employs to manage customer expectations during this phase.  It will also detail how to transition users effectively to new offerings while maintaining a positive brand image even as a product reaches the end of its life cycle.  The careful orchestration of these elements is what we refer to as ‘The Art of Graceful Exit.’

Understanding Product Decline

Product decline is a stage in the product lifecycle marked by a notable decrease in sales and profit margins. This stage can be triggered by market saturation, technological advancement, or shifting consumer preferences.  A prime example of product decline was the case of Blockbuster, a once-dominant video rental store.  With the advent of digital streaming services like Netflix, the demand for physical video rentals significantly decreased, marking the beginning of Blockbuster’s decline.

Consider the example of Blackberry smartphones.  Once a leader in the mobile phone industry, Blackberry faced decline due to competition from Android and Apple devices.  Its proprietary operating system couldn’t compete with the app-rich platforms offered by these rivals, leading to a substantial decrease in its market share.

The Role of a Product Anthropologist in this Phase

A product anthropologist’s role becomes more vital during the product decline phase.  Their skill set and knowledge, centered around decoding human behavior and cultural patterns, are critical tools in diagnosing the reasons behind a product’s decline.

To illustrate, let’s look at Nokia.  Once a global leader in mobile phones, Nokia failed to keep pace with the rapid evolution of smartphone technology and changing consumer preferences.  The rise of touchscreen interfaces, app ecosystems, and sleeker product design, primarily driven by Apple and Android, led to a drastic shift in the mobile phone market.  Nokia, sticking to its traditional design and operating system, was left behind, resulting in a sharp decline in its market share.

In such a situation, a product anthropologist could have leveraged their anthropological tools to better understand these shifting trends.  For instance, ethnographic studies could have been conducted to observe and understand how consumers interacted with these new smartphone technologies and why they increasingly preferred them over traditional mobile phones.  This could have revealed critical insights about consumer preferences and behaviors that Nokia could have used to adapt its strategy more effectively.

Furthermore, product anthropologists can also help determine whether a declining product can be revitalized.  They assess if alterations to the product, based on cultural and behavioral insights, could potentially rekindle consumer interest.  Alternatively, they might advise that transitioning towards new product offerings would be more strategic, in alignment with market trends and consumer preferences.

An example of successful revitalization is seen in the vinyl record industry.  Even in the age of digital streaming, there is a resurgence in vinyl record sales, driven by a renewed consumer interest in the physicality and nostalgia of vinyl.  Product anthropologists, analyzing such cultural and behavioral trends, can guide companies to make strategic decisions that can potentially turn around or recover from a product’s decline.

How Product Anthropologists Anticipate and Address Customer Reactions

Product anthropologists utilize their expertise in understanding human behavior and culture to anticipate how consumers may react to a product’s decline.  An essential part of their role involves using these insights to develop communication strategies that effectively address potential consumer concerns and disappointments.

For example, when Adobe transitioned from selling physical software to a cloud-based subscription model, it was met with backlash from a subset of customers who preferred the traditional ownership model.  Adobe, backed by its understanding of consumer behavior, reassured customers by highlighting the benefits of the new model, such as regular updates and better support, thus mitigating the negative reactions to the change.

Techniques to Sustain Customer Trust During Product Decline

Maintaining customer trust during a product’s decline can be achieved through several strategies.  One strategy could be transparent communication about the reasons behind the product’s decline and the future plans for the company.

In 2014, when Google decided to discontinue Google Reader, a popular RSS feed, the company maintained transparency with its customers about the reasons behind the decision, which was primarily due to declining user numbers.  Google also provided guidelines on how users could export their data, thereby maintaining trust among its users.

Another technique to sustain trust is providing alternatives or substitutes that meet the customers’ needs and preferences.  This transition must be managed carefully and thoughtfully to avoid further negative impact.

The Role of Product Anthropology in Understanding Customer Readiness for New Products

Anthropology plays a significant role in understanding the readiness of customers for new product offerings.  By decoding human behavior, cultural patterns, and market trends, product anthropologists can gauge the timing and manner in which new offerings should be introduced.

Take the case of Netflix’s transition from DVD rentals to streaming services.  Netflix recognized the emerging trend of online streaming early on and gradually introduced its streaming service alongside its existing DVD rental service.  This was possible due to an understanding of its customer base’s readiness for a digital shift.

Methods Used by Product Anthropologists to Ease the Transition to New Offerings

Product anthropologists use several methods to smooth the transition to new offerings.  One method we looked at earlier involves managing customer expectations through clear and transparent communication about the changes.  Additionally, anthropologists may recommend a phased transition approach, giving customers time to adapt to the new product or service.

A well-known example can be seen in Microsoft’s transition from Windows 7 to Windows 10.  The company provided an extended transition period during which users could upgrade for free and also provided extensive support and resources to help users adapt to the new operating system (Bright, P., 2020).

Ensuring a Positive Brand Image

Maintaining a positive brand image during product retirement is crucial, as it can have lasting implications on a company’s reputation and future products.  Customers may associate a product’s decline with the company’s overall performance, making it essential for companies to strategically manage the product retirement process.

For instance, when Apple retired its classic iPod, despite the product’s declining sales due to the rise of smartphones, it did so without hurting its brand image.  By clearly communicating the reasons and providing alternatives in the form of iPod Touch, Apple managed to maintain its image as an innovative company while smoothly phasing out the classic iPod.

One key figure in this field is Dr. Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist who worked at Intel Labs for over a decade.  Bell’s work exemplifies anthropologists’ critical role in informing corporate strategy.  She focused on studying cultural practices related to technology use, providing invaluable insights that informed Intel’s product development and retirement strategies.  Bell’s work helped Intel understand the social significance of its products, enabling the company to retire outdated technology in a way that was sensitive to cultural impacts and user behavior.

Furthermore, product anthropologists recommend providing alternatives that align with current market trends and consumer expectations, ensuring the product retirement phase is seen as a natural evolution rather than a failure. Additionally, a strategy of celebrating the product’s lifecycle and its impact can be employed, turning product retirement into a positive event that underscores the brand’s commitment to innovation and growth.

Final Thoughts on the Importance of an Anthropological Perspective in Product Lifecycle Management

In concluding this series, the role of product anthropology across the entire product lifecycle becomes evident.  The anthropological perspective proves invaluable from the initial concept development, through the growth and maturity stages and finally to product decline and retirement.

In the development stage, a product anthropologist leverages their understanding of human behavior and cultural norms to guide the creation of prototypes and launch strategies.  As the product grows and matures, their insights aid in navigating market trends and evolving consumer preferences, ensuring successful product growth and sustained relevance.

When a product reaches its decline phase, the strategies employed by anthropologists, exemplified by figures such as Dr. Genevieve Bell at Intel Labs, ensure a graceful exit.  They manage customer expectations, help transition users to new offerings, and maintain a positive brand image.

Keeping the human element at the forefront of each stage of the product lifecycle ensures the process resonates positively with customers and aligns with business success.  This series has demonstrated that anthropologists are integral players in the comprehensive and insightful management of product lifecycles.

As a Product Anthropologist and CEO of Gray Global Consulting LLC, I provide unique insights into your business strategies through the lens of product anthropology. My work focuses on understanding your target market’s cultural norms, values, and subtle behavioral patterns, which can significantly influence product design, consumer insights, and marketing effectiveness.

Don’t let these crucial aspects of your product’s lifecycle go unaddressed. I encourage you to reach out to my team and I today, and together, we can embark on a journey toward comprehensive and insightful product management and marketing across the lifecycle.