Competitive Forces Shape Strategy

Market analysis is central to strategy formulation. Dealing with competition is the essence of strategy formulation.

However competition isn’t only defined by other market players.  There are a host of underlying economic and social forces affecting competition.

There are two elements to market analysis: An examination of the macro-environment and an examination of the micro-environment.

The mnemonic PESTEL (or PESTLE) is often used to describe the analysis of the macro-environment. It stands for POLITICS, ECONOMICS, SOCIETAL, TECHNOLOGY, ENVIRONMENTAL, LEGAL.

SO UK businesses over the last five years should have been examining the effects of Brexit on their market, it’s impact on politics, it’s impact on the economy, how it has changed UK society, what technological effects it brings, its effect on environmental policy and how it is going to change the law.

An analysis of the micro-environment also has to take place.  These are factors directly affecting a particular market or market segment.  Michael Porter described these as five forces: Industry Competitors, New Market Entrants, Suppliers, Buyers and Substitute Products.

These collectively impact the profitability of an industry or market segment.

Some economists model on the basis of perfect competition.  However, perfect competition only exist in those models it does not exist in the real world.  More enlightened economics now apply scientific rigour and evidential standards to their modelling.  Yes, this makes models more complex as factors beyond price need to be accounted for in modelling but the results of such models are more realistic.

If Porter’s five forces are strong, entering a market can be incredibly difficult and costly.  Even if the five forces are ‘mild’ they can combine to hamper market entry.

Market entry by new competitors can occur where there are few economies of scale; where products across a market are homogenous, where capital requirements are low or where cost advantages are independent of organisational scale.

Existing market players can leverage a learning or experience curve to protect there market position.  Where there is no learning curve, or it is short.  Where experience is limited.  These barriers to market entry are low.

Often existing market players will use legal barriers such as intellectual property rights to prevent entry.  For example, for many years Cadbury held the patent on the machinery to make Flake bars, so competitors were unable to make generic copies of the bar.  Muller Dairies hold a patent on the corner yoghurt pot and have successfully sued competitors who developed copycat products.

New market entrants can also be blocked through existing market players controlling distribution and supply chains.  This can occur through forward and backward integration of suppliers and sellers within a market.

Government policy can prevent market entry.  Governments may create licensing requirements within an industry such as the arms trade.  Governments create legislation, safety regulations, environmental standards, etc, which limit opportunities for market entry.

Currently in the UK there is a growing political argument over the lowering of food standards and animal welfare standards.  The Johnson government has legislated to lower UK standards and move away from the high common standards held when the UK was a member of the European Union.  This is seen as preparing for a US trade deal and to allow the importation of food from the USA which is often produced with low animal welfare standards and low food hygiene controls. US practices such as chlorine baths for poultry and using Ractopamine on pork cuts is common in the US but currently banned in the UK.  These US practices are attempts to cover up America’s ‘secret epidemic’ of food-borne disease and food poisoning.  Groups of varying political allegiance, including some cabinet members are opposing lowering of food standards to US levels.

Market incumbents often fight back against new market entrants through the use of discount fighter brands.  This is a common tactic in the golf equipment market where the majority of premium club manufacturers own a fighter brand to combat new entrants.

Where market growth is slower, such as in a mature market, entry can be all but impossible.  In such circumstances, significant market change needs to happen to allow entry e.g. Brexit.

Powerful buyers and suppliers affect a market through the use of their bargaining power.  Suppliers can raise prices and limit supply (as OPEC often did with oil).  Powerful suppliers, such as the large supermarket chains can use bulk purchasing to drive down wholesale prices. The tied house system for many years allowed breweries to control the price of beer and limit tenant landlords profitability.

Suppliers are powerful where there are a few dominant supply companies e.g. petrochemicals and where similar industries do not directly compete (e.g. steel fabrication and aluminium smelting).  They can also be powerful when a market is subject to forward integration (raw material suppliers buying finished product manufacturers). So TATA was an Indian steel maker which purchased Jaguar Land Rover the car maker.

Suppliers are also powerful where the supplied industry is not critical to their survival or profitability.  The Ravenscraig steelworks, built by the nationalised British steel to make plate steel for the automotive industry was a weak supplier wholly dependent on the Leyland car works at Linwood and the Ford plant at Bathgate.  When those car plants closed, there was no market for Ravenscraig’s steel.

Buyers are powerful when purchases are large, concentrated and central.  They are also powerful where large scale purchases are technologically complex e.g. supercomputers.

Buyers are also powerful where products are homogenous e.g. buying potatoes.  they are also powerful where they can buy a readily available alternative e.g. buying cane sugar compared to buying beet sugar.

Buyers are also powerful when the product purchased is not critical and can be easily cut from the buyers systems.

Buyers can also be powerful when they look to integrate back up the supply chain.

Substitute products limit profit opportunities they can reduce opportunities during market boom times and they can temper the ability to raise prices.

Existing competitors often jockey for market position.  Intense rivalries for market leadership exist if all market players are of similar size and there is no dominant market leader.  Slow industry growth (mature markets) can create fights for market share which limit opportunity.  Competitors can be strong where products are undifferentiated or where it is easy for customers to shift supplier.  In such markets, fixed costs can be high, products are often perishable (agricultural goods such as milk) or there could be a reliance on high sales volumes due to low profit margins (high street fashion).  Existing competitors can be powerful where there is overcapacity in a market (such as car production) or where markets are slow-moving such as musical instruments or antique furniture.  For example, once a pianist has bought a piano, how long will it be before they need to replace it (if they ever need to).

Often markets have high exit barriers, such as environmental clean up costs or the need for expensive specialist machinery.  This means competitors may stay in a market when in other circumstances they would have diversified elsewhere.

To succeed where industry competition is strong, you need to focus on market positioning, influencing the balance of the market and exploiting industry change. You also need to build defences so you are less vulnerable to the strategic attacks of other market players.