Strategic Management

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.

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Michael Porter’s Generic Cost Leadership Strategy Explained

Preface:

Back when I was a heads down developer analyst working at General Motors, my mindset was completely focused on being a data expert and techie. At the time I did not have a broader understanding of business concepts and business strategies. Thus, I considered myself a “one dimensional” resource (a very competent one dimensional resource but one dimensional nonetheless). I set out to remedy my blind spots by acquiring business knowledge so I would have an understanding of broader concepts, become less myopic, and position myself favorably in the marketplace against other one dimensional techies (like myself at that time).

Subsequently, it was in business school where I first learned of American academic Dr. Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School fame. Mr. Porter is regarded as the preeminent thought leader in the area of business strategy and competitiveness.

Generic Competitive Strategies:

I found value in studying and discussing Porter’s framework that defined generic competitive strategies. A generic competitive strategy is a business level strategy that companies adopt in order to obtain a competitive advantage. The strategies are termed generic because they can be pursued by any and every company across a range of industries. The three primary strategies employed in the framework are:

Cost Leadership (low cost structure, e.g. Wal-Mart, Dell, Southwest Airlines)
Differentiation (offering unique product and services for a premium, e.g. Apple, BMW, Starbucks)
Focus (limiting scope to narrow market segments, e.g. local restaurant or local service provider)

michael_porters_three_generic_strategies-svg

These three strategies help contextualize how businesses aim to obtain profits in their respective marketplaces; they also help businesses understand how they can seek new opportunities for advantage. Porter originally emphasized that a company should target only one of the strategies in the framework or risk paying a “straddling penalty” (a la the doomed airline offshoot Continental Lite). Porter later softened his stance in this regard recognizing the benefits of a hybrid approach in some cases.

Cost Leadership Strategy:

This post focuses on cost leadership because it’s the strategy that relates tangentially to IT and the concept of globalization. As IT workers are aware, the forces of globalization have no mercy in their enablement of companies to offshore work in an attempt to lower costs. This outsourcing of IT work to offshore firms is happening at organizations such as Disney, the University of California and [Insert Any Bank Name Here]. Obviously not all technology related offshoring is done in order to focus on a cost leadership strategy but the activity’s initial intent is to lower a firm’s IT cost structure (refer to my post on how IT has to do a better job communicating its value).

Returning to the main point, the cost leadership strategy is employed when a company aims to be the lowest cost producer in the market. Strategic managers in the organization make a concerted effort to lower business costs in order to achieve a competitive advantage. A lower cost structure enables a business to reap higher than average profitability.

Businesses attempting to implement this strategy may aim to increase inventory turnover, lower their wage expenses and/or manufacturing costs, gain bargaining power over suppliers, develop distinctive competencies in logistics, develop low cost distribution channels or any combination thereof. As an aside, I could prattle on ad-nauseam about Wal-Mart and how its technological capabilities provided the organization significant advantages (and I have here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

Advantages:

When the cost leader and another company decide to compete in the same price range for the same customers, the cost leader will have the inherent advantage because it will reap higher profits due to its lower cost structure. The cost leader will be able to weather the “price war” due to its lower cost structure advantage.

“The cost leader chooses a low to moderate level of product differentiation relative to its competitors. Differentiation is expensive; the more a company expends resources to make its products distinct, the more its costs rise. The cost leader aims for a level of differentiation obtainable at a low cost. Wal-Mart, for example does not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on store design to create an attractive shopping experience as chains like Macy’s, Dillard’s, or Saks Fifth Avenue have done.” [1]

The cost leader also positions its products to appeal to the “average customer”. The aim is to provide the least number of products desired by the highest number of customers. Although customers may not find exactly what they are seeking, they are attracted to the lower prices [1].

Disadvantages:

Since the strategy involves providing the lowest costs, companies must strive for a large market share when employing this strategy. The cost leadership strategy has been linked to lower customer brand loyalty which in turn means that customers can be swayed by lower priced substitutes from other competitors.

Additionally, as technological change enters the marketplace, new competitors can attack cost leaders through innovation thus nullifying the cost leader’s accumulated advantages. For example, Amazon has accumulated substantial knowledge and proficiencies in the online e-tail space and has placed Wal-Mart on the defensive in this arena as Wal-Mart’s expertise is tailored to its brick and mortar assets.

Or as foretold in Porter-speak back in his 1996 HBR article “What is Strategy”,

“A company may have to change its strategy if there are major structural changes in its industry. In fact, new strategic positions often arise because of industry changes and new entrants unencumbered by history often can exploit them more easily.” [2]

References:

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

[2] Porter, M. E. “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review 74, no. 6 (November–December 1996): 61–78.

