Tag Archives: Competitive Advantage

Michael Porter: Competitive Strategy

Of all the strategic thinkers we have covered (like Igor Ansoff, Kenichi Ohmae, and Porter’s student, Kathryyn Rudi Harrigan), Michael Porter deserves a special place. His 1980 book, Competitive Strategy, transformed thinking, moving us from the pre-Porter world of strategic thinking dominated by Ansoff, to the post-Porter world that he still dominates.

Porter is an intellectual and an influencer who does not covet the easy quotability of some of his contemporaries. But the rigour of his analysis has made him all the more sought-after. His books have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and his speaking fees are legendary.

Michael Porter

Michael Porter

Short Biography

Michael Porter was born in 1947, in Michigan, and went to Princeton to study for a BSE in Aeronautical Engineering in 1969. He graduated top of his class and was inducted into the two most prestigious honor houses. He then shifted his focus to business, and went to Harvard Business School, where he received an MBA in 1971 and a PhD in Economics in 1973. From there he joined the faculty.

He remains at Harvard today, as a University Professor, and also Founding Director of Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, which he founded in 2001 to further his work and research.

Porter’s breakthrough came with the 1980 publication of Competitive Strategy. Other significant yet accessible books are The Competitive Advantage of Nations (1990) and the 1998 article and essay collection, On Competition. But these are among 15 other successful books and article collections.

But what you are interested in are Porter’s big ideas…

Michael Porter’s Big Ideas

Before Porter, Igor Ansoff dominated thinking on corporate strategy. His approach boiled down to choosing your market, matching your resources to meet the market’s demand, and then improving your competitiveness to increase your market share.

Michael Porter did not reject these ideas. Rather, he opened them out, approaching strategy from the perspective of the whole industry and then, later, as a national endeavour. He considered that earlier strategic thinking had become confused with simple (ahem) operational effectiveness. He argued that improving operational processes merely levelled out competitors, rather than giving them a differentiation that led to competitive advantage.

Let’s survey five big ideas that Michael Porter has given us. All remain core parts of any business education.

Primary and Secondary Activities, and the Importance of the Value Chain

Porter divided corporate activities into Primary Activities and Secondary Activities.

Primary Activities are the value chain from inbound materials to production operations, to outbound goods and their distribution, to the ‘far end of the value chain‘, marketing and sales, to customer care and after sales services. Here, Porter argued, lay the ground for competitive advantage. The key task is to integrate these into one value chain.

Secondary Activities are the business support functions, like IT, HR, Procurement, Facilities Management, and Finance. These cannot create competitive advantage They can merely enable efficiency, or act as a drag on the business.

Porter’s Five Forces

Corporations sit in a competitive environment, which creates five forces.

Michael Porter's Five Forces

Michael Porter’s Five Forces

Porter’s current view is that a company must aim to use these forces to re-cast the rules of its industry, in its own favour.

Sources of Competitive Advantage, and the Three Competitive Strategies

Porter argued that there are two sources of competitive advantage:

  1. Cost – being able to sell the same products or services at a lower price than your competitors, whilst maintaining profit margins
  2. Differentiation – being able to offer products and services which your customers want, but that your competitors cannot (yet) offer

This leads him to his three competitive strategies:

  1. Cost leadership – build the capability to produce at a lower cost than anyone else
  2. Differentiation – find a new product or service, or enhance what you offer to make it different
  3. Niche focus – find a profitable niche, and dominate it

Recently, we see competitors dominating their market with a fourth strategy, based on a third source of competitive advantage: deep loyalty. How does Apple dominate? Not by offering cheaper products, certainly. Although their supply chain efficiencies mean that their margins are exceptional.

And, some would argue, not by differentiation. Whilst they often lead for a short time here, their rivals also innovate, and certainly catch up quickly. Is there much a Mac can do that a PC cannot? Is there much an iPhone can do that a Samsung cannot?

And a company with as many and varied customers as Apple cannot truly be said to serve a niche.

No, I believe the source of Apple’s current dominance is largely the loyalty of its customer base, built on historic innovation, differentiation in multiple niches, and a reputation for excellence.

Diversification

Like Ansoff before him, Porter sees diversification as a shrewd strategy that spreads a corporation’s risk. This maybe through product development, or business acquisition.

In deciding how to diversify, Porter proposes three tests:

  1. Does the new industry, product set, or niche offer attractive returns on investment? Is there the opportunity to build differentiation or cost leadership?
  2. Is the cost of entry proportionate to the likely returns? If not, the risks are too high.
  3. Does the acquisition or the new venture leave the parties better-off? This is basically Ansoff’s concept of synergy.

The National Competitive Environment

In The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Porter fully articulated a line of thinking that placed national conditions at the heart of corporate success. A strong home base with good infrastructure and healthy competition grows successful global companies. Porter’s Diamond Model sets out four factors that affect a nation’s industries.

Michael Porter's Diamond Model

Michael Porter’s Diamond Model

Michael Porter on Competitive Strategy

An old, but excellent video of Porter describing some of his main ideas.

You might enjoy the Strategy Pocketbook

… and the following earlier Pocketblogs:

 

Listening to your Customer

Steve Jobs famously eschewed focus groups and market research in designing new Apple products.  He did not want to supply what customers wanted.  He wanted customers to want what he created.

Whether Apple will be able to sustain that level of creativity is a question only time will answer.  But Jobs’ attitude did not mean that Apple was deaf to its customers – quite the opposite.  Having created the kind of loyalty that just about any other corporation can only dream of, everything Apple does has been tailored to retaining that crazy loyalty.

Marketing departments typically spend their time and resources looking for ever better ways to ensure that potential customers hear their message.  Customer service departments focus on fixing customer problems.  Who in your business is dedicated to listening to the customers you have, to build loyalty?  It’s cheaper and easier than acquiring new customers, and it’s cheaper and easier than fixing relationships with disappointed customers.

