The Five Generic Competitive Strategies
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Learning Objectives THIS CHAPTER WILL HELP YOU UNDERSTAND:
LO 1 What distinguishes each of the five generic strategies and why some of these strategies work better in certain kinds of competitive conditions than in others.
LO 2 The major avenues for achieving a competitive advantage based on lower costs.
LO 3 The major avenues to a competitive advantage based on differentiating a company’s product or service offering from the offerings of rivals.
LO 4 The attributes of a best-cost provider strategy—a hybrid of low-cost provider and differentiation strategies.
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Strategy 101 is about choices: You can’t be all things to all people.
Michael E. Porter—Professor, author, and cofounder of Monitor Consulting
Strategy is all about combining choices of what to do and what not to do into a system that creates the requisite fit between what the environment needs and what the company does.
Costas Markides—Professor and consultant
I learnt the hard way about positioning in business, about catering to the right segments.
Shaffi Mather—Social entrepreneur
A company can employ any of several basic approaches to competing successfully and gaining a competitive advantage over rivals, but they all involve delivering more value to customers than rivals or delivering value more efficiently than rivals (or both). More value for customers can mean a good product at a lower price, a superior product worth paying more for, or a best-value offering that represents an attractive combination of price, features, service, and other appealing attributes. Greater efficiency means delivering a given level of value to customers at a lower cost to the company. But whatever approach to delivering value the company takes, it nearly always requires performing value chain activities differently than rivals and building competitively valuable resources and capabilities that rivals cannot readily match or trump.
This chapter describes the five generic competitive strategy options. Which of the five to employ is a company’s first and foremost choice in crafting an overall strategy and beginning its quest for competitive advantage.
TYPES OF GENERIC COMPETITIVE STRATEGIES
What distinguishes each of the five generic strategies and why some of these strategies work better in certain kinds of competitive conditions than in others.
A company’s competitive strategy deals exclusively with the specifics of management’s game plan for competing successfully—its specific efforts to position itself in the marketplace, please customers, ward off competitive threats, and achieve a particular kind of competitive advantage. The chances are remote that any two companies—even companies in the same industry—will employ competitive strategies that are exactly alike in every detail. However, when one strips away the details to get at the real substance, the two biggest factors that distinguish one competitive strategy from another boil down to (1) whether a company’s market target is broad or narrow and (2) whether the company is pursuing a competitive advantage linked to lower costs or differentiation. These two factors give rise to five competitive strategy options, as shown in Figure 5.1 and listed next.1
FIGURE 5.1 The Five Generic Competitive Strategies
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Source: This is an expanded version of a three-strategy classification discussed in Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy (New York: Free Press, 1980).
1. A low-cost provider strategy—striving to achieve lower overall costs than rivals on comparable products that attract a broad spectrum of buyers, usually by underpricing rivals.
2. A broad differentiation strategy—seeking to differentiate the company’s product offering from rivals’ with attributes that will appeal to a broad spectrum of buyers.
3. A focused low-cost strategy—concentrating on the needs and requirements of a narrow buyer segment (or market niche) and striving to meet these needs at lower costs than rivals (thereby being able to serve niche members at a lower price).
4. A focused differentiation strategy—concentrating on a narrow buyer segment (or market niche) and outcompeting rivals by offering niche members customized attributes that meet their tastes and requirements better than rivals’ products.
5. A best-cost provider strategy—striving to incorporate upscale product attributes at a lower cost than rivals. Being the “best- cost” producer of an upscale, multifeatured product allows a company to give customers more value for their money by underpricing rivals whose products have similar upscale, multifeatured attributes. This competitive approach is a hybrid strategy that blends elements of the previous four options in a unique and often effective way. The remainder of this chapter explores the ins and outs of these five generic competitive strategies and how they differ.
LOW-COST PROVIDER STRATEGIES
LO 2 The major avenues for achieving a competitive advantage based on lower costs.
Striving to achieve lower overall costs than rivals is an especially potent competitive approach in markets with many price- sensitive buyers. A company achieves low-cost leadership when it becomes the industry’s lowest-cost provider rather than just being one of perhaps several competitors with comparatively low costs. A low-cost provider’s foremost strategic objective is meaningfully lower costs than rivals—but not necessarily the absolutely lowest possible cost. In striving for a cost advantage over rivals, company managers must incorporate features and services that buyers consider essential. A product offering that is too frills-free can be viewed by consumers as offering little value regardless of its pricing.
CORE CONCEPT A low-cost provider’s basis for competitive advantage is lower overall costs than competitors. Successful low-cost leaders, who have the lowest industry costs, are exceptionally good at finding ways to drive costs out of their businesses and still provide a product or service that buyers find acceptable. A low-cost advantage over rivals can translate into better profitability than rivals attain.
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A company has two options for translating a low-cost advantage over rivals into attractive profit performance. Option 1 is to use the lower-cost edge to underprice competitors and attract price-sensitive buyers in great enough numbers to increase total profits. Option 2 is to maintain the present price, be content with the present market share, and use the lower-cost edge to earn a higher profit margin on each unit sold, thereby raising the firm’s total profits and overall return on investment.
While many companies are inclined to exploit a low-cost advantage by using option 1 (attacking rivals with lower prices), this strategy can backfire if rivals respond with retaliatory price cuts (in order to protect their customer base and defend against a loss of sales). A rush to cut prices can often trigger a price war that lowers the profits of all price discounters. The bigger the risk that rivals will respond with matching price cuts, the more appealing it becomes to employ the second option for using a low-cost advantage to achieve higher profitability.
A low-cost advantage over rivals can translate into better profitability than rivals attain.
The Two Major Avenues for Achieving a Cost Advantage To achieve a low-cost edge over rivals, a firm’s cumulative costs across its overall value chain must be lower than competitors’ cumulative costs. There are two major avenues for accomplishing this:2
1. Perform value chain activities more cost-effectively than rivals. 2. Revamp the firm’s overall value chain to eliminate or bypass some cost-producing activities.
CORE CONCEPT A cost driver is a factor that has a strong influence on a company’s costs.
Cost-Efficient Management of Value Chain Activities For a company to do a more cost-efficient job of managing its value chain than rivals, managers must diligently search out cost-saving opportunities in every part of the value chain. No activity can escape cost-saving scrutiny, and all company personnel must be expected to use their talents and ingenuity to come up with innovative and effective ways to keep down costs. Particular attention must be paid to a set of factors known as cost drivers that have a strong effect on a company’s costs and can be used as levers to lower costs. Figure 5.2 shows the most important cost drivers. Cost-cutting approaches that demonstrate an effective use of the cost drivers include:
Figure 5.2 Cost Drivers: The Keys to Driving Down Company Costs
Source: Adapted from Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance (New York: Free Press, 1985).
1. Capturing all available economies of scale. Economies of scale stem from an ability to lower unit costs by increasing the scale of operation. Economies of scale may be available at different points along the value chain. Often a large plant is more economical to operate than a small one, particularly if it can be operated round the clock robotically. Economies of scale may be available due to a large warehouse operation on the input side or a large distribution center on the output side. In global industries, selling a mostly standard product worldwide tends to lower unit costs as opposed to making separate products for each country market, an approach in which costs are typically higher due to an inability to reach the most economic scale of production for each country. There are economies of scale in advertising as well. For example, Anheuser-Busch could afford to pay the $5 million cost of a 30-second Super Bowl ad in 2016 because the cost could be spread out over the hundreds of millions of units of Budweiser that the company sells.
2. Taking full advantage of experience and learning-curve effects. The cost of performing an activity can decline over time as the learning and experience of company personnel build. Learning and experience economies can stem from debugging and mastering newly introduced technologies, using the experiences and suggestions of workers to install more efficient plant layouts and assembly procedures, and the added speed and effectiveness that accrues from repeatedly picking sites for and building new plants, distribution centers, or retail outlets.
3. Operating facilities at full capacity. Whether a company is able to operate at or near full capacity has a big impact on unit costs when its value chain contains activities associated with substantial fixed costs. Higher rates of capacity utilization allow depreciation and other fixed costs to be spread over a larger unit volume, thereby lowering fixed costs per unit. The more capital-intensive the business and the higher the fixed costs as a percentage of total costs, the greater the unit-cost penalty for operating at less than full capacity.
4. Improving supply chain efficiency. Partnering with suppliers to streamline the ordering and purchasing process, to reduce inventory carrying costs via just-in-time inventory practices, to economize on shipping and materials handling, and to ferret out other cost-saving opportunities is a much-used approach to cost reduction. A company with a distinctive competence in cost-efficient supply chain management, such as BASF (the world’s leading chemical company), can sometimes achieve a sizable cost advantage over less adept rivals.
