3 Ways to Distinguish Yourself

We live in an increasingly digital and technology enabled world, which is increasing the level of competition between organisations.

Why is this the case?

There are three key reasons.

Firstly, technology is helping to lower barriers to entry. It has never been easier to create new goods and services, and get them noticed by your target audience.  Whether it be a website, a blog or an iPhone app, the initial startup costs for launching a new project have never been lower. This is especially true for organisations that have software development skills and who are able to produce new digital products by drawing on their own capabilities.

Secondly, the Internet is the greatest communication device ever invented, and allows customers to find out about products quickly and easily. This means that customers have more information than ever before, and are able to switch from one organisation to another based on the benefits on offer and the asking price. Customers have more power, and so organisations need to stay on their toes.

Thirdly, the large number of startups which are being launched each year means that there are lots of failures but also lots of breakout success stories. This increases the intensity of competitive rivalry for everyone, and makes it more important for organisations to innovate where they can before someone else innovates for them.

In this world of increased competition, here are three (3) ways to distinguish yourself:

1. Brand building – tell a compelling story and build relationships with the people who care. Your story won’t resonate with everyone, but it will resonate with some people. And so the goal is to find your people, to feed them and to delight them.

2. Making old things new – iPhone apps and websites can be used to add additional value to offline products and services. One example of a company that seems to have done this quite nicely is Bluesmart. Travel bags are old news, but by redesigning the travel bag and connecting it with a user friendly iPhone app, the company has created the world’s first smart luggage and is re-imagining the travel experience.

3. Mix things up – I am currently staying in a hotel in Beijing. The reception staff have been very nice to me, but they don’t seem to be too friendly to the locals who come to stay here. The staff appear to have the mentality that they are selling beds, and so the need to smile and be friendly to customers is not part of what they are providing. This, of course, misses the point entirely. Everything you say or do is part of the experience, and part of the value that you provide to others. And so while smiling may not be a core part of your business, it doesn’t hurt to mix things up a little.

False Dilemma

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter argued back in 1985 that there are three generic strategies that an organisation can follow to achieve above average performance.

You can operate at low cost, provide distinct value to customers, or focus on doing one of these things while targeting a specific niche in the market.

The unfortunate fallacy that Porter introduced is that he made us think of these three choices, “low cost”, “differentiation” and “focus”, as three separate strategy alternatives.

In reality, they might more accurately be thought of as three necessary ingredients of any strategy that stands a chance of thriving in the long run.

Two companies that appear to have adopted the strategy trifecta are Aldi and Ikea.

Both firms have focused on a particular market niche. Ikea provides nicely designed furniture, and Aldi provides good quality groceries.

Both firms have designed their organisations to enable them to operate at low cost and they have passed these savings on to the customer.

The additional beauty of pursuing this strategy is that delighted customers can’t help but talk about the value for money that they receive, and so the firms make further savings by being able to reduce their marketing costs.

The choice of pursuing low cost or high value is a false dilemma.

While it is true that it might be difficult to achieve both on any given day if the resources and systems are not in place, it is also true that organisations don’t exist merely at a point in time.

Most organisations exist for many years and a sound strategy is one that will make this enduring existence more certain, sustained and successful.

Porter’s Generic Strategies

Three strategies to achieve above-average performance: cost leadership, differentiation, and focus

Porter's Generic Strategies

(Source: Flickr)

In order to understand Porter’s Generic Strategies, it is helpful to take a step back and examine the two things which determine a firm’s profitability in the long run.

The first is industry attractiveness, which is determined in any industry by the five competitive forces: the threat of entry by new competitors, the threat of substitutes, the bargaining power of buyers, the bargaining power of suppliers, and the rivalry among existing firms.

Five Forces

Figure 1: Porter’s Five Competitive Forces that Determine Industry Profitability

It is the collective strength of these five forces that determine whether firms in an industry will be able to earn attractive rates of return. In industries where the five forces are favourable, such as the soft drink industry, many competitors have earned attractive returns for many decades. However, where one or more of the forces exerts strong pressure on industry profitability, such as in the airline industry, few firms ever do well for very long.

Understanding industry structure, as determined by the five forces, will inform a firm’s decision to enter or exit an industry, and will also be a key consideration for industry leaders who have the ability to mould industry structure for better or for worse. For example, Coca-Cola is a leader in the soft drink industry and could, if it wanted to, encourage the production and sale of generic unbranded soft drinks. Even if this would increase Coca-Cola’s profits in the short run, it would also threaten the industry structure. Generic cola may increase the price sensitivity of buyers, lead to aggressive price competition, and lower barriers to entry by enabling new competitors to enter the market without a large advertising budget.

In addition to industry attractiveness, the second thing which determines a firm’s profitability in the long run (and this is where Porter’s Generic Strategies comes in) is a firm’s relative position within the industry. That is, can a firm position itself to achieve above average performance within its industry? Or put differently, is it possible for a firm to establish and maintain a competitive advantage?

In his 1985 book Competitive Advantage, Michael Porter explains that there are two basic sources of competitive advantage that a firm can possess: cost leadership and differentiation. A firm can also narrow the scope of its activities to compete in niche segments of the market, and so there are three generic strategies that a firm can adopt to achieve above-average performance: cost leadership, differentiation, and focus.

Porter's Generic Strategies

Figure 2: Three Generic Strategies

Porter’s generic strategies are based on the idea that in order to achieve a competitive advantage a firm needs to make hard choices. Trying to be all things to all people will put a firm on the fast track to mediocrity, and so a firm needs to decide what kind of competitive advantage to pursue and which market segments it should target.

Cost Leadership

As the name suggests, a firm that pursues cost leadership aims to be the low cost producer in its industry. While the strategy involves a primary focus on cost reduction, the cost leader will still need to produce comparable products in order to maintain prices. If a firm can sustain cost leadership while at the same time charging prices at or near the industry average, then this strategy can allow a firm to achieve above average performance.

One danger of the cost leadership strategy is that if there is more than one aspiring cost leader then this can lead to intense competitive rivalry and ultimately destroy industry profitability. If a firm wants to be the cost leader, then its best bet is to get in first in order to deter the competition.

Differentiation

Differentiation is a strategy in which a firm sets out to provide unique value to buyers. This may be achieved in various ways including producing products with unique features, serving buyers through new or different distribution channels, or by creating perceived differences in the buyer’s mind through clever marketing.

If a firm is able to charge a price premium that exceeds the cost of sustaining its uniqueness, then the firm will be able to achieve above average returns. While the strategy involves a primary focus on “being different” the differentiator still needs to manage costs, and will want to reduce costs in any area that does not contribute to differentiation.

Focus

The focus strategy involves narrowing the scope of competition in order to serve certain niche segments within the overall market. By serving these target segments well, the focuser may be able to achieve a competitive advantage in its niche even though it does not enjoy a competitive advantage in the market overall.

Stuck in the Middle

So there you have it, three generic strategies for achieving above average performance: cost leadership, differentiation and focus.

Be warned though, a firm that dabbles in each of these strategies while failing to successfully pursue any of them faces the risk of becoming “stuck in the middle” and being perpetually outperformed by the cost leader, the differentiators and the focusers.

[For more information on consulting concepts and frameworks, please download “The Little Blue Consulting Handbook“.]