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Diagram Image By Denis Fadeev – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32434551

Andy Grove and Intel’s Move From Memory to Microprocessors

A titan of the technology industry recently passed away on March 21,2016. Andy Grove was instrumental in taking a commodity product such as the microchip and making it a branded must have hardware feature. “Intel Inside” and “Pentium” were on the minds of the majority of PC consumers during the 1990’s. As the beneficiary of Andy Grove’s leadership, Intel was able to sustain high profitability and sustainable profit growth. With the help of a Redmond based operating systems company, the “Wintel” standard won the format wars against Apple and IBM’s OS/2. Regarding Andy Grove and his Intel tenure, the Economist reported, “Under his leadership it increased annual revenues from $1.9 billion to more than $26 billion and made millionaires of hundreds of employees.”

For all of Andy Grove’s successes in the semiconductor market, it was not a forgone conclusion that Intel would ever make the leap into this industry. Most people of my generation who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s are not familiar with the fact that at the time of Intel’s founding, the company primarily produced replacement computer memories for mainframes. Intel first and foremost was founded as a memory company.

An article by Robert A. Burgelman in the Administrative Science Quarterly highlights the processes and decision calculus of Intel executives which led the company to exit the dynamic random access memory (DRAM) market. Burgelman provides key insights regarding the transformation of Intel from a memory company into a microcomputer company.

DRAM at one point in time accounted for over 90% of Intel’s sales revenue. The article states that DRAM was essentially the “technology driver” on which Intel’s learning curve depended. Over time the DRAM business matured as Japanese companies were able to involve equipment suppliers in the continuous improvement of the manufacturing process in each successive DRAM generation. Consequentially, top Japanese producers were able to reach production yields that were up to 40% higher than top U.S. companies. DRAMs essentially became a commodity product.

Intel tried to maintain a competitive advantage and introduced several innovative technology design efforts with its next generation DRAM offerings. These products did not provide enough competitive advantage, thus the company lost its strategic position in the DRAM market over time. Intel declined from an 82.9% market share in 1974 to a paltry 1.3% share in 1984.

Intel’s serendipitous and fortuitous entry into microprocessors happened when Busicom, a Japanese calculator company, contacted Intel for the development of a new chipset. Intel developed the microprocessor but the design was owned by Busicom. Legendary Intel employee Ted Hoff had the foresight to lobby top management to buy back the design for uses in non calculator devices. The microprocessor became an important source of sales revenue for Intel, eventually displacing DRAMs as the number one business.

There continued to be a disconnect between stated corporate strategy and the activities of middle managers during the transition period. Top executives gave weak justifications for the company’s reluctance to face reality and exit the DRAM space; they were emotionally attached to the DRAM business. A middle manger stated that Intel’s decision to abandon the DRAM market was tantamount to Ford deciding to exit the car business!

The demand for Intel microprocessors led middle managers to begin allocating factory resources to heavily produce microprocessors over DRAM. Intel’s cultural rule that information power should always trump hierarchical position power gave middle managers the decision space to make production allocation decisions that overrode corporate stated goals. These actions further dissolved the strategic context of DRAMs.

“By the middle of 1984 some middle managers made the decision to adopt a new process technology which inherently favored logic [microprocessor] rather than memory advances”. By the end of 1984, Intel’s top management was finally forced to face business reality with respect to DRAMs. In order to regain leadership in DRAM, management was faced with a 100 million dollar capital investment decision for a 1 MEG product. Top management decided against the investment and thus eliminated the possibility of Intel remaining in the DRAM space.

It should not be understated that Andy Grove saw a future where microprocessors would become the dominant driver of Intel’s success. He had the foresight to tell his direct reports to “make data based decisions and not to fear emotional opposition”. This was a gutsy call because the culture of Intel viewed DRAM memory as a “core technology of the company and not just a product”.

Andy Grove himself is quoted as saying, “The fact is that we had become a non-factor in DRAMs, with 2-3% market share. The DRAM business just passed us by! Yet, many people were still holding to the ‘self-evident truth’ that Intel was a memory company. One of the toughest challenges is to make people see that these self-evident truths are no longer true.”

Under Andy Grove’s leadership, Intel embarked upon a high stakes technological paradigm shift where either complacency or botched execution could have jeopardized the very existence of the company. Rest in peace Mr. Grove.

References:

Burgelman, Robert A (1994). Fading Memories: A Process Theory of Strategic Business Exit in Dynamic Environments. Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 39, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 24-56.

Lessons from the Japanese Auto Industry

I spent seven years working at Saturn Corporation which was a truly innovative automotive company. Unfortunately, to the chagrin of Saturn-philes, the subsidiary suffered from a lack of sufficient investment from its parent entity, General Motors. Sadly, the defunct Oldsmobile brand was the recipient of funding that should have been allocated to Saturn but I digress. As an automotive industry veteran (albeit on the I.T. and data side of the house), I enjoyed discussions during my days in business school that focused upon the strategy of companies operating within the industry. In an MBA class titled Managing the Resources of Technological Firms (offered at Georgia Tech), our readings concentrated on the challenges associated with managing a firm’s resource capabilities for long-term competitive advantage.