5. Substituting lower-cost inputs wherever there is little or no sacrifice in product quality or performance. If the costs of certain raw materials and parts are “too high,” a company can switch to using lower-cost items or maybe even design the high-cost components out of the product altogether.
6. Using the company’s bargaining power vis-à-vis suppliers or others in the value chain system to gain concessions. Home Depot, for example, has sufficient bargaining clout with suppliers to win price discounts on large-volume purchases.
7. Using online systems and sophisticated software to achieve operating efficiencies. For example, sharing data and production schedules with suppliers, coupled with the use of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) software, can reduce parts inventories, trim production times, and lower labor requirements.
8. Improving process design and employing advanced production technology. Often production costs can be cut by (1) using design for manufacture (DFM) procedures and computer-assisted design (CAD) techniques that enable more integrated and efficient production methods, (2) investing in highly automated robotic production technology, and (3) shifting to a mass- customization production process. Dell’s highly automated PC assembly plant in Austin, Texas, is a prime example of the use of advanced product and process technologies. Many companies are ardent users of total quality management (TQM) systems, business process reengineering, Six Sigma methodology, and other business process management techniques that aim at boosting efficiency and reducing costs.
9. Being alert to the cost advantages of outsourcing or vertical integration. Outsourcing the performance of certain value chain activities can be more economical than performing them in-house if outside specialists, by virtue of their expertise and volume, can perform the activities at lower cost. On the other hand, there can be times when integrating into the activities of either suppliers or distribution-channel allies can lower costs through greater production efficiencies, reduced transaction costs, or a better bargaining position.
10. Motivating employees through incentives and company culture. A company’s incentive system can encourage not only greater worker productivity but also cost-saving innovations that come from worker suggestions. The culture of a company can also spur worker pride in productivity and continuous improvement. Companies that are well known for their cost- reducing incentive systems and culture include Nucor Steel, which characterizes itself as a company of “20,000 teammates,” Southwest Airlines, and Walmart.
Revamping of the Value Chain System to Lower Costs Dramatic cost advantages can often emerge from redesigning the company’s value chain system in ways that eliminate costly work steps and entirely bypass certain cost- producing value chain activities. Such value chain revamping can include:
• Selling direct to consumers and bypassing the activities and costs of distributors and dealers. To circumvent the need for distributors and dealers, a company can (1) create its own direct sales force (which adds the costs of maintaining and supporting a sales force but which may well be cheaper than using independent distributors and dealers to access buyers) and/or (2) conduct sales operations at the company’s website (incurring costs for website operations and shipping may be a substantially cheaper way to make sales than going through distributor–dealer channels). Costs in the wholesale and retail portions of the value chain frequently represent 35 to 50 percent of the final price consumers pay, so establishing a direct sales force or selling online may offer big cost savings.
• Streamlining operations by eliminating low-value-added or unnecessary work steps and activities. At Walmart, some items supplied by manufacturers are delivered directly to retail stores rather than being routed through Walmart’s distribution centers and delivered by Walmart trucks. In other instances, Walmart unloads incoming shipments from manufacturers’
trucks arriving at its distribution centers and loads them directly onto outgoing Walmart trucks headed to particular stores without ever moving the goods into the distribution center. Many supermarket chains have greatly reduced in-store meat butchering and cutting activities by shifting to meats that are cut and packaged at the meatpacking plant and then delivered to their stores in ready-to-sell form.
• Reducing materials handling and shipping costs by having suppliers locate their plants or warehouses close to the company’s own facilities. Having suppliers locate their plants or warehouses close to a company’s own plant facilitates just- in-time deliveries of parts and components to the exact workstation where they will be used in assembling the company’s product. This not only lowers incoming shipping costs but also curbs or eliminates the company’s need to build and operate storerooms for incoming parts and components and to have plant personnel move the inventories to the workstations as needed for assembly.
Illustration Capsule 5.1 describes the path that Amazon.com, Inc. has followed on the way to becoming not only the largest online retailer (as measured by revenues) but also the lowest-cost provider in the industry.
Examples of Companies That Revamped Their Value Chains to Reduce Costs Nucor Corporation, the most profitable steel producer in the United States and one of the largest steel producers worldwide, drastically revamped the value chain process for manufacturing steel products by using relatively inexpensive electric arc furnaces and continuous casting processes. Using electric arc furnaces to melt recycled scrap steel eliminated many of the steps used by traditional steel mills that made their steel products from iron ore, coke, limestone, and other ingredients using costly coke ovens, basic oxygen blast furnaces, ingot casters, and multiple types of finishing facilities—plus Nucor’s value chain system required far fewer employees. As a consequence, Nucor produces steel with a far lower capital investment, a far smaller workforce, and far lower operating costs than traditional steel mills. Nucor’s strategy to replace the traditional steelmaking value chain with its simpler, quicker value chain approach has made it one of the world’s lowest-cost producers of steel, allowing it to take a huge amount of market share away from traditional steel companies and earn attractive profits. (Nucor reported a profit in 188 out of 192 quarters during 1966–2014—a remarkable feat in a mature and cyclical industry notorious for roller-coaster bottom-line performance.)
Southwest Airlines has achieved considerable cost savings by reconfiguring the traditional value chain of commercial airlines, thereby permitting it to offer travelers dramatically lower fares. Its mastery of fast turnarounds at the gates (about 25 minutes versus 45 minutes for rivals) allows its planes to fly more hours per day. This translates into being able to schedule more flights per day with fewer aircraft, allowing Southwest to generate more revenue per plane on average than rivals. Southwest does not offer assigned seating, baggage transfer to connecting airlines, or first-class seating and service, thereby eliminating all the cost-producing activities associated with these features. The company’s fast and user-friendly online reservation system facilitates e-ticketing and reduces staffing requirements at telephone reservation centers and airport counters. Its use of automated check-in equipment reduces staffing requirements for terminal check-in. The company’s carefully designed point-to-point route system minimizes connections, delays, and total trip time for passengers, allowing about 75 percent of Southwest passengers to fly nonstop to their destinations and at the same time reducing Southwest’s costs for flight operations.
Illustration Capsule 5.1
Amazon’s Path to Becoming the Low-Cost Provider in E-commerce
In 1996, shortly after founding Amazon.com, CEO Jeff Bezos told his employees, “When you are small, someone else that is bigger can always come along and take away what you have.” Since then, the company has relentlessly pursued growth, aiming to become the global cost leader in “customer-centric E-commerce” across nearly all consumer merchandise lines. Amazon.com now offers over 230 million items for sale in America—-approximately 30 times more than Walmart—and its annual sales are greater than the next five largest e-retailers combined.
In scaling up, Amazon has achieved lower costs not only through economies of scale, but also by increasing its bargaining power over its supplies and distribution partners. With thousands of suppliers, Amazon.com is not reliant on any one relationship. Suppliers, however, have few other alternative e-retailers that can match Amazon’s reach and popularity. This gives Amazon bargaining power when negotiating revenue sharing and payment schedules. Amazon has even been able to negotiate for space inside suppliers’ warehouses, reducing their own inventory costs.
On the distribution side, Amazon has been developing its own capabilities to reduce reliance on third-party delivery services. Unlike most mega retailers, Amazon’s distribution operation was designed to send small orders to residential customers. Amazon.com attained proximity to its customers by building a substantial network of warehousing facilities and processing capability—249 fulfillment and delivery stations globally. This wide footprint decreases the marginal cost of quick delivery, as well as Amazon’s reliance on cross-country delivery services. In addition, Amazon has adopted innovative delivery services to further lower costs and extend its reach. In India and the UK, for example, through Easy Ship Amazon’s crew picks up orders directly from sellers, eliminating the time and cost of sending goods to a warehouse and the need for more space.
© Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Amazon’s size has also enabled it to spread the fixed costs of its massive up-front investment in automation across many units. Amazon.com was a pioneer of algorithms generating customized recommendations for customers. While developing these algorithms was resource-intensive, the costs of employing them are low. The more Amazon uses its automated sales tools to drive revenue, the more the up-front development cost is spread thin across total revenue. As a result, the company has lower capital intensity for each dollar of sales than other large retailers (like Walmart and Target). Other proprietary tools that increase the volume and speed of sales—without increasing variable costs—include Amazon.com’s patented One Click Buy feature. All in all, these moves have been helping secure Amazon’s position as the low-cost provider in this industry. Note: Developed with Danielle G. Garver. Sources: Company websites; seekingalpha.com/article/2247493-amazons-competitive-advantage-quantified; Brad Stone, The Everything Store (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013); www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-india-logistics-idUSKCN0T12PL20151112 (accessed February 16, 2016).
