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.

Time and Technology

We live in a world where technology and science progress at an ever increasing rate.  It was probably millennia before man progressed to create the wheel. Life in the middle ages was not too different to life in Roman times. Yet today rarely a day goes by without a what once would have been considered a major scientific discovery.  Accelerating technological advancement has become the norm.  Progress affects commerce.  progress affect your business. So you have to be aware and plan for technological change.

There are plenty of examples of businesses ignoring technological change.  The big music retail chains ignored music streaming.  VHS rental became a thing of the past.  Kodak invented the digital camera sensor but then allowed others to develop the digital camera as they focused on film rolls.

Time affects many business resources: manpower, finance, raw materials, knowledge.  The trio of money, quality and time dominate.  To implement the quality demanded by those in the marketplace is often a factor of money and time.

Quality often relies on the available time to market and the technology needed to deliver that quality.  Technology includes the actual features of a product but the support functions used to produce that product.

You also have to consider the lifecycle of a market.  Over time markets develop, they often enter a technological stage.  This affects the consumers perception of the state of the market and your businesses position in that market.  Is your business seen as cutting edge or as old-fashioned?

However in some circumstances appearing old-fashioned can be seen as a benefit.  Take Fender guitars, they sell a lot of instruments which are still made on machines installed in the 1950s and which contain features like neck profiles and electronics which are all but identical to those of 50 years ago.  Many players of the electric guitar still prefer amplifiers which contain valve technology little changed since the early 20th century.

Technology also affects the level of automated support in the marketplace.  This isn’t just production line technology but secondary process technology such as raw material delivery technology, automated aftersales support technology and even automated marketing technology.

It can be industrial technology, like the creation of long-life egg powder for bulk bakers or 5 gigabyte memory cards for digital cameras. It can be workplace technology such as customer databases or production line automation.

There are four aspects to workplace technology:

  1.  Improving the speed of an activity
  2. Improving the precision of an activity
  3. Technology overcoming production limitations
  4. technology reducing costs and wastage

Time is important as it allows faster delivery of best value but it also creates pressures.  You need to be able to strategize faster, implement faster whilst meeting customer expectations faster.

That latter aspect requires careful market monitoring.  Consumer attitudes change over time.  Changing perceptions is fundamental to marketing.

Time can also be a competitive advantage.  Being first into a market, being ‘first there and best dressed’ has long been seen as an advantageous position with sustained market share.  However this view is dependent on a market being ready for the innovation and being both willing and able to assimilate it.

Reducing time required to complete a function can provide market flexibility.  Who hasn’t spent hours pouring over Gantt charts and production networks trying to match available resources to production deadlines?

There are four aspects to new product taxonomy:

  1.  Product renovation:  altering old products which are already in the market place, new designs, new features
  2. Creating copycat products: Products which use technology which exists in the marketplace but which is new to your business
  3. Commercialisation of in-house products – products which exist within your business (for business purposes) which are then marketed to the consumer market.
  4. True innovation: New products created from new emerging technologies.

Innovation implies increased complexity and thus increased risk.  You need to apply marketing functions to educate the market as to the benefits of the new technology

Time affects workplace technology.  You need to pace your time resource to meet market readiness.  You need to exploit technology to introduce innovation over complexity.  The technology may be complex but it needs to make things easier for the consumer.

In terms of marketing, time and technology need to be considered in both strategic and operational terms.

Strategically, time and technology need to be applied to sustain competitive advantage.  Operationally, time and technology need to be leveraged so as to enable first to market, to reduce costs, to develop better systems, etc.

In applying time and technology to your business, you need to be aware of the strategic advantage cycle:

  1. Observe your environment.
  2. Orientate your organisation to that environment
  3. Decide what you need to do to make that environment favourable to your organisation
  4. Act to implement your decision.

Your decision needs to advance and sustain a competitive advantage over your competitors.

Developing Competitive Advantage

Different industries offer different competitive opportunities: therefore different strategies are required.  There is no one catch all strategy that will be successful across all industries.

So to develop an appropriate strategy for your market, you need to identify the appropriate competitive advantages and hence develop appropriate strategies.

There are three steps to identifying competitive advantage:

  1.  Define the Industry:  What are the market boundaries? What are the ‘rules of the game’? Who are the other players?
  2. Identify the possible competitive moves so as to exploit competitive advantage: What is the life cycle stage of the market? If the market is mature there will be different competitive advantages to a market which is in its growth stage; and therefore different strategies will be applicable. How will the actions of your competitors affect the market?
  3. What is your generic strategy? Differentiation, Cost focus or niche?

Remember successful strategies are the successful completion of a series of competitive moves

The first step, identifying the boundaries of an industry is not as easy as it first appears.  Take a farm shop with a cafe and children’s petting zoo.  Is that business a food retailer and producer; or is it part of the catering industry, or is it part of a wider leisure sector?

In assessing an industry’s boundaries each identified business activity should add perceived value in the minds of potential consumers. That perceived value is the string of benefits accrued by obtaining a product or service.  Some of these benefits can be abstract such as self image. The price is determined by what people are willing to pay to accrue those benefits.  If consumers place low perceived value on goods or services, they will expect those goods and services to come with a low price.

The ‘game’ is to create a disequilibrium between perceived value and the same price offered by competitors. Two factors can be adjusted, the perceived value and the price. this leads to three main options:

  1. Offering more perceived value for the same price as your competitors
  2. Offering the same perceived value as your competitors for a lower price
  3. Offering significantly more perceived value but for a higher price.

We do not live in a world of perfect competition where price is the only differentiating factor between market offers.

Obviously every activity to produce goods or services has a cost. The accrued costs of production and supply set the minimum price level at which products can be marketed.  Your business system must remain profitable. External factors such as tariffs and taxes can affect that profitability.  UK businesses currently exporting in a tariff free environment will likely face pressure on profit margins if, as seems likely, not trade agreement can be agreed with the EU and the country reverts to trading on WTO schedules.

The best approach in a market is to offer the highest possible levels of perceived benefit for the lowest possible delivered cost.

In assessing the ‘rules of the game’, you also need to take into account the logic of the business system; how business activities coordinate to achieve a common goal.  Resources needed to achieve common goals also need to be examined e.g. People, technology and finance.

When assessing competitors you need to look at all market entrants, not just core competitors.  that means suppliers, distributors, retailers etc.  You need to know which market players will sub-optimise your whole business system.

Competitive moves are defined as the best way to utilise your defined business systems to provide perceived value.  This is achieving superior performance in at least one business system activity e.g. best after-sales care; or through the innovative combination of several activities i.e. your marketing mix. This is the basis of all successful marketing strategies.

In assessing which competitive moves you need to make, you need to know the stage of the life cycle the market exists in.  Competitive moves will be different in a new emerging industry than in a mature of declining industry.

To identify strategic groups use perceptual mapping.  Plot consumers perception of value (not product quality) against cost.

There are two forms of generic strategy: one dimensional strategies and out-pacing strategies.

One dimensional strategies affect either perceived quality or price.  They are a repeated single move with the intention of retaining a static market position.  They are defensive strategies.  Short life cycle industries, such as fashion will use one dimensional strategies focused on high perceived value.

Businesses with long life cycles such as commodities (gas, electricity, water, etc) can look at low delivered cost strategies.

Using one dimensional strategies in other circumstances can be dangerous.

Out-pacing strategies do not repeat the same strategic move over and over.  You outpace your competitors by moving from one strategic position to another through altering value options.  The timing of outpacing strategies is crucial.  This is very much a dynamic strategy option.

Pre-emptive outpacing strategies are often used by industry leaders to avoid attacks by competitors. Again this is predominantly a defensive strategy option.  this could include shifting the industry life cycle through the development of product standards.  You need to create a pricing reserve so as to invest in process improvements to allow a shift to low delivered cost strategy until the new industry standard is adopted.