On such article typifying the aforementioned concentration was written by business historian Michael A. Cusumano. In his article Manufacturing Innovation: Lessons from the Japanese Auto Industry which appeared in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Cusumano sets out to debunk the fact that higher productivity amongst Japanese auto firms is a result of the employment of Japanese workers. He aims to illustrate that the merits of innovative processes are the cause for higher productivity emanating from Japanese owned firms.

The article is in essence a summarization of major findings from a five year study of the Japanese auto industry focusing particularly on Toyota and Nissan. It states that some observers of Japan have assumed that Japanese firms copied US manufacturing techniques and then benefited from a better educated and more cooperative workforce. Cusumano attacks this perception by commenting that Japanese run factories located in the United States have demonstrated higher levels of productivity, quality and process flexibility than their domestic counterparts.

Japanese firms who shunned US or European production techniques were able to innovate and improve upon their native processes. Toyota in particular avoided conventional production techniques and decided to focus on developing a tailored system that met the needs of the Japanese market. Other Japanese firms such as Hino, Daihatsu, Mazda and Nissan started to leverage the techniques employed by Toyota and moved away from the US/European traditional process. Toyota and Nissan appears to have matched or surpassed US productivity levels by the late 1960’s even though their production levels were far less than US automakers.

Cusumano does not share the Boston Consulting Group’s assessment that Japanese management’s emphasis on long term growth in market shares led to an accumulation of experience. He believes that that the emphasis on the accumulation of experience and innovation led to the rise in market share.

Toyota’s legendary Taiichi Ohno realized that firms needed to be flexible when producing small volumes. Three basic policies were introduced during post war Japan’s auto manufacturing era. Just in time manufacturing reduced buffer stocks of extra components and this small lot philosophy tended to improve quality since workers could not rely on extra parts or rework piles if they made mistakes. The second policy was to reduce unnecessary complexity in product designs and manufacturing processes. Nissan and Toyota standardized components across model lines. The third policy involved a Vertical “De-Integration”. In essence, automakers began to build up a network of suppliers for outsourced component production.

US companies stopped innovating by the early 1960’s as they perceived the domestic auto market as mature. The “American Paradigm” from an automotive production standpoint meant large production runs, worker specialization and statistical sampling. The unique market conditions of Japan after WW2 presented an opportunity for Toyota and other producers to challenge convention and become more efficient at much lower levels of production.

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The Competitive Advantage of Process Innovation

This post summarizes a Harvard Business Review article entitled “The New Logic of High-Tech R&D“, written by Gary P. Pisano and Steven C. Wheelwright. The article focuses on the finding that few companies within the pharmaceutical industry view manufacturing and process improvement as a competitive advantage. The authors assert that manufacturing process innovation is very conducive towards product innovation. Companies traditionally spend money on product R&D but tend to neglect focusing on process R&D.

For example, Sigma Pharmaceuticals refused to invest significant resources to process development until the company was confident that the drug would win FDA approval. As a result, when demand for the drug increased they could not meet the higher demand without major investments in additional capacity. During this interim ramp up period the company lost two years of potential sales. Underinvestment in process development on the front end clearly put the company in a sub-optimal position to capitalize on additional revenue.

Process development and process innovation provide a litany of benefits. The first of which is accelerated time to market. According to one drug company, the time required to prepare factories for production generally added a year to the product-development lead time. Senior management was unaware of this fact while the managers within the process development organization were fully aware.

Rapid ramp up is also invaluable because it allows companies to more quickly realize revenue, penetrate a market, and recoup its development investments. Also the faster the ramp up occurs the faster critical resources can be freed to support the next product.

Innovative process technologies that are patent protected can hinder a competitor’s push into the market. Pisano and Wheelwright state that it is easier to stay ahead of a competitor that must constantly struggle to manufacture a product at competitive cost and quality levels.

Process development capabilities can also serve as a hedge against various forces in high tech industries. Shorter lifecycles elevates the value of fast to market processes. Semiconductor fabrication facilities can cost upwards of one billion dollars and depreciate at a rapid pace. For this reason, rapid ramp up is very important. Those companies with strong process development and manufacturing capabilities will have more freedom in choosing the products they wish to develop rather than forced to stick with simple to manufacture designs.

Pharmaceutical companies traditionally operated in the following manner. They delayed significant process R&D expenditures until they were reasonably sure that the product was going to be approved for launch. They didn’t delay product launch by keeping the process R&D off of the critical path. Manufacturing and process engineering were on hand to make sure the company could bring on additional capacity and didn’t stock out. Manufacturing was located in a tax haven even if it was far from R&D and process development, while process development was introduced later in the lifecycle in order to thwart the threat of generic competition. Today however, pharmaceutical companies find themselves squeezed by shorter product life cycles, less pricing flexibility and higher costs.