Success in achieving a low-cost edge over rivals comes from out-managing rivals in finding ways to perform value chain activities faster, more accurately, and more cost-effectively.
The Keys to Being a Successful Low-Cost Provider While low-cost providers are champions of frugality, they seldom hesitate to spend aggressively on resources and capabilities that promise to drive costs out of the business. Indeed, having competitive assets of this type and ensuring that they remain competitively superior is essential for achieving competitive advantage as a low-cost provider. Walmart, for example, has been an early adopter of state-of-the-art technology throughout its operations; however, the company carefully estimates the cost savings of new technologies before it rushes to invest in them. By continuously investing in complex, cost-saving technologies that are hard for rivals to match, Walmart has sustained its low-cost advantage for over 30 years.
Other companies noted for their successful use of low-cost provider strategies include Vizio in big-screen TVs, EasyJet and Ryanair in airlines, Huawei in networking and telecommunications equipment, Bic in ballpoint pens, Stride Rite in footwear, and Poulan in chain saws.
When a Low-Cost Provider Strategy Works Best A low-cost provider strategy becomes increasingly appealing and competitively powerful when:
1. Price competition among rival sellers is vigorous. Low-cost providers are in the best position to compete offensively on the basis of price, to gain market share at the expense of rivals, to win the business of price-sensitive buyers, to remain profitable despite strong price competition, and to survive price wars.
2. The products of rival sellers are essentially identical and readily available from many eager sellers. Look-alike products and/or overabundant product supply set the stage for lively price competition; in such markets, it is the less efficient, higher- cost companies whose profits get squeezed the most.
3. It is difficult to achieve product differentiation in ways that have value to buyers. When the differences between product attributes or brands do not matter much to buyers, buyers are nearly always sensitive to price differences, and industry- leading companies tend to be those with the lowest-priced brands.
4. Most buyers use the product in the same ways. With common user requirements, a standardized product can satisfy the needs of buyers, in which case low price, not features or quality, becomes the dominant factor in causing buyers to choose one seller’s product over another’s.
5. Buyers incur low costs in switching their purchases from one seller to another. Low switching costs give buyers the flexibility to shift purchases to lower-priced sellers having equally good products or to attractively priced substitute products. A low-cost leader is well positioned to use low price to induce potential customers to switch to its brand.
A low-cost provider is in the best position to win the business of price-sensitive buyers, set the floor on market price, and still earn a profit.
Pitfalls to Avoid in Pursuing a Low-Cost Provider Strategy Perhaps the biggest mistake a low-cost provider can make is getting carried away with overly aggressive price cutting. Higher unit sales and market shares do not automatically translate into higher profits. Reducing price results in earning a lower profit margin on each unit sold. Thus reducing price improves profitability only if the lower price increases unit sales enough to offset the loss in revenues due to the lower per unit profit margin. A simple numerical example tells the story: Suppose a firm selling 1,000 units at a price of $10, a cost of $9, and a profit margin of $1 opts to cut price 5 percent to $9.50—which reduces the firm’s profit margin to $0.50 per unit sold. If unit costs remain at $9, then it takes a 100 percent sales increase to 2,000 units just to offset the narrower profit margin and get back to total profits of $1,000. Hence, whether a price cut will result in higher or lower profitability depends on how big the resulting sales gains will be and how much, if any, unit costs will fall as sales volumes increase.
Reducing price does not lead to higher total profits unless the added gains in unit sales are large enough to offset the loss in revenues due to lower margins per unit sold.
A second pitfall is relying on cost reduction approaches that can be easily copied by rivals. If rivals find it relatively easy or inexpensive to imitate the leader’s low-cost methods, then the leader’s advantage will be too short-lived to yield a valuable edge in the marketplace.
A low-cost provider’s product offering must always contain enough attributes to be attractive to prospective buyers—low price, by itself, is not always appealing to buyers.
A third pitfall is becoming too fixated on cost reduction. Low costs cannot be pursued so zealously that a firm’s offering ends up being too feature-poor to generate buyer appeal. Furthermore, a company driving hard to push down its costs has to guard against ignoring declining buyer sensitivity to price, increased buyer interest in added features or service, or new developments that alter how buyers use the product. Otherwise, it risks losing market ground if buyers start opting for more upscale or feature- rich products.
Even if these mistakes are avoided, a low-cost provider strategy still entails risk. An innovative rival may discover an even lower-cost value chain approach. Important cost-saving technological breakthroughs may suddenly emerge. And if a low-cost provider has heavy investments in its present means of operating, then it can prove costly to quickly shift to the new value chain approach or a new technology.
BROAD DIFFERENTIATION STRATEGIES
The major avenues to a competitive advantage based on differentiating a company’s product or service offering from the offerings of rivals.
Differentiation strategies are attractive whenever buyers’ needs and preferences are too diverse to be fully satisfied by a standardized product offering. Successful product differentiation requires careful study to determine what attributes buyers will find appealing, valuable, and worth paying for.3 Then the company must incorporate a combination of these desirable features into its product or service that will be different enough to stand apart from the product or service offerings of rivals. A broad differentiation strategy achieves its aim when a wide range of buyers find the company’s offering more appealing than that of rivals and worth a somewhat higher price.
Successful differentiation allows a firm to do one or more of the following:
• Command a premium price for its product. • Increase unit sales (because additional buyers are won over by the differentiating features). • Gain buyer loyalty to its brand (because buyers are strongly attracted to the differentiating features and bond with
the company and its products).
CORE CONCEPT The essence of a broad differentiation strategy is to offer unique product attributes that a wide range of buyers find appealing and worth paying more for.
Differentiation enhances profitability whenever a company’s product can command a sufficiently higher price or generate sufficiently bigger unit sales to more than cover the added costs of achieving the differentiation. Company differentiation strategies fail when buyers don’t place much value on the brand’s uniqueness and/or when a company’s differentiating features are easily matched by its rivals.
Companies can pursue differentiation from many angles: a unique taste (Red Bull, Listerine); multiple features (Microsoft Office, Apple Watch); wide selection and one-stop shopping (Home Depot, Alibaba.com); superior service (Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom); spare parts availability (John Deere; Morgan Motors); engineering design and performance (Mercedes, BMW); high fashion design (Prada, Gucci); product reliability (Whirlpool and Bosch in large home appliances); quality manufacture (Michelin); technological leadership (3M Corporation in bonding and coating products); a full range of services (Charles Schwab in stock brokerage); and wide product selection (Campbell’s soups).
Managing the Value Chain to Create the Differentiating Attributes Differentiation is not something hatched in marketing and advertising departments, nor is it limited to the catchalls of quality and service. Differentiation opportunities can exist in activities all along an industry’s value chain. The most systematic approach that managers can take, however, involves focusing on the value drivers, a set of factors—analogous to cost drivers—that are particularly effective in creating differentiation. Figure 5.3 contains a list of important value drivers. Ways that managers can enhance differentiation based on value drivers include the following:
Figure 5.3 Value Drivers: The Keys to Creating a Differentiation Advantage
Source: Adapted from Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance (New York: Free Press, 1985).
CORE CONCEPT A value driver is a factor that can have a strong differentiating effect.
1. Create product features and performance attributes that appeal to a wide range of buyers. The physical and functional features of a product have a big influence on differentiation, including features such as added user safety or enhanced environmental protection. Styling and appearance are big differentiating factors in the apparel and motor vehicle industries. Size and weight matter in binoculars and mobile devices. Most companies employing broad differentiation strategies make a point of incorporating innovative and novel features in their product or service offering, especially those that improve performance and functionality.
2. Improve customer service or add extra services. Better customer services, in areas such as delivery, returns, and repair, can be as important in creating differentiation as superior product features. Examples include superior technical assistance to buyers, higher-quality maintenance services, more and better product information provided to customers, more and better training materials for end users, better credit terms, quicker order processing, and greater customer convenience.
3. Invest in production-related R&D activities. Engaging in production R&D may permit custom-order manufacture at an efficient cost, provide wider product variety and selection through product “versioning,” or improve product quality. Many manufacturers have developed flexible manufacturing systems that allow different models and product versions to be made on the same assembly line. Being able to provide buyers with made-to-order products can be a potent differentiating capability.
4. Strive for innovation and technological advances. Successful innovation is the route to more frequent first-on-the- market victories and is a powerful differentiator. If the innovation proves hard to replicate, through patent protection or other means, it can provide a company with a first-mover advantage that is sustainable.
5. Pursue continuous quality improvement. Quality control processes reduce product defects, prevent premature product failure, extend product life, make it economical to offer longer warranty coverage, improve economy of use, result in more end-user convenience, or enhance product appearance. Companies whose quality management systems meet certification standards, such as the ISO 9001 standards, can enhance their reputation for quality with customers.
