Competitive Strategy: The Core Concepts
Competition is at the core of the success or failure of firms. Competition determines the appropriateness of a firm's activities that can contribute to its performance, such as innovations, a cohesive culture, or good implementation. Competitive strategy is the search for a favorable competitive position in an industry, the fundamental arena in which competition occurs. Competitive strategy aims to establish a profitable and sustainable position against the forces that determine industry competition.
Two central questions underlie the choice of competitive strategy. The first is the attractiveness of industries for long-term profitability and the factors that determine it. Not all industries offer equal opportunities for sustained profitability, and the inherent profitability of its industry is one essential ingredient in determining the profitability of a firm. The second central question in competitive strategy is the determinants of relative competitive position within an industry. In most industries, some firms are much more profitable than others, regardless of what the average profitability of the industry may be.
Neither question is sufficient by itself to guide the choice of competitive strategy. A firm in a very attractive industry may still not earn attractive profits if it has chosen a poor competitive position. Conversely, a firm in an excellent competitive position may be in such a poor industry that it is not very profitable, and further efforts to enhance its position will be of little benefit. Both questions are dynamic; industry attractiveness and competitive position change. Industries become more or less attractive over time, and competitive position reflects an unending battle among competitors. Even long periods of stability can be abruptly ended by competitive moves.
Both industry attractiveness and competitive position can be shaped by a firm, and this is what makes the choice of competitive strategy both challenging and exciting. While industry attractiveness is partly a reflection of factors over which a firm has little influence, competitive strategy has considerable power to make an industry more or less attractive. At the same time, a firm can clearly improve or erode its position within an industry through its choice of strategy. Competitive strategy, then, not only responds to the environment but also attempts to shape that environment in a firm's favor.
These two central questions in competitive strategy have been at the core of my research. My book Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors presents an analytical framework for understanding industries and competitors, and formulating an overall competitive strategy. It describes the five competitive forces that determine the attractiveness of an industry and their underlying causes, as well as how these forces change over time and can be influenced through strategy. It identifies three broad generic strategies for achieving competitive advantage. It also shows how to analyze competitors and to predict and influence their behavior, and how to map competitors into strategic groups and assess the most attractive positions in an industry. It then goes on to apply the framework to a range of important types of industry environments that I term structural settings, including fragmented industries, emerging industries, industries undergoing a transition to maturity, declining industries, and global industries. Finally, the book examines the important strategic decisions that occur in the context of an industry, including vertical integration, capacity expansion, and entry.
This book takes the framework in Competitive Strategy as a starting point. The central theme of this book is how a firm can actually create and sustain a competitive advantage in its industry - how it can implement the broad generic strategies. My aim is to build a bridge between strategy and implementation, rather than treat these two subjects independently or consider implementation scarcely at all as has been characteristic of much previous research in the field.
Competitive advantage grows fundamentally out of value a firm is able to create for its buyers that exceeds the firm's cost of creating it. Value is what buyers are willing to pay, and superior value stems from offering lower prices than competitors for equivalent benefits or providing unique benefits that more than offset a higher price. There are two basic types of competitive advantage: cost leadership and differentiation. This book describes how a firm can gain a cost advantage or how it can differentiate itself. It describes how the choice of competitive scope, or the range of a firm's activities, can play a powerful role in determining competitive advantage. Finally, it translates these concepts, combined with those in my earlier book, into overall implications for offensive and defensive competitive strategy, including the role of uncertainty in influencing strategic choices. This book considers not only competitive strategy in an individual industry but also corporate strategy for the diversified firm. Competitive advantage in one industry can be strongly enhanced by interrelationships with business units competing in related industries, if these interrelationships can actually be achieved. Interrelationships among business units are the principal means by which a diversified firm creates value, and thus provide the underpinnings for corporate strategy. I will describe how interrelationships among business units can be identified and translated into a corporate strategy, as well as how interrelationships can be achieved in practice despite the organizational impediments to doing so that are present in many diversified firms.
Though the emphases of this book and my earlier book are different, they are strongly complementary. The emphasis of Competitive Strategy is on industry structure and competitor analysis in a variety of industry environments, though it contains many implications for competitive advantage. This book begins by assuming an understanding of industry structure and competitor behavior, and is preoccupied with how to translate that understanding into a competitive advantage. Actions to create competitive advantage often have important consequences for industry structure and competitive reaction, however, and thus I will return to these subjects frequently.
This book can be read independently of Competitive Strategy, but its power to aid practitioners in formulating strategy is diminished if the reader is not familiar with the core concepts presented in the earlier book. In this chapter, I will describe and elaborate on some of those concepts. The discussion of the core concepts will also provide a good means of introducing the concepts and techniques in this book. In the process, I will address some of the most important questions that arise in applying the core concepts in practice. Thus even readers familiar with my earlier book may find the review of interest.
The Structural Analysis of Industries
The first fundamental determinant of a firm's profitability is industry attractiveness. Competitive strategy must grow out of a sophisticated understanding of the rules of competition that determine an industry's attractiveness. The ultimate aim of competitive strategy is to cope with and, ideally, to change those rules in the firm's favor. In any industry, whether it is domestic or international or produces a product or a service, the rules of competition are embodied in five competitive forces: the entry of new competitors, the threat of substitutes, the bargaining power of buyers, the bargaining power of suppliers, and the rivalry among the existing competitors.
