Determining our competitive position
This is the fourth in a compilation of stories drawn from my learnings on the Fundamentals of Business Strategy from the University of Virginia’s course.
When it comes to business strategy, this is one of the key questions how to understand a firm’s particular competitive position within an industry or market segment with respect to all of the other competitors that are in there.
Porter’s generic strategies describe how a company pursues competitive advantage across its chosen market scope. There are three/four generic strategies, either lower cost, differentiated, or focus. A company chooses to pursue one of two types of competitive advantage, either via lower costs than its competition or by differentiating itself along dimensions valued by customers to command a higher price. A company also chooses one of two types of scope, either focus (offering its products to selected segments of the market) or industry-wide, offering its product across many market segments. The generic strategy reflects the choices made regarding both the type of competitive advantage and the scope.
The Cost Leadership Strategy
There are two main ways of achieving this within a Cost Leadership strategy:
- Increasing profits by reducing costs, while charging industry-average prices.
- Increasing market share by charging lower prices, while still making a reasonable profit on each sale because you’ve reduced costs.
The Cost Leadership strategy is exactly that — it involves being the leader in terms of cost in your industry or market. Simply being amongst the lowest-cost producers is not good enough, as you leave yourself wide open to attack by other low-cost producers who may undercut your prices and therefore block your attempts to increase market share.
The Differentiation Strategy
Differentiation involves making your products or services different from and more attractive than those of your competitors. How you do this depends on the exact nature of your industry and of the products and services themselves, but will typically involve features, functionality, durability, support, and also brand image that your customers value.
To make a success of a Differentiation strategy, organizations need:
- Good research, development and innovation.
- The ability to deliver high-quality products or services.
- Effective sales and marketing, so that the market understands the benefits offered by the differentiated offerings.
Large organizations pursuing a differentiation strategy need to stay agile with their new product development processes. Otherwise, they risk attack on several fronts by competitors pursuing Focus Differentiation strategies in different market segments.
The Focus Strategy
Companies that use Focus strategies concentrate on particular niche markets and, by understanding the dynamics of that market and the unique needs of customers within it, develop uniquely low-cost or well-specified products for the market. Because they serve customers in their market uniquely well, they tend to build strong brand loyalty amongst their customers. This makes their particular market segment less attractive to competitors.
As with broad market strategies, it is still essential to decide whether you will pursue Cost Leadership or Differentiation once you have selected a Focus strategy as your main approach: Focus is not normally enough on its own.
But whether you use Cost Focus or Differentiation Focus, the key to making a success of a generic Focus strategy is to ensure that you are adding something extra as a result of serving only that market niche. It’s simply not enough to focus on only one market segment because your organization is too small to serve a broader market (if you do, you risk competing against better-resourced broad market companies’ offerings).
The “something extra” that you add can contribute to reducing costs (perhaps through your knowledge of specialist suppliers) or to increasing differentiation (though your deep understanding of customers’ needs).
The Strategist Toolkit
The Strategy Maps
A strategy map is a diagram that is used to document the primary strategic goals being pursued by an organization or management team.