Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn
Differentiation is not a competitive advantage
The tired old story that many companies tell their investors (and many managers tell themselves) is that they can avoid the commoditization of their product through “differentiation”. Convince your customers that your limestone is not generic limestone but “Jeff’s Best limestone”, for instance, and they’re sure to pay a premium price!
The trouble with this strategy is not the gullibility of the consumer, but the mutual ability of the competitor to adopt it for himself.
The reality of the competitive market is that high profits attract competition and without real, sustainable barriers to entry, high profits will be eroded by market fragmentation and declining margins. Product differentiation may allow a firm to charge a “premium” for their product, but it will not protect their market share and as market share falls, the effects of fixed-costs on margins will rise.
Firms producing differentiated goods and services will still face the economics of commodity markets, namely, if they can not produce at a cost at or below the price established in the market, they will fail. This is because differentiated products require additional investments in advertising, marketing, sales and service, product distribution, etc., to make the differentiated claims credible, and these higher costs ultimately lower returns.
Barriers to entry = competitive advantages
As the authors note,
Systems can be replicated, talent hired away, managerial quality upgraded
The only way to obtain real, sustainable competitive advantages is through barriers to entry: obstacles and costs that competitors can not overcome or do not have the resources to cover. These barriers to entry apply only to incumbents, as entrant competitive advantages are essentially available to everyone and therefore are available to no one in the long run, being of limited and transitory value (once you establish yourself in a market, you’re now and incumbent and have lost your competitive advantage).
There are three basic, authentic types of competitive advantage:
- supply advantages
- demand advantages
- a combination of the two
The authors specifically note that,
Measured by potency and durability, production advantages are the weakest barrier to entry; economies of scale, when combined with some customer captivity, are the strongest.
Supply advantages essentially translate to lower cost structures, which provides the firm with two benefits:
- higher profitability through wider margins
- ability to strategically lower prices to resist potential entrants or other competitors while maintaining profitability
These lower cost structures normally come from:
- lower input costs (special access to a supply that can’t be replicated by the competition at the same cost)
- economies of scale
- proprietary technology, normally protected by patents/intellectual property laws (any government grant of monopoly would similarly apply as it has the same effect)
Rapid technological change in supply methods can create entrant advantages as pre-existing incumbents find their out-dated technology confers a cost dis-advantage. Conversely, as the pace of technological change in an industry slows, any incumbent advantage due to technological advances can be eroded as rival firms acquire learned efficiencies of their own.
Many strategic analysts cite the role of “innovation” in imbuing certain firms with competitive advantages but these advantages are only sustainable if these innovations can’t be learned, “stolen” or otherwise acquired by competitors over time. In other words,
Innovations that are common to all confer competitive advantages on none.
Meanwhile, privileged access to raw materials is normally only useful in markets which are local in terms of geography or product space.
Access to customers that rivals can not match translate to demand advantages. Customer captivity is a result of one of three dynamics:
- habit – typically applies to one product, not a firm’s portfolio of products, and is a result of frequent and automatic purchases
- switching costs – reinforced by network effects, ie, selecting a technology system that becomes common and popular economy-wide
- search costs – common when products or services are complex, customized and crucial
The strongest possible demand advantage, then, would be one which generates an intergenerational transfer of habit.
Questions from the reading
- The authors state on pg. 31 that United’s advantageous geographical position at Chicago O’Hare can not be extended to other airports; is this true? Why or why not? Ultimately, what is the source for United’s supply advantage at Chicago O’Hare?
- Many of the supply advantages stem from government interference in the market through patent, copyright and other “intellectual property” laws. How might the strategic/competitive landscape change in a “free intellectual market”?