6. Increase marketing and brand-building activities. Marketing and advertising can have a tremendous effect on the value perceived by buyers and therefore their willingness to pay more for the company’s offerings. They can create differentiation even when little tangible differentiation exists otherwise. For example, blind taste tests show that even the most loyal Pepsi or Coke drinkers have trouble telling one cola drink from another.4 Brands create customer loyalty, which increases the perceived “cost” of switching to another product.
7. Seek out high-quality inputs. Input quality can ultimately spill over to affect the performance or quality of the company’s end product. Starbucks, for example, gets high ratings on its coffees partly because it has very strict specifications on the coffee beans purchased from suppliers.
8. Emphasize human resource management activities that improve the skills, expertise, and knowledge of company personnel. A company with high-caliber intellectual capital often has the capacity to generate the kinds of ideas that drive product innovation, technological advances, better product design and product performance, improved production techniques, and higher product quality. Well-designed incentive compensation systems can often unleash the efforts of talented personnel to develop and implement new and effective differentiating attributes.
Revamping the Value Chain System to Increase Differentiation Just as pursuing a cost advantage can involve the entire value chain system, the same is true for a differentiation advantage. Activities performed upstream by suppliers or downstream by distributors and retailers can have a meaningful effect on customers’ perceptions of a company’s offerings and its value proposition. Approaches to enhancing differentiation through changes in the value chain system include:
• Coordinating with channel allies to enhance customer value. Coordinating with downstream partners such as distributors, dealers, brokers, and retailers can contribute to differentiation in a variety of ways. Methods that companies use to influence the value chain activities of their channel allies include setting standards for downstream partners to follow, providing them with templates to standardize the selling environment or practices, training channel personnel, or cosponsoring promotions and advertising campaigns. Coordinating with retailers is important for enhancing the buying experience and building a company’s image. Coordinating with distributors or shippers can mean quicker delivery to customers, more accurate order filling, and/or lower shipping costs. The Coca-Cola Company considers coordination with its bottler-distributors so important that it has at times taken over a troubled bottler to improve its management and upgrade its plant and equipment before releasing it again.5
• Coordinating with suppliers to better address customer needs. Collaborating with suppliers can also be a powerful route to a more effective differentiation strategy. Coordinating and collaborating with suppliers can improve many dimensions affecting product features and quality. This is particularly true for companies that engage only in assembly operations, such as Dell in PCs and Ducati in motorcycles. Close coordination with suppliers can also enhance differentiation by speeding up new product development cycles or speeding delivery to end customers. Strong relationships with suppliers can also mean that the company’s supply requirements are prioritized when industry supply is insufficient to meet overall demand.
Delivering Superior Value via a Broad Differentiation Strategy Differentiation strategies depend on meeting customer needs in unique ways or creating new needs through activities such as innovation or persuasive advertising. The objective is to offer customers something that rivals can’t—at least in terms of the level of satisfaction. There are four basic routes to achieving this aim.
The first route is to incorporate product attributes and user features that lower the buyer’s overall costs of using the company’s product. This is the least obvious and most overlooked route to a differentiation advantage. It is a differentiating factor since it can help business buyers be more competitive in their markets and more profitable. Producers of materials and components often win orders for their products by reducing a buyer’s raw-material waste (providing cut-to-size
components), reducing a buyer’s inventory requirements (providing just-in-time deliveries), using online systems to reduce a buyer’s procurement and order processing costs, and providing free technical support. This route to differentiation can also appeal to individual consumers who are looking to economize on their overall costs of consumption. Making a company’s product more economical for a buyer to use can be done by incorporating energy-efficient features (energy-saving appliances and lightbulbs help cut buyers’ utility bills; fuel-efficient vehicles cut buyer costs for gasoline) and/or by increasing maintenance intervals and product reliability to lower buyer costs for maintenance and repairs.
A second route is to incorporate tangible features that increase customer satisfaction with the product, such as product specifications, functions, and styling. This can be accomplished by including attributes that add functionality; enhance the design; save time for the user; are more reliable; or make the product cleaner, safer, quieter, simpler to use, more portable, more convenient, or longer-lasting than rival brands. Smartphone manufacturers are in a race to introduce next-generation devices capable of being used for more purposes and having simpler menu functionality.
Differentiation can be based on tangible or intangible attributes.
A third route to a differentiation-based competitive advantage is to incorporate intangible features that enhance buyer satisfaction in noneconomic ways. Toyota’s Prius appeals to environmentally conscious motorists not only because these drivers want to help reduce global carbon dioxide emissions but also because they identify with the image conveyed. Bentley, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier, and Coach have differentiation-based competitive advantages linked to buyer desires for status, image, prestige, upscale fashion, superior craftsmanship, and the finer things in life. Intangibles that contribute to differentiation can extend beyond product attributes to the reputation of the company and to customer relations or trust.
The fourth route is to signal the value of the company’s product offering to buyers. Typical signals of value include a high price (in instances where high price implies high quality and performance), more appealing or fancier packaging than competing products, ad content that emphasizes a product’s standout attributes, the quality of brochures and sales presentations, and the luxuriousness and ambience of a seller’s facilities (important for high-end retailers and for offices or other facilities frequented by customers). They make potential buyers aware of the professionalism, appearance, and personalities of the seller’s employees and/or make potential buyers realize that a company has prestigious customers. Signaling value is particularly important (1) when the nature of differentiation is based on intangible features and is therefore subjective or hard to quantify, (2) when buyers are making a first-time purchase and are unsure what their experience with the product will be, (3) when repurchase is infrequent, and (4) when buyers are unsophisticated.
Regardless of the approach taken, achieving a successful differentiation strategy requires, first, that the company have capabilities in areas such as customer service, marketing, brand management, and technology that can create and support differentiation. That is, the resources, competencies, and value chain activities of the company must be well matched to the requirements of the strategy. For the strategy to result in competitive advantage, the company’s competencies must also be sufficiently unique in delivering value to buyers that they help set its product offering apart from those of rivals. They must be competitively superior. There are numerous examples of companies that have differentiated themselves on the basis of distinctive capabilities. Health care facilities like M.D. Anderson, Mayo Clinic, and Cleveland Clinic have specialized expertise and equipment for treating certain diseases that most hospitals and health care providers cannot afford to emulate. When a major news event occurs, many people turn to Fox News and CNN because they have the capabilities to get reporters on the scene quickly, break away from their regular programming (without suffering a loss of advertising revenues associated with regular programming), and devote extensive air time to newsworthy stories.
Easy-to-copy differentiating features cannot produce sustainable competitive advantage.
The most successful approaches to differentiation are those that are difficult for rivals to duplicate. Indeed, this is the route to a sustainable differentiation advantage. While resourceful competitors can, in time, clone almost any tangible product attribute, socially complex intangible attributes such as company reputation, long-standing relationships with buyers, and image are much harder to imitate. Differentiation that creates switching costs that lock in buyers also provides a route to sustainable advantage. For example, if a buyer makes a substantial investment in learning to use one type of system, that buyer is less likely to switch to a competitor’s system. (This has kept many users from switching away from Microsoft Office products, despite the fact that there are other applications with superior features.) As a rule, differentiation yields a longer-lasting and more profitable competitive edge when it is based on a well-established brand image, patent-protected product innovation, complex technical superiority, a reputation for superior product quality and reliability, relationship-based customer service, and unique competitive capabilities.
When a Differentiation Strategy Works Best Differentiation strategies tend to work best in market circumstances where:
• Buyer needs and uses of the product are diverse. Diverse buyer preferences allow industry rivals to set themselves apart with product attributes that appeal to particular buyers. For instance, the diversity of consumer preferences for menu selection, ambience, pricing, and customer service gives restaurants exceptionally wide latitude in creating a differentiated product offering. Other industries with diverse buyer needs include magazine publishing, automobile manufacturing, footwear, and kitchen appliances.
• There are many ways to differentiate the product or service that have value to buyers. Industries in which competitors have opportunities to add features to products and services are well suited to differentiation strategies. For example, hotel chains
can differentiate on such features as location, size of room, range of guest services, in-hotel dining, and the quality and luxuriousness of bedding and furnishings. Similarly, cosmetics producers are able to differentiate based on prestige and image, formulations that fight the signs of aging, UV light protection, exclusivity of retail locations, the inclusion of antioxidants and natural ingredients, or prohibitions against animal testing. Basic commodities, such as chemicals, mineral deposits, and agricultural products, provide few opportunities for differentiation.