The big question is ‘How?’

How can you really listen to the voice of your customer? 

Surveys are great – especially low cost, easy-to-implement online surveys using tools like Zoomerang or Survey Monkey.  These have the benefit that they take little effort from your customer (and why should they make a big effort?) and can be supported by an appropriate incentive like a small reward or a competition entry.

The gold standard for good feedback on what you do (and don’t do) is follow-up calls or meetings from someone separate from the team that serves your customer.  To make it work for both you and your customer, you must welcome absolutely frank assessments and ask good questions to secure details that make appropriate actions easy to target accurately.

But what if your customers won’t talk to you?  You can always employ a ‘professional customer’ – mystery shoppers.  They are great for thorough, detailed and accurate assessment of what you do.  Unlike real customers, however, they cannot give you information about what else they want, from your product or service lines.

Customer focus groups or ‘customer panels’ can do that.  They are a lot of work to plan and organise and expensive too – often requiring specialist consultants, room hire, and inducements to participate.  This is a form of market research and the Marketing Pocketbook offers eight more variants on what we have above.

The forgotten question is Why?

In case ‘why would you listen to your customer?’ seems like a pointless question with an obvious answer: ‘of course you must’ – stop for a moment.

Of course you must, but unless you know why you are going to do it, you rune the risk of asking the wrong questions, choosing the wrong format, and mis-using the answers.  It is all too easy to feel like you are doing something useful by sending people out to listen to your customers, but before you do so, make sure you have a purpose and design the process accordingly.

A Paradigm Shift

Michael Porter identified two sources of competitive advantage:

  1. Industry Cost Leadership
  2. Product Differentiation

Arguably, Apple has neither, with high prices for products that are being successfully emulated by their main rivals.  So how are they succeeding?  I believe by a third source of competitive advantage: brand loyalty.

As a prevailing business strategy, this is new force in big business, but one we can all exploit, by building an organisation that excites and values its customers so much that we win the kind of fanatical following that Apple has.

If you can do that – with or without one of Porter’s two other sources of competitive advantage – you have the basis for a long-term business.

On Competition – The Far End of the Value Chain

Back in August, we met Michael Porter – a professor at Harvard Business School, and an authority on competitive strategy.  In a blog called ‘On Competition – Five Forces’ I described his best known ‘Five Forces Model’ and also his model of three sources of competitive advantage:

Porter's Three Generic Business Strategies

The Whole Picture?

At a recent seminar, I challenged participants to identify any additional business strategy that can deliver competitive advantage.  After all, in my August blog, I did assert that this model is showing its age.

Could a business outcompete rivals with a higher cost product, that does pretty much the same as its competing products, and has no niche focus?  The answer takes us into a fascinating debating point, by way of another powerful model with which Porter is closely associated.

Competitive Advantage

Porter’s 1985 book ‘Competitive Advantage’ gives you a pretty thorough précis of his earlier ‘Competitive Strategy’ in Chapter 1 – focusing on the three strategies – and then takes off.  Competitive advantage, Porter says, comes from understanding the ‘value chain’.  This is the full set of activities that company undertakes, to create value.  It is illustrated below.

Porter's Value Chain

Competitive advantage is about understanding the Five Forces model and the sources of cost advantage and product differentiation in terms of these nine activities.

The Far End of the Value Chain

The five primary activities form a chain of value-adding processes, supported by the four secondary processes that provide the necessary resources to make the value chain work.  Each can be a source of competitive advantage, most obviously through cost differentiation.

I want to focus on Marketing & Sales, and Service.  My argument is that a company can differentiate its product – to give it competitive advantage, through these two, without focusing on a niche, delivering a substantively different product, and with no cost leadership.

Marketing, Sales and Service are about Myth-making

Hello Kitty is a trademark of SanrioIf you can create a compelling narrative about your product, people will want it, to associate themselves with the myth you have created around your brand.  My daughter loves ‘Hello Kitty’ – I don’t know why.  As far as I can tell, the Hello Kitty brand started life as nothing more than a motif, appearing on a range of products.  Now, not just children, but adults too, want goods just because they have the face of a little white cat (with no mouth) on them.

The products are no better, no different (unless you include the motif) and certainly no different functionally, and definitely no cheaper.  There is little niche focus beyond, as far as I can tell, females.  Hello Kitty thrives in most cultures and at many age groups from 2 to forty, at least.

I think the source of Sanrio’s competitive advantage is nothing more than marketing.

Would I fall for such a ruse?

Of course not.  Unlike some grown ups, I would never have Hello Kitty nor any other character on my iPhone case…

‘Hold on Mike, did you say iPhone?’

iPhone certainly has no cost advantage and it now has many competing products that offer the same functionality.  And as a niche, iPhone users are pretty hard to define: old and young, across social and cultural spectra…

So how does marketing create competitive advantage?

It seems implausible that three sources of competitive advantage could be all there is.  Yet I have come to the conclusion that I haven’t yet found an exception.  Despite arguing that marketing is that exception, let me explain.

What does marketing do that creates such loyal followings for Hello Kitty and iPhone (and, indeed, for both – I saw someone with a Hello Kitty iPhone cover, which was the nudge for writing this blog)?

I think the great marketing that Sanrio and Apple create, builds a loyal following for their products.  Many people will identify themselves as iPhone users – in a way that others would not identify themselves as Wildfire or Galaxy users.  What great companies can do is use marketing and service to create a ‘tribe’ of people who are loyal to their brand – or to a part of their brand.

What this relatively new form of marketing is doing is building a niche focus that is defined by the products and services of the company.

So, Porter was right after all.  Now we need to look at this concept of ‘tribes’.  More next week.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy