Three of the most widely read books on competitive analysis in the 1980s were Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy, Competitive Advantage, and Competitive Advantage of Nations. In his various books, Porter developed three generic strategies that, he argues, can be used singly or in combination to create a defendable position and to outperform competitors, whether they are within an industry or across nations. The strategies are (1) overall cost leadership, (2) differentiation, and (3) focus on a particular market niche.
Cost Leadership, Differentiation, and Scope
These strategies are termed generic because they can be applied to any size or form of business. We refer to them as trade-off strategies because Porter argues that a firm must choose to embrace one strategy or risk not having a strategy at all. Overall lower cost or cost leadership overall cost-leadership strategy, a strategy in which an organization attempts to gain a competitive advantage by reducing its costs below the costs of competing firms, refers to the strategy where a firm’s competitive advantage is based on the bet that it can develop, manufacture, and distribute products more efficiently than competitors. Differentiation, the strategy where competitive advantage is based on superior products or service, refers to the strategy where competitive advantage is based on superior products or service. Superiority arises from factors other than low cost, such as customer service, product quality, or unique style. To put these strategies into context, you might think about Wal-Mart as pursuing a cost-leadership strategy and Harley Davidson as pursuing a differentiation strategy differentiation strategy. A strategy in which an organization seeks to distinguish itself from competitors through the perceived quality of its products or services.
Porter suggests that another factor affecting a company’s competitive position is its competitive scope. Competitive scope defines the breadth of a company’s target market. A company can have a broad (mass market) competitive scope or a narrow (niche market) competitive scope. A firm following the focus strategy focus strategy. A strategy in which an organization concentrates on a specific regional market, product line, or group of buyers in combination with its pursuit of either an overall cost leadership or differentiation strategy. concentrates on meeting the specialized needs of its customers. Products and services can be designed to meet the needs of buyers. One approach to focusing is to service either industrial buyers or consumers but not both. Martin-Brower, the third-largest food distributor in the United States, serves only the eight leading fast-food chains. It is the world’s largest distributor of products to the world’s largest restaurant company-McDonald’s. With its limited customer list, Martin-Brower need only stock a limited product line; its ordering procedures are adjusted to match those of its customers; and its warehouses are located so as to be convenient to customers.
Firms using a narrow focus strategy can also tailor advertising and promotional efforts to a particular market niche. Many automobile dealers advertise that they are the largest volume dealer for a specific geographic area. Other car dealers advertise that they have the highest customer satisfaction scores within their defined market or the most awards for their service department.
Another differentiation strategy is to design products specifically for a customer. Such customization may range from individually designing a product for a single customer to offering a menu from which customers can select options for the finished product. Tailor-made clothing and custom-built houses include the customer in all aspects of production, from product design to final acceptance, and involve customer input in all key decisions. However, providing such individualized attention to customers may not be feasible for firms with an industry-wide orientation. At the other end of the customization scale, customers buying a new car, even in the budget price category, can often choose not only the exterior and interior color but also accessories such as CD players, rooftop racks, and upgraded tires.
By positioning itself in either broad scope or narrow scope and a low-cost strategy or differentiation strategy, an organization will fall into one of the following generic competitive strategies: cost leadership, cost focus, differentiation, and focused differentiation.
Cost Leadership/Low Cost
Cost leadership is a low-cost, broad-based market strategy. Firms pursuing this type of strategy must be particularly efficient in engineering tasks, production operations, and physical distribution. Because these firms focus on a large market, they must also be able to minimize costs in marketing and research and development (R&D). A low-cost leader can gain significant market share enabling it to procure a more powerful position relative to both suppliers and competitors. This strategy is particularly effective for organizations in industries where there is limited possibility of product differentiation and where buyers are very price sensitive.
Overall cost leadership is not without potential problems. Two or more firms competing for cost leadership may engage in price wars that drive profits to very low levels. Ideally, a firm using a cost-leader strategy will develop an advantage that others cannot easily copy. Cost leaders also must maintain their investment in state-of-the-art equipment or face the possible entry of more cost-effective competitors. Major changes in technology may drastically change production processes so that previous investments in production technology are no longer advantageous. Finally, firms may become so concerned with maintaining low costs that they overlook needed changes in production or marketing.
The cost-leadership strategy may be more difficult in a dynamic environment because some of the expenses that firms may seek to minimize are research and development costs or marketing research costs-expenses the firm may need to incur to remain competitive.
A cost-focus strategy is a low-cost, narrowly focused market strategy. Firms employing this strategy may focus on a particular buyer segment or a particular geographic segment and must locate a niche market that wants or needs an efficient product and is willing to forgo extras to pay a lower price for the product. A company’s costs can be reduced by providing little or no service, providing a low-cost method of distribution, or producing a no-frills product.
A differentiation strategy involves marketing a unique product to a broad-based market. Because this type of strategy involves a unique product, price is not the significant factor. In fact, consumers may be willing to pay a high price for a product that they perceive as different. The product difference may be based on product design, method of distribution, or any aspect of the product (other than price) that is significant to a broad group of consumers. A company choosing this strategy must develop and maintain a product perceived as different enough from the competitors’ products to warrant the asking price.
Several studies have shown that a differentiation strategy is more likely to generate higher profits than a cost-leadership strategy, because differentiation creates stronger entry barriers. However, a cost-leadership strategy is more likely to generate increases in market share.
A differentiation-focus strategy is the marketing of a differentiated product to a narrow market, often involving a unique product and a unique market. This strategy is viable for a company that can convince consumers that its narrow focus allows it to provide better goods and services than its competitors.
Differentiation does not allow a firm to ignore costs; it makes a firm’s products less susceptible to cost pressures from competitors because customers see the product as unique and are willing to pay extra to have the product with the desirable features. Differentiation can be achieved through real product features or through advertising that causes the customer to perceive that the product is unique.
Differentiation may lead to customer brand loyalty and result in reduced price elasticity. Differentiation may also lead to higher profit margins and reduce the need to be a low-cost producer. Since customers see the product as different from competing products and they like the product features, customers are willing to pay a premium for these features. As long as the firm can increase the selling price by more than the marginal cost of adding the features, the profit margin is increased. Firms must be able to charge more for their differentiated product than it costs them to make it distinct, or else they may be better off making generic, undifferentiated products. Firms must remain sensitive to cost differences. They must carefully monitor the incremental costs of differentiating their product and make certain the difference is reflected in the price.
Firms pursuing a differentiation strategy are vulnerable to different competitive threats than firms pursuing a cost-leader strategy. Customers may sacrifice features, service, or image for cost savings. Price-sensitive customers may be willing to forgo desirable features in favor of a less costly alternative. This can be seen in the growth in popularity of store brands and private labels. Often, the same firms that produce name-brand products produce the private-label products. The two products may be physically identical, but stores are able to sell the private-label products for a lower price because very little money was put into advertising to differentiate the private-label product.
Imitation may also reduce the perceived differences between products when competitors copy product features. Thus, for firms to be able to recover the cost of marketing research or R&D, they may need to add a product feature that is not easily copied by a competitor.
A final risk for firms pursuing a differentiation strategy is changing consumer tastes. The feature that customers like and find attractive about a product this year may not make the product popular next year. Changes in customer tastes are especially obvious in the fashion industry. For example, although Ralph Lauren’s Polo has been a very successful brand of apparel, some younger consumers have shifted to Tommy Hilfiger and other youth-oriented brands.
For a variety of reasons, including the differences between intended versus realized strategies discussed in an earlier section, none of these competitive strategies is guaranteed to achieve success. Some companies that have successfully implemented one of Porter’s generic strategies have found that they could not sustain the strategy. Several risks associated with these strategies are based on evolved market conditions (buyer perceptions, competitors, etc.).