• Few rival firms are following a similar differentiation approach. The best differentiation approaches involve trying to appeal to buyers on the basis of attributes that rivals are not emphasizing. A differentiator encounters less head-to-head rivalry when it goes its own separate way in creating value and does not try to out-differentiate rivals on the very same attributes. When many rivals base their differentiation efforts on the same attributes, the most likely result is weak brand differentiation and “strategy overcrowding”—competitors end up chasing much the same buyers with much the same product offerings.
• Technological change is fast-paced and competition revolves around rapidly evolving product features. Rapid product innovation and frequent introductions of next-version products heighten buyer interest and provide space for companies to pursue distinct differentiating paths. In smartphones and wearable Internet devices, drones for hobbyists and commercial use, automobile lane detection sensors, and battery-powered cars, rivals are locked into an ongoing battle to set themselves apart by introducing the best next-generation products. Companies that fail to come up with new and improved products and distinctive performance features quickly lose out in the marketplace.
Pitfalls to Avoid in Pursuing a Differentiation Strategy
Any differentiating feature that works well is a magnet for imitators.
Differentiation strategies can fail for any of several reasons. A differentiation strategy keyed to product or service attributes that are easily and quickly copied is always suspect. Rapid imitation means that no rival achieves differentiation, since whenever one firm introduces some value-creating aspect that strikes the fancy of buyers, fast-following copycats quickly reestablish parity. This is why a firm must seek out sources of value creation that are time-consuming or burdensome for rivals to match if it hopes to use differentiation to win a sustainable competitive edge.
Differentiation strategies can also falter when buyers see little value in the unique attributes of a company’s product. Thus, even if a company succeeds in setting its product apart from those of rivals, its strategy can result in disappointing sales and profits if the product does not deliver adequate value to buyers. Anytime many potential buyers look at a company’s differentiated product offering with indifference, the company’s differentiation strategy is in deep trouble.
The third big pitfall is overspending on efforts to differentiate the company’s product offering, thus eroding profitability. Company efforts to achieve differentiation nearly always raise costs—often substantially, since marketing and R&D are expensive undertakings. The key to profitable differentiation is either to keep the unit cost of achieving differentiation below the price premium that the differentiating attributes can command (thus increasing the profit margin per unit sold) or to offset thinner profit margins per unit by selling enough additional units to increase total profits. If a company goes overboard in pursuing costly differentiation, it could be saddled with unacceptably low profits or even losses.
Other common mistakes in crafting a differentiation strategy include:
Over-differentiating and overcharging are fatal differentiation strategy mistakes. A low-cost provider strategy can defeat a differentiation strategy when buyers are satisfied with a basic product and don’t think “extra” attributes are worth a higher price.
• Offering only trivial improvements in quality, service, or performance features vis-à-vis rivals’ products. Trivial differences between rivals’ product offerings may not be visible or important to buyers. If a company wants to generate the fiercely loyal customer following needed to earn superior profits and open up a differentiation-based competitive advantage over rivals, then its strategy must result in strong rather than weak product differentiation. In markets where differentiators do no better than achieve weak product differentiation, customer loyalty is weak, the costs of brand switching are low, and no one company has enough of a differentiation edge to command a price premium over rival brands.
• Over-differentiating so that product quality, features, or service levels exceed the needs of most buyers. A dazzling array of features and options not only drives up product price but also runs the risk that many buyers will conclude that a less deluxe and lower-priced brand is a better value since they have little occasion to use the deluxe attributes.
• Charging too high a price premium. While buyers may be intrigued by a product’s deluxe features, they may nonetheless see it as being overpriced relative to the value delivered by the differentiating attributes. A company must guard against turning off would-be buyers with what is perceived as “price gouging.” Normally, the bigger the price premium for the differentiating extras, the harder it is to keep buyers from switching to the lower-priced offerings of competitors.
FOCUSED (OR MARKET NICHE) STRATEGIES What sets focused strategies apart from low-cost provider and broad differentiation strategies is concentrated attention on a narrow piece of the total market. The target segment, or niche, can be in the form of a geographic segment (such as New England), or a customer segment (such as urban hipsters), or a product segment (such as a class of models or some version of
the overall product type). Community Coffee, the largest family-owned specialty coffee retailer in the United States, has a geographic focus on the state of Louisiana and communities across the Gulf of Mexico. Community holds only a small share of the national coffee market but has recorded sales in excess of $100 million and has won a strong following in the 20-state region where its coffee is distributed. Examples of firms that concentrate on a well-defined market niche keyed to a particular product or buyer segment include Zipcar (car rental in urban areas), Airbnb and VRBO (by-owner lodging rental), Comedy Central (cable TV), Blue Nile (online jewelry), Tesla Motors (electric cars), and CGA, Inc. (a specialist in providing insurance to cover the cost of lucrative hole-in-one prizes at golf tournaments). Microbreweries, local bakeries, bed-and-breakfast inns, and retail boutiques have also scaled their operations to serve narrow or local customer segments.
A Focused Low-Cost Strategy A focused low-cost strategy aims at securing a competitive advantage by serving buyers in the target market niche at a lower cost and lower price than those of rival competitors. This strategy has considerable attraction when a firm can lower costs significantly by limiting its customer base to a well-defined buyer segment. The avenues to achieving a cost advantage over rivals also serving the target market niche are the same as those for low-cost leadership—use the cost drivers to perform value chain activities more efficiently than rivals and search for innovative ways to bypass non-essential value chain activities. The only real difference between a low-cost provider strategy and a focused low-cost strategy is the size of the buyer group to which a company is appealing—the former involves a product offering that appeals broadly to almost all buyer groups and market segments, whereas the latter aims at just meeting the needs of buyers in a narrow market segment.
Focused low-cost strategies are fairly common. Producers of private-label goods are able to achieve low costs in product development, marketing, distribution, and advertising by concentrating on making generic items imitative of name-brand merchandise and selling directly to retail chains wanting a low-priced store brand. The Perrigo Company has become a leading manufacturer of over-the-counter health care products, with 2014 sales of over $4 billion, by focusing on producing private-label brands for retailers such as Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Safeway. Budget motel chains, like Motel 6, Sleep Inn, and Super 8, cater to price-conscious travelers who just want to pay for a clean, no-frills place to spend the night. Illustration Capsule 5.2 describes how Clinícas del Azúcar’s focus on lowering the costs of diabetes care is allowing it to address a major health issue in Mexico.
Illustration Capsule 5.2
Clinícas del Azúcar’s Focused Low-Cost Strategy
Though diabetes is a manageable condition, it is the leading cause of death in Mexico. Over 14 million adults (14 percent of all adults) suffer from diabetes, 3.5 million cases remain undiagnosed, and more than 80,000 die due to related complications each year. The key driver behind this public health crisis is limited access to affordable, high-quality care. Approximately 90 percent of the population cannot access diabetes care due to financial and time constraints; private care can cost upwards of $1,000 USD per year (approximately 45 percent of Mexico’s population has an annual income less than $2,000 USD) while average wait times alone at public clinics surpass five hours. Clinícas del Azúcar (CDA), however, is quickly scaling a solution that uses a focused low-cost strategy to provide affordable and convenient care to low-income patients.
By relentlessly focusing only on the needs of its target population, CDA has reduced the cost of diabetes care by more than 70 percent and clinic visit times by over 80 percent. The key has been the use of proprietary technology and a streamlined care system. First, CDA leverages evidence-based algorithms to diagnose patients for a fraction of the costs of traditional diagnostic tests. Similarly, its mobile outreach significantly reduces the costs of supporting patients in managing their diabetes after leaving CDA facilities. Second, CDA has redesigned the care process to implement a streamlined “patient process flow” that eliminates the need for multiple referrals to other care providers and brings together the necessary professionals and equipment into one facility. Consequently, CDA has become a one-stop shop for diabetes care, providing every aspect of diabetes treatment under one roof.
© Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images
The bottom line: CDA’s cost structure allows it to keep its prices for diabetes treatment very low, saving patients both time and money. Patients choose from three different care packages, ranging from preventive to comprehensive care, paying an annual fee that runs between approximately $70 and $200 USD. Given this increase in affordability and convenience, CDA estimates that it has saved its patients over $2 million USD in medical costs and will soon increase access to affordable, high- quality care for 10 to 80 percent of the population. These results have attracted investment from major funders including Endeavor, Echoing Green, and the Clinton Global Initiative. As a result, CDA and others expect CDA to grow from 5 clinics serving approximately 5,000 patients to more than 50 clinics serving over 100,000 patients throughout Mexico by 2020. Note: Developed with David B. Washer. Sources: www.clinicasdelazucar.com; “Funding Social Enterprises Report,” Echoing Green, June 2014; Jude Webber, “Mexico Sees Poverty Climb Despite Rise in Incomes,” Financial Times online, July 2015, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/3/98460bbc-31e1-11e5-8873- 775ba7c2ea3d.html#axzz3zz8grtec; “Javier Lozano,” Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship online, 2016, www.schwabfound.org/content/javier-lozano.