Price can be leveraged to prevent market followers from generating cash flow needed to transition to the next industry stage. For example, many saw Betamax video recorders as the premium product but VHS was cheaper and VHS was able to become the industry standards for home video cassettes. Price can be used to prevent new market entrants; possibly through the creation of fighter brands.

Again, the timing pre-emptive outpacing strategies is crucial.

Pro-active outpacing strategies tend to require market maturity and lower growth rates.  The are used to escape maturity stalemate and to avoid destructive price wars. In effect you are changing the rules of the game.

Unbundling perceived value is a common outpacing strategy.  This is achieved through the use of value chain analysis.  You then remove unacceptable costs which do not add to perceived value.  this may be moving from high street stores to out of town warehouses, or even moving to internet distance shopping from traditional retail. Ikea went from a traditional furniture retailer to a supplier of flat pack self-assembly furniture.

Analysing the competitive advantage options in your industry is critical to the achievement of successful strategies.

 

 

 

 

Responding to Technological Threat

Products have a life cycle.  They are introduced to the market and the standard model of the life cycle follows an S-curve of growth maturity and decline.  Products go into decline for a variety of reason.  It could simply be a matter of public tastes changing. Today, a prominent reason for products entering the decline stage of the life cycle is technological change.

A prominent example of technological change leading to product decline is the market in processing chips.  Although there is some evidence that Moore’s law is no longer applies; for many years the market for chips followed the pattern of double the number of semiconductors on the chip every eighteen months. Of course, when the processing power increased, the old chips became obsolete.

History is littered with such changes.  The replacement of steam trains with diesel electric trains, the rise of the smartphone, digital cameras over film cameras.  The last of these examples is particularly interesting.  Kodak invented the digital camera sensor. They then let others develop it as Kodak continued to focus of producing film rolls. Kodak eventually had to file for bankruptcy protection.

Technology can destroy old industries and creates new ones.  In the 1960s very few saw a market for home computers.

Businesses are often faced with a host of technological threats.  Not just products but technological change in supply and distribution chains (e.g. e-books and music downloads), changes to customer habits (such as internet shopping, fast food home delivery apps), changes to production processes (e.g. 3D printing).  Good managers, or perhaps lucky managers, know some technological threats will never materialise as a threat but others will have a major effect on their business.

It is common for new technology to be developed outside and industry and then applied to that industry.  Often the new technology is developed by new firms entering the market (disruptors)

New technology is often crude and expensive at the outset and sales of old technology may initially continue to grow following the product life cycle curve.  However, the old technology tends to decline within 5 to 15 years of the new technology being introduced.

Existing firms in a market can respond to the new technology in two ways:

  1. Develop new products containing an improved version of the old technology
  2. Fight on two fronts; continue with the old technology whilst developing a presence in the market for the new technology.

When new technology arrives, an existing market member may be facing a host of new market entrants.

So what are the potential strategic responses to the arrival of new technology:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Monitor the new technology through environmental scanning and forecasting
  3. Fight the new technology using public relations; or in extreme circumstances through the courts.  For example, Apple and Samsung fought a long legal battle over the technology in each others smartphones.
  4. Increase organisational flexibility to be better able to address technological threats
  5. Avoid the technological threat by withdrawing from the market and going and doing something different.  John Menzies went from running high street newsagents and stationers to becoming a trade distributor of computer peripherals.
  6. Improve the existing technology in your market e.g. more efficient and cleaner petrol and diesel engines.
  7. Maintain sales by modifying your marketing mix – Price cutting, increased advertising budgets, better after sales service: a non-technological response.

You could also participate in the new technology.  Dyson bought the firm holding the patent for solid state rechargeable batteries with the intention of putting them in his now abandoned electric car project. He also bought a ventilator patent from researchers when the UK government called for a simple design of ventilator in response to Covid-19.

Such participation in new technology can be seen as a defensive action or as an attempt to achieve market leadership.

In deciding to adopt new technology, you need to assess the strategic dimension.  What is the level of acceptable risk?  What commitment in terms of finance, non-money assets and time does adopting the new technology require? What is the correct timing of the commitment? Do you capture early adopters or aim for the mass market? Do you develop the new technology within your firm or do you gain the technology through acquisition?

 

Marketing is not just promotion

I recently saw a group of recruitment advertisements for marketing consultants. On reading the content of these job notices, my heart sank.  It seems a lot of businesses, especially small businesses are using bad, incorrect and out of date definitions as to the role of marketing in their organisation.

You see some advertisements which are just silly. These tend to fall into three groups:

  1.  Businesses putting all their marketing ‘eggs’ in one basket. Many of these businesses think social media is a magic bullet to all their marketing problems.  They see social media as a cheap marketing option. It isn’t and by focusing solely on social media these firms may be missing traditional marketing channels which give better value for money and better returns on investment.
  2. Businesses who underestimate the marketing task.  I saw one advertisement recently for a business asking for someone to ‘sort’ their marketing on a contract of eight hours a week.  I believe that firm would be better off by spending money on a consultant rather than employing an individual on such a restricted contract. That consultant could design a marketing plan and existing members of staff could work to that plan.  This matches current marketing theory that every employee of an organisation has a role to play in marketing that organisation
  3. Businesses who want a miracle worker but who don’t want to pay for that miracle worker.  I see plenty of advertisements for marketing staff that want a jack of all trades. They want one person who is an analyst, a researcher, a planner, a strategist, a web designer, a photographer, a graphic designer, a copy writer and a videographer.  They then say the salary for such a person is the equivalent of a shop floor labourer.  I’m not joking.  One such example I saw recently was for a graduate, with three years experience, to carry out the above wide range of activities, for a salary of £18,000 per annum. Casting my eye over the job description, I estimated that the value of the task required would reasonably demand a salary of £35,000 per annum. Worse, it is rare to find an individual who has an analytical brain; who is good at collating and analysing facts and figures; but who is also creative. The human brain doesn’t work that way, some people are good at creative arts but then tend to be awful at figures. Other people are excellent at analysing data but can’t draw for toffee.

However, I think the biggest mistake made by many organisations is to view marketing as solely a promotional activity. Marketing is seen as a substitute term for advertising or sales promotion. Marketing is not advertising.  Marketing is not PR.  Marketing is not door to door visits by sales reps. Yes, all those activities are related to marketing but they are subordinate to marketing.

Marketing is the development of customer-focused business strategies.  It is the conversion of corporate mission and goals into practical strategies and tactics.  Your marketing plan will determine how you approach promotion as part of the wider marketing mix.

Remember, your strategic marketing plan will lead to corporate policies, plans and investments which affect all parts of your business. Each area of the 7 P extended mix will itself have it’s own mix of tactics and methodology.

