Michael Porter’s Generic Differentiation Strategy Explained

I previously touched upon Michael Porter’s generic cost leadership strategy here. Porter asserts that a business model can’t offer the best product or service at the lowest price and maintain a sustainable competitive advantage. An organization employing a strategy that attempts to be “all things to all people” will become stranded in mediocrity (i.e. earn less than industry average profitability).

A differentiation strategy advocates that a business must offer products or services that are valuable and unique to buyers above and beyond a low price. The ability for a company to offer a premium price for their products or services hinges upon how valuable and unique these offerings are in the marketplace. A differentiator invests its resources to gain a competitive advantage from superior innovation, excellent quality and responsiveness to customer needs. [1]

“It should be stressed that the differentiation strategy does not allow the firm to ignore costs, but rather they are not the primary strategic target.” [2]

If you could boil the differentiation strategy down to a manageable sound-bite, it would look something like this; differentiation enables a firm to command a higher price.

Starbucks coffee doesn’t taste materially better than offerings from rival Dunkin’ Donuts, but Starbucks has crafted the “Starbucks Experience” complete with intimate environments, sustainable sourcing and mobile ordering to differentiate itself with a cult-like following (i.e. command higher than industry average prices for a commodity item).

Advantages:

Differentiation allows a firm to build brand loyalty, obtain customers who exhibit less price sensitivity and increase its profit margins. As opposed to cost leaders, differentiators are not as concerned with supplier price increases. Differentiators can more easily pass on price increases to their customers because customers are more willing to pay the increases.

Differentiators are protected from powerful buyers since only they can supply the distinct product or service offering. Differentiators are also protected against the threat of substitute products in that a new competitor must invest substantial resources to both match the capabilities of the differentiator and break customer loyalty.

“Differentiation is different from segmentation. Differentiation is concerned with how a firm competes—the ways in which it can offer uniqueness to customers. Such uniqueness might relate to consistency (McDonald’s), reliability (Federal Express), status (American Express), quality (BMW), and innovation (Apple). Segmentation is concerned with where a firm competes in terms of customer groups, localities and product types.”[1]

Risks:

Porter assets that there are risks to the differentiation strategy.

  • “The cost differential between low-cost competitors and the differentiated firm becomes too great for differentiation to hold brand loyalty. Buyers thus sacrifice some of the features, services, or image possessed by the differentiated firm for large cost savings;
  • Buyers’ need for the differentiating factor falls. This can occur as buyers become more sophisticated;
  • Imitation narrows perceived differentiation, a common occurrence as industries mature.”

All differentiators should be on guard for firms that seek to imitate their distinct offerings while never charging a higher price than the market will bear [1].

The differentiation strategy should not be mistaken for providing unique products simply for the sake of being unique; rather the differentiation should be tied to customer demand or willingness to pay.

References:

[1] Hill, Charles. W. L., & Jones, Gareth. R. (2007). Strategic Management Theory. Houghton Mifflin Company

[2] Porter, M. E. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. New York: Free Press, 1980.

Picture Copyright:  urubank / 123RF Stock

 

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