The three Porters generic competitive strategies are alternative, viable approaches to dealing with the competitive forces. The converse of the previous discussion is that the firm failing to develop its strategy in at least one of the three directions-a firm that is “stuck in the middle”-is in an extremely poor strategic situation. This firm lacks the market share, capital investment, and resolve to play the low-cost game, the industry wide differentiation necessary to obviate the need for a low- cost position, or the focus to create differentiation or a low-cost position in a more limited sphere.
The firm stuck in the middle is almost guaranteed low profitability. It either loses the high-volume customers who demand low prices or must bid away its profits to get this business away from low-cost firms. Yet it also loses high-margin businesses the cream-to the firms who are focused on high-margin targets or have achieved differentiation overall. The firm stuck in the middle also probably suffers from a blurred corporate culture and a conflicting set of organizational arrangements and motivation system.
Clark Equipment may well be stuck in the middle in the lift truck industry in which it has the leading overall U.S. and worldwide market share. Two Japanese producers, Toyota and Komatsu, have adopted strategies of serving only the high-volume segments, minimized production costs, and rock-bottom prices, also taking advantage of lower Japanese steel prices, which more than offset transportation costs. Clark’s greater worldwide share (18 percent; 33 percent in the United States) does not give it clear cost leadership given its very wide product line and lack of low-cost orientation. Yet with its wide line and lack of full emphasis to technology Clark has been unable to achieve the technological reputation and product differentiation of Hyster, which has focused on larger lift trucks and spent aggressively on R&D. As a result, Clark’s returns appear to be significantly lower than Hyster’s, and Clark has been losing ground.
The firm stuck in the middle must make a fundamental strategic decision. Either it must take the steps necessary to achieve cost leadership or at least cost parity, which usually involve aggressive investments to modernize and perhaps the necessity to buy market share, or it must orient itself to a particular target (focus) or achieve some uniqueness (differentiation). The latter two options may well involve shrinking in market share and even in absolute sales. The choice among these options is necessarily based on the firm’s capabilities and limitations. Successfully executing each generic strategy involves different resources, strengths, organizational arrangements, and managerial style, as has been discussed. Rarely is a firm suited for all three.
Once stuck in the middle, it usually takes time and sustained effort to extricate the firm from this unenviable position. Yet there seems to be a tendency for firms in difficulty to flip back and forth” over time among the generic strategies. Given the potential inconsistencies involved in pursuing these three strategies, such an approach is almost always doomed to failure.
There is no single relationship between profitability and market share, unless one conveniently defines the market so that focused or differentiated firms are assigned high market shares in some narrowly defined industries and the industry definitions of cost leadership firms are allowed to stay broad (they must because cost leaders often do not have the largest share in every submarket). Even shifting industry definition cannot explain the high returns of firms who have achieved differentiation industrywide and hold market shares below that of the industry leader.
Most importantly, however, shifting the way the industry is defined from firm to firm begs the question of deciding which of the three generic strategies is appropriate for the firm. This choice rests on picking the strategy best suited to the firm’s strengths and one least replicable by competitors. The principles of structural analysis should illuminate the choice, as well as allow the analyst to explain or predict the relationship between share and profitability in any particular industry.