Porter’s Generic Competitive Strategies

In 1985, in his book Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance, Michael Porter, outlined a set of generic strategies that could be applied to all products or services. In coping with the Porters model of  five competitive forces, there are three potentially successful generic strategic approaches (also known as Porter’s Generic Competitive Strategies) to outperforming other firms in an industry:

  1. Overall cost leadership.
  2. Differentiation.
  3. Focus.

Sometimes the firm can successfully pursue more than one approach as its primary target, though this is rarely possible as will be discussed further. Effectively implementing any of these generic strategies usually requires total commitment and supporting organizational arrangements that are diluted if there is more than one primary target. The generic strategies are approaches to outperforming competitors in the industry; in some industries structure will mean that all firms can earn high returns, whereas in others, success with one of the generic strategies may be necessary just to obtain acceptable returns in an absolute sense.

Porter's Generic Competitive Strategies

1. Overall Cost Leadership

The first strategy, an increasingly common one in the 1970s be- cause of popularization of the experience curve concept, is to achieve overall cost leadership in an industry through a set of functional policies aimed at this basic objective. Cost leadership requires aggressive construction of efficient-scale facilities, vigorous pursuit of cost reductions from experience, tight cost and overhead control avoidance of marginal customer accounts, and cost minimization in areas like R&D, service, sales force, advertising, and so on. A great deal of managerial attention to cost control is necessary to achieve these aims. Low cost relative to competitors becomes the theme running through the entire strategy, though quality, service, and other areas cannot be ignored. Having a low-cost position yields the firm above-average returns in its industry despite the presence of strong competitive forces. Its cost position gives the firm a defense against rivalry from competitors, because its lower costs mean that it can still earn returns after its competitors have competed away their profits through rivalry. A low-cost position defends the firm against powerful buyers because buyers can exert power only to drive down prices to the level of the next most efficient competitor. Low cost provides a defense against powerful suppliers by providing more flexibility to cope with input cost increases. The factors that lead to a low-cost position usually also provide substantial entry barrier in term of scale economies or cost advantage . Finally, a low cost position usually places the firm in a favorable position vis-a-vis substitutes relative to its competitors in the industry. Thus a low-cost position protects the firm against all five competitive forces because bargaining can only continue to erode profits until those of the next most efficient competitor are eliminated, and because the less efficient competitors will suffer first in the face of competitive pressures.

Achieving a low overall cost position requires a high relative market share or other advantages, such as favorable access to raw material. It may well require designing products for ease in manufacturing, maintaining a wide line of related products to spread costs, and serving all major customer groups in order to build volume. In turn, implementing the low-cost strategy may require heavy up-front capital investment in state-of-the art equipment, aggressive pricing, and start-up losses to build market share. High market share may in turn allow economies in purchasing which lower costs even further. Once achieved, the low-cost. position provides high  margins which can be reinvested new equipment and modern facilities in order to maintain cost leadership. Such reinvestment may well be a prerequisite to sustaining a low-cost position.

The cost leadership strategy seems to be the cornerstone of Briggs and Stratton’s success in small horsepower gasoline engines, where it holds a 50 percent worldwide share, and Lincoln Electric’s success in arc welding equipment and supplies. Other firms known for successful application of cost leadership strategies to a number of businesses are Emerson Electric, Texas Instruments, Black and Decker, and Du Pont.

A cost leadership strategy can sometimes revolutionize an industry in which the historical bases of competition have been otherwise and competitors are ill-prepared either perceptually or economically to take the steps necessary for cost minimization. Harnischfeger is in the midst of a daring attempt to revolutionize the rough-terrain crane industry in 1979. Starting from a 15 percent market share, Harnischfeger redesigned its cranes for easy manufacture and service using modularized components, configuration changes, and reduced material content. It then established sub-assembly areas and a conveyorized assembly line, a notable departure from industry norms. It ordered parts in large volumes to save costs. All this allowed the company to offer an acceptable quality product and drop price by15 percent. Harnischfeger’s market share has grown rapidly to 25 percent and is continuing to grow. Says Willis Fisher, general manager of Harnischfeger’s Hydraulic Equipment Division: We didn’t set out to develop a machine significantly better than anyone else but we did want to develop one that was truly simple to manufacture and was priced, intentionally, as a low cost machine.’ Competitors are grumbling that Harnischfeger has “bought” market share with lower margins, a charge that the company denies.