The collective strength of these five competitive forces determines the ability of firms in an industry to earn, on average, rates of return on investment in excess of the cost of capital. The strength of the five forces varies from industry to industry, and can change as an industry evolves. The result is that all industries are not alike from the standpoint of inherent profitability. In industries where the five forces are favorable, such as pharmaceuticals, soft drinks, and data base publishing, many competitors earn attractive returns. But in industries where pressure from one or more of the forces is intense, such as rubber, steel, and video games, few firms command attractive returns despite the best efforts of management. Industry profitability is not a function of what the product looks like or whether it embodies high or low technology, but of industry structure. Some very mundane industries such as postage meters and grain trading are extremely profitable, while some more glamorous, high-technology industries such as personal computers and cable television are not profitable for many participants.
The five forces determine industry profitability because they influence the prices, costs, and required investment of firms in an industry - the elements of return on investment. Buyer power influences the prices that firms can charge, for example, as does the threat of substitution. The power of buyers can also influence cost and investment, because powerful buyers demand costly service. The bargaining power of suppliers determines the costs of raw materials and other inputs. The intensity of rivalry influences prices as well as the costs of competing in areas such as plant, product development, advertising, and sales force. The threat of entry places a limit on prices, and shapes the investment required to deter entrants.
The strength of each of the five competitive forces is a function of industry structure, or the underlying economic and technical characteristics of an industry. Industry structure is relatively stable, but can change over time as an industry evolves. Structural change shifts the overall and relative strength of the competitive forces, and can thus positively or negatively influence industry profitability. The industry trends that are the most important for strategy are those that affect industry structure.
If the five competitive forces and their structural determinants were solely a function of intrinsic industry characteristics, then competitive strategy would rest heavily on picking the right industry and understanding the five forces better than competitors. But while these are surely important tasks for any firm, and are the essence of competitive strategy in some industries, a firm is usually not a prisoner of its industry's structure. Firms, through their strategies, can influence the five forces. If a firm can shape structure, it can fundamentally change an industry's attractiveness for better or for worse. Many successful strategies have shifted the rules of competition in this way.
In any particular industry, not all of the five forces will be equally important and the particular structural factors that are important will differ. Every industry is unique and has its own unique structure. The five-forces framework allows a firm to see through the complexity and pinpoint those factors that are critical to competition in its industry, as well as to identify those strategic innovations that would most improve the industry's - and its own - profitability. The five-forces framework does not eliminate the need for creativity in finding new ways of competing in an industry. Instead, it directs managers' creative energies toward those aspects of industry structure that are most important to long-run profitability. The framework aims, in the process, to raise the odds of discovering a desirable strategic innovation.
Strategies that change industry structure can be a double-edged sword, because a firm can destroy industry structure and profitability as readily as it can improve it. A new product design that undercuts entry barriers or increases the volatility of rivalry, for example, may undermine the long-run profitability of an industry, though the initiator may enjoy higher profits temporarily. Or a sustained period of price cutting can undermine differentiation. In the tobacco industry, for example, generic cigarettes are a potentially serious threat to industry structure. Generics may enhance the price sensitivity of buyers, trigger price competition, and erode the high advertising barriers that have kept out new entrants. Joint ventures entered into by major aluminum producers to spread risk and lower capital cost may have similarly undermined industry structure. The majors invited a number of potentially dangerous new competitors into the industry and helped them overcome the significant entry barriers to doing so. Joint ventures also can raise exit barriers because all the participants in a plant must agree before it can be closed down.
Often firms make strategic choices without considering the long-term consequences for industry structure. They see a gain in their competitive position if a move is successful, but they fail to anticipate the consequences of competitive reaction. If imitation of a move by major competitors has the effect of wrecking industry structure, then everyone is worse off. Such industry "destroyers" are usually second-tier firms that are searching for ways to overcome major competitive disadvantages, firms that have encountered serious problems and are desperately seeking solutions, or "dumb" competitors that do not know their costs or have unrealistic assumptions about the future. In the tobacco industry, for example, the Liggett Group (a distant follower) has encouraged the trend toward generics.
The ability of firms to shape industry structure places a particular burden on industry leaders. Leaders' actions can have a disproportionate impact on structure, because of their size and influence over buyers, suppliers, and other competitors. At the same time, leaders' large market shares guarantee that anything that changes overall industry structure will affect them as well. A leader, then, must constantly balance its own competitive position against the health of the industry as a whole. Often leaders are better off taking actions to improve or protect industry structure rather than seeking greater competitive advantage for themselves. Such industry leaders as Coca-Cola and Campbell's Soup appear to have followed this principle.
Industry Structure and Buyer Needs
It has often been said that satisfying buyer needs is at the core of success in business endeavor. How does this relate to the concept of industry structural analysis? Satisfying buyer needs is indeed a prerequisite to the viability of an industry and the firms within it. Buyers must be willing to pay a price for a product that exceeds its cost of production, or an industry will not survive in the long run. Chapter 4 will describe in detail how a firm can differentiate itself by satisfying buyer needs better than its competitors.
Satisfying buyer needs may be a prerequisite for industry profitability, but in itself is not sufficient.