Recognizing Your Product’s Irrelevance before It Happens

I’d like to make a few points on something I understand is extremely difficult — seeing your products’ irrelevance and ultimate market share decline before it happens. Seeing your company’s product fade is by no means easy. In fact, it may often be easier for those outside looking in than those on the inside heads down making the products.

While I feel bad for picking on Samsung so often, they provide an excellent case study in many things. However, their struggles in mobile and the actions they took to gain market share and now, lose market share, provide valuable lessons. Many of our readers will know I have been pointing out Samsung’s peaking in mobile phone sales for quite some time. Part of this is because I had the data in the charts below.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 8.41.09 AM (Click to enlarge, and please don’t share publicly)

I’m showing you four of ten markets I have detailed smartphone data for. In every one of the ten markets, Samsung’s line is the same shape. In many of them, Apple is one of the significant reasons for their decline. In markets like India, LATAM, Africa, and several others, it is a combination of local brands and Chinese companies like Huawei who are challenging Samsung’s brand and product offerings. There are many reasons for the shape of their line. What’s most interesting is how their peak in many markets happened in the 2012-2013 time frame. When you ask industry insiders about this, most would say it was late 2013 or early 2014 but, in reality, their peak was much sooner. The question is, could they have seen this coming? If so, what could they have done about it?

It was clear at the time Samsung was not investing in a sustainable differentiated strategy. The weakest point in their entire offering was Android. While this was not fully understood by upper management, I do know there were a number of people in Samsung who agreed. Hence Tizen, and the many manifestations before it, was an attempt to control their own destiny. However, it was too late as the Android train was too powerful to fight against and had too much momentum. I’d argue Samsung was simply never in a position to control their own destiny and no matter what they did, any tactic was a prolonging of the inevitable.

What is interesting about this is how we are learning from history and the new dynamics we are still learning from the globally maturing consumer tech market — that many companies may be stuck in industry dynamics they simply can not get out of. Looking at how the life cycle of many companies is shortening, I think this is a significant observation and trend I don’t see ending due to these new dynamics of the industry.

There are many great books on strategy and management but I want to offer my top three recommendations when it comes to keeping your company relevant.

Understand Your Market

Given my primary job function is to study consumer global markets, I find it very interesting how many companies do not truly understand their market. This is true of public companies and shockingly true of many startups I do late stage due diligence on for the VC community. I’m often quite surprised how much money has been given to a startup when, after spending time with them, it becomes clear they don’t truly comprehend their market.

While I understand how difficult it is internally to do this, since I know how difficult and time-consuming it is, it is still absolutely fundamental. Understanding your market at a base level helps you understand customer needs. More importantly, it helps you recognize how those needs evolve. Ideally, your product will move your customers needs forward. Markets are dynamic, not static. They change both as needs evolve, competition increases, and a range of other factors move a market forward.

This is ultimately Samsung’s struggle today. They are operating the same way they did in 2012 and 2013 and believing these tactics will still work. Unfortunately, the market changed and Samsung did not change with it. Perhaps it was impossible given their structure to change, but that is a separate topic.

A key part of understanding your market is also understanding why you are successful. What is it about your product or service that is resonating with customers? Understanding the why behind the what may very well be the most profound thing you can focus your attention on. This knowledge plays a major role in how you adapt and innovate strategically for your target market. Talking to customers, understanding their needs, how your solution is solving real problems, and more are all things you can do to discover the why behind the what.

Have a Monopoly on Something

There are many ways to slice this but what do you have that your competition doesn’t? This could be any number of things, but this is key for differentiation. In relation to Samsung as a case study, a primary cause of their struggle was they use the same operating system as their competitors. Contrast this with one of the fundamental reasons Apple can do what they do — they have a monopoly on their operating systems.

What this teaches us is the importance of a primary engagement point as something you own. Price is not a good monopoly since it is likely someone will always come in and find a way to do it cheaper, unless of course that person is you. But, even then, price alone is dangerous place to be. This could be the trickiest part of a long-term strategy but finding what critical piece of the puzzle you have a monopoly on is key to maintaining relevance in the long-term.