A Focused Differentiation Strategy Focused differentiation strategies involve offering superior products or services tailored to the unique preferences and needs of a narrow, well-defined group of buyers. Successful use of a focused differentiation strategy depends on (1) the existence of a buyer segment that is looking for special product attributes or seller capabilities and (2) a firm’s ability to create a product or service offering that stands apart from that of rivals competing in the same target market niche.
Companies like L.A. Burdick (gourmet chocolates), Rolls-Royce, and Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company employ successful differentiation-based focused strategies targeted at upscale buyers wanting products and services with world-class attributes. Indeed, most markets contain a buyer segment willing to pay a big price premium for the very finest items available, thus opening the strategic window for some competitors to pursue differentiation-based focused strategies aimed at the very top of the market pyramid. Whole Foods Market, which bills itself as “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store,” has become the largest organic and natural foods supermarket chain in the United States (2014 sales of $14.2 billion) by catering to health-conscious consumers who prefer organic, natural, minimally processed, and locally grown foods. Whole Foods prides itself on stocking the highest-quality organic and natural foods it can find; the company defines quality by evaluating the ingredients, freshness, taste, nutritive value, appearance, and safety of the products it carries. Illustration Capsule 5.3 describes how Canada Goose has been gaining attention with a focused differentiation strategy.
When a Focused Low-Cost or Focused Differentiation Strategy Is Attractive A focused strategy aimed at securing a competitive edge based on either low costs or differentiation becomes increasingly attractive as more of the following conditions are met:
• The target market niche is big enough to be profitable and offers good growth potential.
• Industry leaders have chosen not to compete in the niche—in which case focusers can avoid battling head to head against the industry’s biggest and strongest competitors.
• It is costly or difficult for multisegment competitors to meet the specialized needs of niche buyers and at the same time satisfy the expectations of their mainstream customers.
• The industry has many different niches and segments, thereby allowing a focuser to pick the niche best suited to its resources and capabilities. Also, with more niches there is room for focusers to concentrate on different market segments and avoid competing in the same niche for the same customers.
• Few if any rivals are attempting to specialize in the same target segment—a condition that reduces the risk of segment overcrowding.
The advantages of focusing a company’s entire competitive effort on a single market niche are considerable, especially for smaller and medium-sized companies that may lack the breadth and depth of resources to tackle going after a broader customer base with a more complex set of needs. YouTube has become a household name by concentrating on short video clips posted online. Papa John’s and Domino’s Pizza have created impressive businesses by focusing on the home delivery segment.
The Risks of a Focused Low-Cost or Focused Differentiation Strategy Focusing carries several risks. One is the chance that competitors outside the niche will find effective ways to match the focused firm’s capabilities in serving the target niche—perhaps by coming up with products or brands specifically designed to appeal to buyers in the target niche or by developing expertise and capabilities that offset the focuser’s strengths. In the lodging business, large chains like Marriott and Hilton have launched multibrand strategies that allow them to compete effectively in several lodging segments simultaneously. Marriott has flagship JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels with deluxe accommodations for business travelers and resort vacationers. Its Courtyard by Marriott and SpringHill Suites brands cater to business travelers looking for moderately priced lodging, whereas Marriott Residence Inns and TownePlace Suites are designed as a “home away from home” for travelers staying five or more nights. Its Fairfield Inn & Suites is intended to appeal to travelers looking for quality lodging at an “affordable” price. Marriott has also added Edition, AC Hotels by Marriott, and Autograph Collection hotels that offer stylish, distinctive decors and personalized services that appeal to young professionals seeking distinctive lodging alternatives. Multibrand strategies are attractive to large companies like Marriott, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé precisely because they enable entry into smaller market segments and siphon away business from companies that employ a focused strategy.
ILLUSTRATION CAPSULE 5.3
Canada Goose’s Focused Differentiation Strategy
Open up a winter edition of People and you will probably see photos of a celebrity sporting a Canada Goose parka. Recognizable by a distinctive red, white, and blue arm patch, the brand’s parkas have been spotted on movie stars like Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper, on New York City streets, and on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Lately, Canada Goose has become extremely successful thanks to a focused differentiation strategy that enables it to thrive within its niche in the $1.2 trillion fashion industry. By targeting upscale buyers and providing a uniquely functional and stylish jacket, Canada Goose can charge nearly $1,000 per jacket and never need to put its products on sale.
While Canada Goose was founded in 1957, its recent transition to a focused differentiation strategy allowed it to rise to the top of the luxury parka market. In 2001, CEO Dani Reiss took control of the company and made two key decisions. First, he cut private-label and non-outerwear production in order to focus on the branded outerwear portion of Canada Goose’s business. Second, Reiss decided to remain in Canada despite many North American competitors moving production to Asia to increase profit margins. Fortunately for him, these two strategy decisions have led directly to the company’s current success. While other luxury brands, like Moncler, are priced similarly, no competitor’s products fulfill the promise of handling harsh winter weather quite like a Canada Goose “Made in Canada” parka. The Canadian heritage, use of down sourced from rural Canada, real coyote fur (humanely trapped), and promise to provide warmth in sub-25°F temperatures have let Canada Goose break away from the pack when it comes to selling parkas. The company’s distinctly Canadian product has made it a hit among buyers, which is reflected in the willingness to pay a steep premium for extremely high-quality and warm winter outerwear.
© Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Since Canada Goose’s shift to a focused differentiation strategy, the company has seen a boom in revenue and appeal across the globe. Prior to Reiss’s strategic decisions in 2001, Canada Goose had annual revenue of about $3 million. Within a decade, the company had experienced over 4,000 percent growth in annual revenue; by the end of 2015, sales were expected to exceed $300 million in more than 50 countries. At this pace, it looks like Canada Goose will remain a hot commodity as long as winter temperatures remain cold. Note: Developed with Arthur J. Santry. Sources: Drake Bennett, “How Canada Goose Parkas Migrated South,” Bloomberg Businessweek, March 13, 2015, www.bloomberg.com; Hollie Shaw, “Canada Goose’s Made-in-Canada Marketing Strategy Translates into Success,” Financial Post, May 18, 2012, www.financialpost.com; “The Economic Impact of the Fashion Industry,” The Economist, June 13, 2015, www.maloney.house.gov; and company website (accessed February 21, 2016).
A second risk of employing a focused strategy is the potential for the preferences and needs of niche members to shift over time toward the product attributes desired by buyers in the mainstream portion of the market. An erosion of the differences across buyer segments lowers entry barriers into a focuser’s market niche and provides an open invitation for rivals in adjacent segments to begin competing for the focuser’s customers. A third risk is that the segment may become so attractive that it is soon inundated with competitors, intensifying rivalry and splintering segment profits. And there is always the risk for segment growth to slow to such a small rate that a focuser’s prospects for future sales and profit gains become unacceptably dim.
BEST-COST PROVIDER STRATEGIES As Figure 5.1 indicates, best-cost provider strategies stake out a middle ground between pursuing a low-cost advantage and a differentiation advantage and between appealing to the broad market as a whole and a narrow market niche. This permits companies to aim squarely at the sometimes great mass of value-conscious buyers looking for a better product or service at an economical price. Value-conscious buyers frequently shy away from both cheap low-end products and expensive high-end products, but they are quite willing to pay a “fair” price for extra features and functionality they find appealing and useful. The essence of a best-cost provider strategy is giving customers more value for the money by satisfying buyer desires for appealing features and charging a lower price for these attributes compared to rivals with similar-caliber product offerings.6 From a competitive-positioning standpoint, best-cost strategies are thus a hybrid, balancing a strategic emphasis on low cost against a strategic emphasis on differentiation (desirable features delivered at a relatively low price).
CORE CONCEPT Best-cost provider strategies are a hybrid of low-cost provider and differentiation strategies that aim at providing more desirable attributes (quality, features, performance, service) while beating rivals on price.
To profitably employ a best-cost provider strategy, a company must have the capability to incorporate upscale attributes into its product offering at a lower cost than rivals. When a company can incorporate more appealing features, good to excellent product performance or quality, or more satisfying customer service into its product offering at a lower cost than rivals, then it enjoys “best-cost” status—it is the low-cost provider of a product or service with upscale attributes. A best-cost provider can use
its low-cost advantage to underprice rivals whose products or services have similarly upscale attributes and it still earns attractive profits.