The article states that the earlier that a company makes process improvements the greater the total financial return. It is costly and time consuming to rectify process design problems on the factory floor. The earlier these problems are found in the development cycle the shorter the process development lead time.

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ADP: Mergers & Acquisitions

This small sample is taken from a group paper drafted for a strategic management class (MGT 6125) taken back in the Spring of 2007. The class was taught by the esteemed professor of strategy, Dr. Frank Rothaermel. As part of the class our project group interviewed an executive from ADP, wrote a strategic analysis of the company and then presented our findings to the company (complete with Q&A). The experience was enriching but contributed to the number of late nights experienced during that semester. It should be noted that in 2014 ADP spun off its Dealer Services business into a separate company now called CDK Global.


 

Mergers & Acquisitions

ADP has become highly successful in its strategy of pursuing growth via horizontal integration. Although current CEO Gay Butler has maintained that ADP has no interest in “large, dilutive, multiyear acquisitions” [1], the company will acquire smaller industry competitors. Acquisitions give ADP the opportunity to grow inorganically, increase its product offerings, acquire technology and to reduce the level of rivalry in its industry.

A perfect execution of this strategy can be seen in its January 2003 acquisition of Probusiness. Probusiness was a much smaller California based provider of payroll and human resources services. Before the acquisition, Probusiness cited eight new large competitors who had an interest in expanding their roles in the payroll business [2]. Amongst those eight competitors were notable companies such as International Business Machines Inc. (IBM), Microsoft Corp. and Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) [2]. True to form, ADP decided to react and proceeded to acquire Probusiness. The acquisition effectively prevented large competitors from acquiring approximately 600 new payroll clients in the larger employer space and reduced future competition.

The Probusiness acquisition was also a boon to the company in the fact that it offered ADP advanced payroll processing technology. Probusiness utilized PC based payroll processing as opposed to ADP’s more mainframe based technology [2].

A key acquisition for ADP in terms of increasing its global footprint was the December 2005 acquisition of U.K. based Kerridge Computer. This particular acquisition was significant in the fact that it increased ADP’s Dealer Management Services (DMS) presence from fourteen countries to over forty one [3].

ADP along with its main DMS competitors in the European market, Reynolds & Reynolds and SAP, began to realize the significant growth opportunities for the region. The European market for DMS unlike the United States market, is much more fragmented which means there are more opportunities for a larger player to standardize product offerings [4]. In 2003 the European Union lifted rules that had previously banned franchised car dealers from selling rival brands [4]. Demand for pan-European systems to help multi-brand dealers manage their stores, sometimes in multiple countries and in various languages increased dramatically [4]. ADP shrewdly realized that many smaller DMS providers would not be able to meet this demand and acquired Kerridge to bolster its position.

Strategically, the Kerridge acquisition has allowed ADP to have first mover advantage over its main competitors with respect to China. New vehicle sales growth in Asia is expected to be at 25.3% by the year 2011 [5]. By becoming a first mover in the region, ADP will have the opportunity to lock customers into its technology since it currently has a 96% client retention rate [5]. ADP will also have the opportunity to create high switching costs for its customers and make it difficult for rivals to take its customers.

Other recent acquisitions by ADP include “Taxware which brings tax-content and compliance solutions to the table; VirtualEdge, which offers tools for recruiting; Employease, which develops Web-based HR and benefits applications; and Mintax, which provides tools for corporate tax incentives. [6]” All of these acquisitions represent small fast growing companies with complimentary products and services. These products and services can be incorporated in ADP’s vast distribution network and provide potential bundling or cross selling opportunities with ADP’s current offerings.

Endnotes:

[1] Simon, Ellen “ADP chief looks at expansion, not acquisition” ASSOCIATED PRESS (7 March 2007)

[2] Gelfand, Andrew “ADP Seen Holding Off Competition With ProBusiness Buy” Dow Jones News Service (6 January 2003) :Factiva

[3] Kisiel, Ralph “Reynolds, ADP aim for European growth” Automotive News Europe Volume 11; Number 3 (6 February 2006) :Factiva

[4] Jackson, Kathy “Dealer software market is booming; Multibranding boosts demand for dealership management programs” Automotive News Europe, Volume 11; Number 21 (16 October 2006) :Factiva

[5] ADP Annual Financial Analyst Conference Call Presentation. March 22, 2007

[6] Taulli ,Tom “ADP Tries Getting Even Better” Motley Fool (November 2, 2006) Accessed 4/14/07 <http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2006/11/02/adp-tries-getting-even-better.aspx.