Invest to Solve Future Problems

Lastly, and this is related to the first point about understanding your market, make investments in future problems. Customers needs will advance. Invest to lead them down this road. As your customer base and the market matures, anticipate these needs. Sometimes this means creating something new, sometimes it means disrupting yourself, but your customers needs trump the desire to hold on to yesterday. Take risks but having a deep understanding of your market and your customers’ needs — the why behind the what — are all things that can be done to help minimize that risk.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

121 thoughts on “Recognizing Your Product’s Irrelevance before It Happens”

  1. The key to understanding one’s market is understanding what purpose your product serves and your market addresses. It’s the purpose behind the product that matters. The trap is mistaking implementation details for the purpose itself.

  2. Since you are picking on Samsung, let me ask you a further question about them :-).

    What do you think of Tizen?

    Samsung seems to have learnt that not owning the operating system is not a very good strategy, and have invested considerable time and effort into Tizen. The best selling smartphone model in India has been reported to be running Tizen. Furthermore, using Tizen as the operating system for their smartwatches has been relatively successful compared to Android Wear in terms of sales (very little data by I believe this to be true), and the Samsung Gear 2 smartwatch clearly shows how Tizen has allowed them to copy the design of Apple Watch, while other OEMs are shackled to Material Design.

    Hence Tizen helps Samsung to address your second point. It may also help them address the first point to a certain degree, since they can now experiment with the UI and apps, while gaining usage data directly.

    I also believe that Tizen will also allow Samsung to address your third point if a chance should arrive in the future. It allows them to invest in problems that Google has not yet addressed, something that could have been troublesome if they use Android.

    Samsung has been very patient with Tizen, and I think they have done pretty well so far, considering that the odds were (and still are) very much against them. I applaud them for perseverance, and I wonder what you have to say about this.

    1. I’m still very skeptical about Tizen, as the mobile train is such that it’s more than the OS that matters now. Apps obviously but also core services. Samsung is also not great at software which throws another wrinkle into it. And on top of all of that Tizen is a group effort. Should they be successful other people are free to use it.

      1. Yes, of course Tizen is a very long shot. However, I don’t see any way for Samsung to follow your advice and try to “have a monopoly on something” unless they do this.

        What advice would you give Samsung so that they may “have a monopoly on something” in the future?

        1. Are you saying that Tizen is not enough? Are you saying that they need to do services on top of Tizen because it is more than the OS that matters now? This will require Samsung to acquire skills in building services, on top of software skills.
        2. Are you saying that Samsung should ignore the OS layer because it is no longer relevant and instead focus on the service layer? That they need to do something like Xiaomi? The problem here is of course, that even Xiaomi has not proven that their model works outside of China.
        3. Are you saying that Samsung cannot do anything about this?

        I understand your three recommendations and agree with them, but at the same time, the last two are asking an awful lot. Regarding the “have a monopoly” item, there is a conflict of short-term interests with long-term interests. Going back to smartphones in 2010, the best short-term strategy for Samsung was to go full steam ahead with Android, and indeed they succeeded enormously, only to eventually fail long-term. On the other hand, the long-term strategy was the one that Nokia, Blackberry and Palm pursued, and that was to “have a monopoly” on whatever OS they were developing at that time. However, they failed to survive short-term so they never saw the long-term.

        Samsung now is boldly taking the long-term strategy with Tizen. As I said, I think that’s a prerequisite for them to “have a monopoly on something”, and I think it’s working better right now for them than it did for Nokia, Blackberry and Palm.

        1. This is a very good question. I fight several battles in my head, knowing Samsung intimately and how they are organized. What should they do and what CAN they do are very different questions.

          What they are doing is focusing more on their components business. This is a good strategy and they have a chance at competing with Intel in process technology. I’ve long described Samsung as a components company and the front end brands, like mobile, are shells to ship components. This play required volume, as they lose that volume they do what they are doing which is become more aggressive in developing and selling their components to a wider field of players. This is happening and it is good.

          The question of what they should do in mobile is separate. I’m exceptionally negative on their prospects because I feel it would take a very different kind of company. They truly are a modular company, not a horizontal one, but they do have some assets they could modularize in components to have them compete on price (which is basically what they should do) get volume back thus benefiting their component costs and just play the low margin game on mobile.

          The other thing they can do is something I’ve suggested before. Buy up other smaller brands like Micromax, BBK/Oppo/Vivo, Blu mobile in Brazil, all the local players and help them grow and market and compete and sell components to them from the component side of your business. This again helps them with the scale they need to keep innovating and keep competing on price.

          This all comes back to what kind of a company Samsung actually is not what kind they think they are. The three P’s are relevant for them to dictate where they go from here.

          1. Thanks. Totally agree that focusing on components is the much more sensible move for Samsung, especially when you consider that the sub-$200 Android phone by Sculley and the Beats designer, uses a Qualcomm chip, a Sony camera and Dolby sound, all which suggest that the vast majority of the value captured in that product actually goes to component manufacturers. The outlook for components does look quite rosy.

            However, I think that for companies like Samsung and Sony, which have made a big name for themselves in the consumer space, and which have many consumer businesses outside of smartphones, they cannot ignore the synergy between smartphones and other consumer devices. In all likelihood, it seems like smartphones are going to be the hub of the connected home and IoT, and hence an important strategic stronghold. This suggest that these companies will at least fight hard to maintain a strong presence in phones.

            Most Japanese companies which previously made phones have exited the global market, and many have exited smartphones altogether. Sony is the exception, and I expect that it is related to having a strong global consumer electronics business.

            I agree that it makes sense for Samsung to move towards a component company, but it’s such a huge consumer electronics company and I expect it will fight very hard to stay in the smartphone game. Although Tizen is a long shot, I think it makes sense for them to make this bet.

  3. Samsung makes parts (and money from that) for other handset makers, too. Do they dilute their own handsets by not holding on to at least some of that differentiation for themselves? Or are they making the parts to specifications and innovations not their own?

    Joe

    1. This is a key point when it comes to corporate structure. The components group has its own PNL and its own group manager who wants to make as much money as possible. So this dynamic is another which makes it very difficult for them to have a monopoly on something, in this case components.

    2. Flip that around. How much does the components group rely on demand from the handsets group? When you have a lot of capital tied up in factories, you need those factories operating at our near capacity.

  4. I’m still thinking that Samsung’s mistakes are not so much strategic as tactical:
    – making their flagships progressively features-poor when they used to lead : FM radio, SD slot, replaceable battery, size… Not only do a sizable minority of users want those, but that minority probably is opinion makers. Even battery life is an issue with Samsung’s devices these days, it used not to be, regardless of replaceability.
    – switching their S line from nerdphones to fashionphones. They spent years getting the customers who don’t care about or even like plastics, then do a 180, and combine that with cutting features. Alienating your current customers in search for greener pastures sounds at best naive, and worst idiotic.
    – Most if their losses are not to Apple but to other Android suppliers, because they raised their flagship prices and failed to create compelling low and mid-range lines.

    It think Tizen is mostly a red herring: if Samsung failed to differentiate/monopolize/lock in while being able to graft anything they wanted onto Android’s rich and successful baseline, how are they supposed to achieve that while rebuilding an OS and ecosystem from scratch? That’s 10x the work and doesn’t get them any closer to a killer proprietary something.

    I’d say it’s back to basics time: phones that don’t break when dropped, scrap the random custom stuff that actually takes away value, focus on updates, address all segments of the market especially the growing ones…

    1. Re: Tizen. I think as it stands right now you are correct. A few things I noticed during Samsung’s rise, they rarely acknowledged Android, much less in anyway that hinted to its importance to their success. They always said their depth and breadth of hardware offerings is what contributed to their success. And they always managed to keep Tizen in the news. I am sure all this was to help them in negotiations with Google.

      What they failed at was simply that they never groked that they did not have the software chops to get Tizen (or any ecosystem infrastructure) up to speed enough to make the transition when it could matter, such as their ramp up of market share. If Tizen had been ready for prime time earlier, they could easily have attracted developers with their market share. Certainly much easier than MS’s time of it.

      And Google called their bluff. I am sure in Google’s eyes “If not you, then someone else. We don’t care.”

      Joe

    2. “making their flagships progressively features-poor when they used to
      lead : FM radio, SD slot, replaceable battery, size.”