Being a best-cost provider is different from being a low-cost provider because the additional attractive attributes entail additional costs (which a low-cost provider can avoid by offering buyers a basic product with few frills). Moreover, the two strategies aim at a distinguishably different market target. The target market for a best-cost provider is value-conscious buyers—buyers who are looking for appealing extras and functionality at a comparatively low price. Value-hunting buyers (as distinct from price-conscious buyers looking for a basic product at a bargain-basement price) often constitute a very sizable part of the overall market for a product or service.
Toyota has employed a classic best-cost provider strategy for its Lexus line of motor vehicles. It has designed an array of high-performance characteristics and upscale features into its Lexus models to make them comparable in performance and luxury to Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Cadillac, and Lincoln models. To further draw buyer attention, Toyota established a network of Lexus dealers, separate from Toyota dealers, dedicated to providing exceptional customer service. Most important, though, Toyota has drawn on its considerable know-how in making high-quality vehicles at low cost to produce its high-tech upscale-quality Lexus models at substantially lower costs than other luxury vehicle makers have been able to achieve in producing their models. To capitalize on its lower manufacturing costs, Toyota prices its Lexus models below those of comparable Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Jaguar models to induce value-conscious luxury car buyers to purchase a Lexus instead. The price differential has typically been quite significant. For example, in 2015 the Lexus RX 350, a midsized SUV, had a sticker price of $43,395 for the all-wheel-drive model with standard equipment, whereas the base price of a comparable Mercedes M-class SUV was $51,725 and the base price of a comparable BMW X5 SUV was $57,150.
When a Best-Cost Provider Strategy Works Best
The attributes of a best-cost provider strategy—a hybrid of low-cost provider and differentiation strategies.
A best-cost provider strategy works best in markets where product differentiation is the norm and an attractively large number of value-conscious buyers can be induced to purchase midrange products rather than cheap, basic products or expensive, top-of- the-line products. A best-cost provider needs to position itself near the middle of the market with either a medium-quality product at a below-average price or a high-quality product at an average or slightly higher price. Best-cost provider strategies also work well in recessionary times, when masses of buyers become value-conscious and are attracted to economically priced products and services with more appealing attributes. But unless a company has the resources, know-how, and capabilities to incorporate upscale product or service attributes at a lower cost than rivals, adopting a best-cost strategy is ill-advised. Illustration Capsule 5.4 describes how American Giant has applied the principles of the best-cost provider strategy in producing and marketing its hoodie sweatshirts.
The Risk of a Best-Cost Provider Strategy A company’s biggest vulnerability in employing a best-cost provider strategy is getting squeezed between the strategies of firms using low-cost and high-end differentiation strategies. Low-cost providers may be able to siphon customers away with the appeal of a lower price (despite less appealing product attributes). High-end differentiators may be able to steal customers away with the appeal of better product attributes (even though their products carry a higher price tag). Thus, to be successful, a best- cost provider must achieve significantly lower costs in providing upscale features so that it can outcompete high-end differentiators on the basis of a significantly lower price. Likewise, it must offer buyers significantly better product attributes to justify a price above what low-cost leaders are charging. In other words, it must offer buyers a more attractive customer value proposition.
ILLUSTRATION CAPSULE 5.4
American Giant’s Best-Cost Provider Strategy
Bayard Winthrop, founder and owner of American Giant, set out to make a hoodie like the soft, ultra-thick Navy sweatshirts his dad used to wear in the 1950s. But he also had two other aims: He wanted it to have a more updated look with a tailored fit, and he wanted it produced cost-effectively so that it could be sold at a great price. To accomplish these aims, he designed the sweatshirt with the help of a former industrial engineer from Apple and an internationally renowned pattern maker, rethinking every aspect of sweatshirt design and production along the way. The result was a hoodie differentiated from others on the basis of extreme attention to fabric, fit, construction, and durability. The hoodie is made from heavy-duty cotton that is run through a machine that carefully picks loops of thread out of the fabric to create a thick, combed, ring-spun fleece fabric that feels three times thicker than most sweatshirts. A small amount of spandex paneling along the shoulders and sides creates the fitted look and maintains the shape, keeping the sweatshirt from looking slouchy or sloppy. It has double stitching with strong thread on critical seams to avoid deterioration and boost durability. The zippers and draw cord are customized to match the sweatshirt’s color—an uncommon practice in the business.
American Giant sources yarn from Parkdale, South Carolina, and turns it into cloth at the nearby Carolina Cotton Works. This reduces transport costs, creates a more dependable, durable product that American Giant can easily quality-check, and
shortens product turnaround to about a month, lowering inventory costs. This process also enables the company to use a genuine “Made in the U.S.A.” label, a perceived quality driver.
© David Paul Morris/Getty Images
American Giant disrupts the traditional, expensive distribution models by having no stores or resellers. Instead, it sells directly to customers from its website, with free two-day shipping and returns. Much of the company’s growth comes from word of mouth and a strong public relations effort that promotes the brand in magazines, newspapers, and key business-oriented television programs. American Giant has a robust refer-a-friend program that offers a discount to friends of, and a credit to, current owners. Articles in popular media proclaiming its product “the greatest hoodie ever made” have made demand for its sweatshirts skyrocket.
At $89 for the original men’s hoodie, American Giant is not cheap but offers customers value in terms of both price and quality. The price is higher than what one would pay at The Gap or American Apparel and comparable to Levi’s, J.Crew, or Banana Republic. But its quality is more on par with high-priced designer brands, while its price is far more affordable. Note: Developed with Sarah Boole. Sources: www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/business/us-textile-factories-return.html?emc=eta1&_r=0; www.american-giant.com; www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2012/12/american_giant_hoodie_this_is_the_greatest_sweatshirt_known_to_man.html; www.businessinsider.com/this-hoodie-is-so-insanely-popular-you-have-to-wait-months-to-get-it-2013-12.
THE CONTRASTING FEATURES OF THE FIVE GENERIC COMPETITIVE STRATEGIES: A SUMMARY
A company’s competitive strategy should be well matched to its internal situation and predicated on leveraging its collection of competitively valuable resources and capabilities.
Deciding which generic competitive strategy should serve as the framework on which to hang the rest of the company’s strategy is not a trivial matter. Each of the five generic competitive strategies positions the company differently in its market and competitive environment. Each establishes a central theme for how the company will endeavor to outcompete rivals. Each creates some boundaries or guidelines for maneuvering as market circumstances unfold and as ideas for improving the strategy are debated. Each entails differences in terms of product line, production emphasis, marketing emphasis, and means of maintaining the strategy, as shown in Table 5.1
Table 5.1 Distinguishing Features of the Five Generic Competitive Strategies
Focused Low- Cost Provider
Focused Low- Cost Provider
• A broad cross- section of the market.
• A broad cross-section of the market.
• A narrow market niche where buyer needs and preferences are distinctively different.
• A narrow market niche where buyer needs and preferences are distinctively different.
• Value-conscious buyers.
• A middle-market range.
Basis of competitive strategy
• Lower overall costs than competitors
• Ability to offer buyers something attractively different from competitors’ offerings
• Lower overall cost than rivals in serving niche members
• Attributes that appeal specifically to niche members
• Ability to offer better goods at attractive prices.
• A good basic product with few frills (acceptable quality and limited selection).
• Many product variations, wide selection; emphasis on differentiating features
• Features and attributes tailored to the tastes and requirements of niche members.
• Features and attributes tailored to the tastes and requirements of niche members
• Items with appealing attributes and assorted features; better quality, not best
• A continuous search for cost reduction without sacrificing acceptable quality and essential features
• Build in whatever differentiating features buyers are willing to pay for; strive for product superiority.
• A continuous search for cost reduction for products that meet basic needs of niche members
• Small-scale production or custom-made products that match the tastes and requirements of niche members
• Build in appealing features and better quality at lower cost than rivals.
• Low prices, good value.
• Try to make a virtue out of product features that lead to low cost
• Tout differentiating features.
• Charge a premium price to cover the extra costs of differentiating features.
• Communicate attractive features of a budget-priced product offering that fits niche buyers’ expectations
• Communicate how product offering does the best job of meeting niche buyers’ expectations
• Emphasize delivery of best value for the money
Keys to maintaining the strategy
• Economical prices, good value.
• Strive to manage costs down, year after year, in every
• Stress constant innovation to stay ahead of imitative competitors.
• Concentrate on a few key differentiating features
• Stay committed to serving the niche at the lowest overall cost; don’t blur the firm’s image by entering other market segments or
• Stay committed to serving the niche better than rivals; don’t blur the firm’s image by entering other market segments or adding other
• Unique expertise in simultaneously managing costs down while incorporating upscale features and attributes
Focused Low- Cost Provider
area of the business
adding other products to widen market appeal
products to widen market appeal.
