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March 27, 2009

Too Many Products?

Brian Belardi
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If you visit a McDonald’s in India, you might notice the Chicken Maharaja Mac on the menu. In Norway you might dine on a McLak, a grilled salmon burger with dill sauce. By decentralizing their decision making, multinational firms such as McDonald’s are able to create specialized products and better cater to local tastes.

But just how many specialized products should firms offer? Not that many, says Professor Catherine Thomas.

In a Columbia Ideas at Work article, Thomas explains why less might be more when it comes to offering localized varieties. “The benefit of being a multinational and having a brand is that a company can take advantage of economies of scale by producing the same product in bulk selling it everywhere, minimizing unit cost and increasing profits,” Thomas says. “But acting against that are differing market demands. So, if a company were to sell the same product range in each country, it may well lose brand-level market share.”

By employing some form of decentralized decision making, companies are better able to target the tastes of their customers. “An executive in the company headquarters in Brussels,” Thomas explains, “can’t make the best decisions on what to offer in various European markets because that person doesn’t know the local markets well enough to understand preferences.”

Using research on the sales of different varieties of laundry detergent across Europe, Thomas created a model to determine how sales were affected by replacing localized varieties with more standardized ones. She found that detergent manufacturers could produce far fewer varieties without diminishing profits.

Still, Thomas warns that firms should think twice before centralizing their decision making — it may result in having too few localized products on the shelves.

“Multinational consumer product firms operating in complex product markets should stick with some form of decentralized decision making as the best way to ensure their products are aligned with the local preferences of customers,” Thomas says. “But understand that a decentralized organizational design includes an inbuilt bias towards the manufacture of too many products.”

For more information on the dilemmas faced by multinational brands, as well as Thomas’s research, see “Too many products?” in Columbia Ideas at Work.

Photo credit: blmurch