      On the one hand, I think it’s clear that Samsung has decided to do a 180 from their previous marketing stance of “we offer all the features that Apple doesn’t.” Since they employ smart people to do market research for them, they must have decided that their previous strategy wasn’t working in the demographics they wanted to sell to.

      On the other hand, perhaps Samsung was suffering from a failure to appreciate the difference between features that matter in Korea and China vs features that matter in Europe and America. An SD slot is vital in countries where piracy is the accepted norm because it’s how you load your bootleg content onto the device. In countries where piracy is not as rampant, it’s a nerd feature. FM radio — important in countries where radio is still a thing, irrelevant in countries where those who can afford it have switched to satellite radio and most other people just get their music off the internet. Easily removable* battery: great if you buy a charger and an extra battery, but again, absolutely nobody other than nerds does this in North America.

      In North America, outside of the nerd segment, SD cards and easily removable batteries are an anti-feature: they handicapped Samsung from making an aesthetically pleasing, durable phone that didn’t feel like cheap plastic. In the upper tier markets all over the world, Apple has set the table stakes: thin, sexy, well-built, feels expensive in the hand. Samsung was refusing to play Apple’s game, but that strategy only worked as long as their “we give you what Apple won’t” marketing worked — and it turns out that apart from screen size, people didn’t care about the differences that Samsung was touting.

      *All batteries are replaceable, its just that on the current Galaxy line you need tools to get access to the battery and on the old Galaxies you didn’t. So “easily removable” is more accurate.

      1. I’m not so sure SDs are only or even mostly about piracy, but rather about offline access. Only this August, I went to a 10-day family gathering in the French back country then to an extended WE in a cabin in Canada. Both places, and the hours-long trip to get there, lacked wifi and reliable data connections, and no connection at all indoors. Uncle Ollie saved the day with his local copies of Wacky Races and Indiana Jones. And the night with his “top 100 Zen Music”.
        I was carrying 3 devices with 2x64GB+1x128GB of media, at a cost markedly below my iBrother iPad Air 2.
        Almost all of my music is legit. Not so videos, indeed, but almost no DRM-free stuff is available, and I do buy what is (Louis CK and a recent Dr Who 8-pack).
        Anecdotically, I see about as much piracy on the iOS side… Apple will add any mp3 to your iTunes collection, so it’s really about local storage, not legal or illegal source. Also, iTunes yanked kid’s films off my brother’s iPad with no warning, which is bad manners at least.
        While in Canada, I’ve tried streaming videos off my brand new Synology NAS in Marseilles… Lots of buffering even at home over wifi, and ADSL overage fees for my iBrother (he buys Apple stuff, he can afford it ☺) .
        To me, local storage is about guaranteed availability, and data costs.

        1. Caring about external storage so you can take all your media with you is a nerd feature in North America. For the vast majority of owners of Samsung phones in North America, they make do with the built in storage. THere’s no need to have media stored on the phone because you can always stream Netflix and Hulu.

          In China, OTOH, SD cards are a mainstream feature because there is no Netflix or Hulu, and everyone gets their content from bootleggers who load torrent downloads onto their SD cards for a modest fee.

    3. Has Samsung really made strategic mistakes? I’d question that. The smartphone market is entering the saturation phase and Samsung relies on Android, so it is harder, but possible, to differentiate from Chinese competitors.

      Samsung is now trying to increase their margins per flagship handset, by improving the overall design of their handsets (much better-looking and taking risks on design) charging for memory increase, and battery replacements, and expensive accessories like magnetic chargers and premium covers done by Montblanc and famous designers.

      Their flagship ASPs are actually higher, the question is whether their volumes are lower. It seems the S6 sold in the first quarter about the same as the S5, but with a higher ASP (the Edge family is the most expensive flagship in the market, besides Vertu).

      We will know next year, once their new family of much better Galaxy S, Note and Edge flagships have had a year in the market.

      Regarding the OS, Tizen is a good strategic choice for wearables, as Google does not have any significant market power there yet and technically Android Wear is still immature and too power hungry for wearables.Also apps in wearables are less important as in smartphones, and smaller and easier to develop as they’re mostly conveying little snippets of information. Tizen is not a good choice for smartphones, where Android is too dominant already.

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