Read More: Porter’s Generic Strategies – Cost Leadership Strategy

2. Differentiation

The second generic strategy is one of differentiating the product ( or service offering of the firm, creating something that is perceived industry wide as being unique. Approaches to differentiating can take many forms: design or brand image(Fieldcrest in top of the line towels and linens; Mercedes in automobiles ), technology (Hyster in lift trucks; Mac in stereo components; Coleman in camping equipment), features (Jennair in electric ranges); customer service (Crown Cork and Seal in metal cans), dealer network (Caterpillar Tractor in construction equipment), or other dimensions, Ideally, the firm differentiates itself along several dimensions. Caterpillar Tractor, for example, is known not only for its dealer network and excellent spare parts availability but also for its extremely high-quality durable products, all of which are crucial in heavy equipment (where downtime is very expensive. It should be stressed that the differentiation strategy does not allow the firm to ignore costs, but rather they are not the primary strategic target.

Differentiation, if achieved, is a viable strategy for earning above-average returns in an industry because it creates a defensible position for coping with the five competitive forces, albeit in a different way than cost leadership. Differentiation provides against competitive rivalry because of brand loyalty by customers and resulting in low price. It also increases margins, which avoids the need for a low-cost position. The resulting customer loyalty and the need for a competitor to overcome uniqueness t provide entry barriers. Differentiation yields higher margins with which to deal with supplier power, and it clearly mitigates buyer power, since buyers lack comparable alternatives and are thereby less price sensitive. Finally, the firm that has differentiated itself to achieve customer loyalty should be better positioned vis-a-vis substitutes than its competitors.

Achieving differentiation may sometimes preclude gaining a high market share. It often requires a perception of exclusivity, which is incompatible with high market share. More commonly, however, achieving differentiation will imply a trade-off with cost position if the activities required in creating it are inherently costly, such as extensive research, product design, high quality materials, or intensive customer support. Whereas customers industry-wide acknowledge the superiority of the firm, not all customers will be willing or able to pay the required higher prices (Though most are in industries like earth-moving equipment where despite high prices, Caterpillar has a dominant market share). In other businesses, differentiation may not be incompatible with relatively low costs and comparable prices to those of competitors.

Read More: Porter’s Generic Strategies – Differentiation Strategy

3. Focus

The final generic strategy is focusing on a particular buyer group, segment of the product line, or geographic market; as with differentiation. Focus strategy may take many forms. Although the low cost and differentiation strategies are aimed at achieving their objectives industry-wide, the entire focus strategy is built around serving a particular target very well, and each functional policy is developed with this in mind. The strategy rests on the premise that the firm is thus able to serve its narrow strategic target more effectively or efficiently than competitors who are competing more broadly. As a result, the firm achieves either differentiation from better meeting the needs of the particular target, or lower costs in serving this target, or both. Even though the focus strategy does not achieve low cost or differentiation from the perspective of the market as a whole, it does achieve one or both of these positions vis-a-vis its narrow market target.

The firm achieving focus may also potentially earn above average returns for its industry. Its focus means that the firm either has a low cost position with its strategic target, high differentiation, or both. As we have discussed in the context of cost leadership and differentiation, these positions provide defenses against each competitive force. Focus may also be used to select targets least vulnerable to substitutes or where competitors are the weakest.

For example, Illinois Tool Works has focused on specialty markets for fasteners where it can design products for particular buyer needs and create switching costs. Although many buyers are uninterested in these services, some are. Fort Howard Paper focuses on a narrow range of industrial-grade papers, avoiding consumer products vulnerable to advertising battles and rapid introductions of new products. Porter Paint focuses on the professional painter rather than the do-it-yourself market, building its strategy around serving the professional through free paint-matching services, rapid delivery of as little as a gallon of needed paint to the work site, and free coffee rooms designed to provide a home for professional painters at factory stores. An example of a focus strategy that achieves a low-cost position in serving its particular targets is seen in Martin-Brower, the third largest food distributor in the United States. Martin-Brower has reduced its customer list to just eight leading fast-food chains. Its entire strategy is based on meeting the specialized needs of the customers, stocking only their narrow product lines, order taking procedures geared to their purchasing cycles, locating warehouses based on their locations, and intensely controlling and computerizing record keeping. Although Martin-Brower is not the low-cost distributor in serving the market as a whole, it is in serving its particular segment. Martin-Brower has been rewarded with rapid growth and above-average profitability.

The focus strategy always implies some limitations on the over-all market share achievable. Focus necessarily involves a trade-off between profitability and sales volume. Like the differentiate strategy, it may or may not involve a trade-off with overall cost position.

Read More: Porter’s Generic Strategies – Focus Strategy

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