Resources and capabilities required
• Capabilities for driving costs out of the value chain system.
• Examples: large-scale automated plants, an efficiency- oriented culture, bargaining power.
• Capabilities concerning quality, design, intangibles, and innovation.
• Examples: marketing capabilities, R&D teams, technology
• Capabilities to lower costs on niche goods.
• Examples: lower input costs for the specific product desired by the niche, batch production capabilities
• Capabilities to meet the highly specific needs of niche members.
• Examples: custom production, close customer relations
• Capabilities to simultaneously deliver lower cost and higher- quality/differentiated features.
• Examples: TQM practices, mass customization
Thus a choice of which generic strategy to employ spills over to affect many aspects of how the business will be operated and the manner in which value chain activities must be managed. Deciding which generic strategy to employ is perhaps the most important strategic commitment a company makes—it tends to drive the rest of the strategic actions a company decides to undertake.
Successful Competitive Strategies Are Resource-Based For a company’s competitive strategy to succeed in delivering good performance and gain a competitive edge over rivals, it has to be well matched to a company’s internal situation and underpinned by an appropriate set of resources, know-how, and competitive capabilities. To succeed in employing a low-cost provider strategy, a company must have the resources and capabilities to keep its costs below those of its competitors. This means having the expertise to cost-effectively manage value chain activities better than rivals by leveraging the cost drivers more effectively, and/or having the innovative capability to bypass certain value chain activities being performed by rivals. To succeed in a differentiation strategy, a company must have the resources and capabilities to leverage value drivers more effectively than rivals and incorporate attributes into its product offering that a broad range of buyers will find appealing. Successful focus strategies (both low cost and differentiation) require the capability to do an outstanding job of satisfying the needs and expectations of niche buyers. Success in employing a best- cost strategy requires the resources and capabilities to incorporate upscale product or service attributes at a lower cost than rivals. For all types of generic strategies, success in sustaining the competitive edge depends on having resources and capabilities that rivals have trouble duplicating and for which there are no good substitutes.
KEY POINTS 1. Deciding which of the five generic competitive strategies to employ—overall low cost, broad differentiation, focused low
cost, focused differentiation, or best cost—is perhaps the most important strategic commitment a company makes. It tends to drive the remaining strategic actions a company undertakes and sets the whole tone for pursuing a competitive advantage over rivals.
2. In employing a low-cost provider strategy and trying to achieve a low-cost advantage over rivals, a company must do a better job than rivals of cost-effectively managing value chain activities and/or it must find innovative ways to eliminate cost-producing activities. An effective use of cost drivers is key. Low-cost provider strategies work particularly well when price competition is strong and the products of rival sellers are virtually identical, when there are not many ways to differentiate, when buyers are price-sensitive or have the power to bargain down prices, when buyer switching costs are low, and when industry newcomers are likely to use a low introductory price to build market share.
3. Broad differentiation strategies seek to produce a competitive edge by incorporating attributes that set a company’s product or service offering apart from rivals in ways that buyers consider valuable and worth paying for. This depends on the appropriate use of value drivers. Successful differentiation allows a firm to (1) command a premium price for its
product, (2) increase unit sales (if additional buyers are won over by the differentiating features), and/or (3) gain buyer loyalty to its brand (because some buyers are strongly attracted to the differentiating features and bond with the company and its products). Differentiation strategies work best when buyers have diverse product preferences, when few other rivals are pursuing a similar differentiation approach, and when technological change is fast-paced and competition centers on rapidly evolving product features. A differentiation strategy is doomed when competitors are able to quickly copy the appealing product attributes, when a company’s differentiation efforts fail to interest many buyers, and when a company overspends on efforts to differentiate its product offering or tries to overcharge for its differentiating extras.
4. A focused strategy delivers competitive advantage either by achieving lower costs than rivals in serving buyers constituting the target market niche or by developing a specialized ability to offer niche buyers an appealingly differentiated offering that meets their needs better than rival brands do. A focused strategy based on either low cost or differentiation becomes increasingly attractive when the target market niche is big enough to be profitable and offers good growth potential, when it is costly or difficult for multisegment competitors to meet the specialized needs of the target market niche and at the same time satisfy the expectations of their mainstream customers, when there are one or more niches that present a good match for a focuser’s resources and capabilities, and when few other rivals are attempting to specialize in the same target segment.
5. Best-cost strategies create competitive advantage by giving buyers more value for the money—delivering superior quality, features, performance, and/or service attributes while also beating customer expectations on price. To profitably employ a best-cost provider strategy, a company must have the capability to incorporate attractive or upscale attributes at a lower cost than rivals. A best-cost provider strategy works best in markets with large numbers of value- conscious buyers desirous of purchasing better products and services for less money.
6. In all cases, competitive advantage depends on having competitively superior resources and capabilities that are a good fit for the chosen generic strategy. A sustainable advantage depends on maintaining that competitive superiority with resources, capabilities, and value chain activities that rivals have trouble matching and for which there are no good substitutes.
ASSURANCE OF LEARNING EXERCISES 1. Best Buy is the largest consumer electronics retailer in the United States, with 2015 sales of over $50 billion. The
company competes aggressively on price with such rivals as Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and Target, but it is also known by consumers for its first-rate customer service. Best Buy customers have commented that the retailer’s sales staff is exceptionally knowledgeable about the company’s products and can direct them to the exact location of difficult- to-find items. Best Buy customers also appreciate that demonstration models of PC monitors, digital media players, and other electronics are fully powered and ready for in-store use. Best Buy’s Geek Squad tech support and installation services are additional customer service features that are valued by many customers. How would you characterize Best Buy’s competitive strategy? Should it be classified as a low-cost provider strategy? A differentiation strategy? A best-cost strategy? Explain your answer.
LO 1, LO 2, LO 3, LO 4 2. Illustration Capsule 5.1 discusses Amazon’s low-cost position in the electronic commerce industry. Based on
information provided in the capsule, explain how Amazon has built its low-cost advantage in the industry and why a low- cost provider strategy is well suited to the industry.
LO 2 3. USAA is a Fortune 500 insurance and financial services company with 2014 annual sales exceeding $24 billion. The
company was founded in 1922 by 25 Army officers who decided to insure each other’s vehicles and continues to limit its membership to active-duty and retired military members, officer candidates, and adult children and spouses of military-affiliated USAA members. The company has received countless awards, including being listed among Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies in 2014 and 2015 and 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2010 through 2015. USAA was also ranked as the number-one Bank, Credit Card, and Insurance Company by Forrester Research from 2013 to 2015. You can read more about the company’s history and strategy at www.usaa.com. How would you characterize USAA’s competitive strategy? Should it be classified as a low-cost provider strategy? A differentiation strategy? A best-cost strategy? Also, has the company chosen to focus on a narrow piece of the market, or does it appear to pursue a broad market approach? Explain your answer.
LO 1, LO 2, LO 3, LO 4
4. Explore lululemon athletica’s website at info.lululemon.com and see if you can identify at least three ways in which the company seeks to differentiate itself from rival athletic apparel firms. Is there reason to believe that lululemon’s differentiation strategy has been successful in producing a competitive advantage? Why or why not?
EXERCISE FOR SIMULATION PARTICIPANTS 1. Which one of the five generic competitive strategies best characterizes your company’s strategic approach to
LO 1, LO 2, LO 3, LO 4 2. Which rival companies appear to be employing a low-cost provider strategy? 3. Which rival companies appear to be employing a broad differentiation strategy? 4. Which rival companies appear to be employing a best-cost provider strategy? 5. Which rival companies appear to be employing some type of focused strategy? 6. What is your company’s action plan to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage over rival companies? List at least
three (preferably more than three) specific kinds of decision entries on specific decision screens that your company has made or intends to make to win this kind of competitive edge over rivals.
ENDNOTES 1 Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors (New York: Free Press, 1980), chap. 2; Michael E. Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review 74, no. 6 (November–December 1996). 2 Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance (New York: Free Press, 1985). 3 Richard L. Priem, “A Consumer Perspective on Value Creation,” Academy of Management Review 32, no. 1 (2007), pp. 219–235. 4 jrscience.wcp.muohio.edu/nsfall01/FinalArticles/Final-IsitWorthitBrandsan.html. 5 D. Yoffie, “Cola Wars Continue: Coke and Pepsi in 2006,” Harvard Business School case 9-706-447. 6 Peter J. Williamson and Ming Zeng, “Value-for-Money Strategies for Recessionary Times,” Harvard Business Review 87, no. 3 (March 2009), pp. 66–74.
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