  • Product: You will have a product mix.  Different product/service options designed to meet the needs and desires of different target audience segments.  Marketing strategists will work closely with product developers and your production managers to provide best fit product options for target segments.  In each of these segments you might have a product range. Marketers will be closely involved in new product development and management of products through their life span.
  • Price: You will have a mix of prices designed to meet the wallets of different target segments. Marketers will help manage prices to maximise returns and to help extend product life span.
  • Place: Marketers will help decide how your goods are brought to market, how they are distributed and where they are sold.  This might mean physical stores, home delivery, electronic supply. Increasingly the use of 3D printers is raised. Do you want to sell through retailers or third-party agents. Do you want to sell directly? If you are operating internationally, do you need a partner firm already within your selected market?
  • People: Who are the right people for your organisation. How should they look at behave? Do you want to mirror your customer base?  For example, if you are selling high street fashion to the 18 to 25 demographic, do you want 60 year old sales staff?  And it could be that you want different people within your organisation for different customer groups.  Take as an example a landscaping firm which does both domestic and commercial work. Domestic customers may be happy to see a workman in a boiler suit or a fleece jacket but a big building firm would most likely want to see a representative in smart business attire.
  • Process:  Process needs to match customer expectations.  If you are making ‘bespoke’ garden furniture, it is likely that your process will reflect artisan craftmanship. If you are mass producing widgets for the automotive sector, your customers would likely expect a clean automated factory with short lead times, kaizen, and just in time supply.
  • Physical evidence: The documentation and other physical evidence used by your business should also match your target customers expectations. Different customer groups will have different expectations. So an insurance firm selling car insurance might get away with documents covered in puppet meerkats but that same insurance firm selling building insurance won’t use those documents to sell commercial building insurance (in fact that firm will likely use a completely different brand entity to do so).
  • Promotion: You will have a promotional mix. A wide range of promotional tactics and channels to maximise your exposure to your target audience. This mix should not only meet the expectations of your customers, it should maximise your share of voice.  It should be a mix of push tactics, like traditional advertising which ‘push’ your products into the minds of your target audience and ‘pull’ tactics which get consumers to demand your products from retailers and suppliers. Promotion should also help build brand equity and customer retention. Social media content tends to be ‘pull’ promotion. It builds desire and moves customers from prospects to regular customers. It is however a poor channel for push marketing and getting your products fresh into the minds of consumers. Social media’s main benefit is the building of a customer community. It has so far proven to be a poor sales channel.

There are several models of how promotional messages work in the minds of consumers.

The traditional model was that consumers minds carry out a structured process when deciding to buy. Promotional activities must therefore match that structured process. This process is described by the mnemonic AIDA:

  1. Awareness: First your customers must become aware of your offer.
  2. Interest: Then they become interested in your offer
  3. Desire: That interest should develop into a need to obtain your offer.
  4. Action: The consumer then should be prompted to take action to obtain your offer.

Promotional activities should therefore work to develop and match these procedural stages.

The hierarchy of effect model of promotion is similar:

  1. Consumers become aware of your offer
  2. They demand and build knowledge of your offer
  3. They develop a liking for your offer
  4. They develop a preference for your offer
  5. They develop a conviction to obtain your offer
  6.  They purchase your offer

More recently, the information processing model of promotion has been developed;

  1. First target consumers are presented with your offer
  2. You get their attention
  3. You develop comprehension of your offer in the minds of target consumers
  4. They retain that knowledge and comprehension
  5. That knowledge and comprehension affects the target consumers behaviour and they purchase your offer.

As you can see each of these models requires promotional activities to carry out a range of tasks.  There is another mnemonic (marketers love a mnemonic; and a matrix), DRIP:

  • Differentiation: Marketing is about leveraging difference. Your promotional activities should create an identity which distinguishes your offer from that of your competitors.
  • Remind/Refresh: Your promotional activities should reinforce the knowledge of your offer in the minds of consumers. It should remind previous purchasers that your offer still exists.
  • Inform: Your offer should inform your target audience of the content of your offer.
  • Persuade: Your promotion should persuade target customers to purchase your offer.

Each of these tasks will take prominence depending on the place in which the target customers mind sits in the purchasing process. For new prospects, informing them of your presence in the market will take prominence. For existing customers, your promotion needs to remind and refresh. For switching customers, you want to differentiate so they move to your offer from that of competitors. For undecided customers, your promotion needs to prioritise persuasion.

So promotion is not as simple as sticking a post on Facebook, or a video on YouTube. It needs careful though and a mix of promotional routes which maximise exposure to the market. Most of all promotion is part of a far wider marketing process.

So stop getting marketing wrong. think beyond the stereotype and apply marketing theory to all aspects of your business.

Marketing Strategy: Warfare or Game

We are all aware of the stereotypes of marketing and PR professionals in the media.  They are either air brained non-entities like Siobhan Sharp in W1a or Steve Coogan’s ultra-aggressive salesman, Gareth Cheeseman.

And such stereotypes seem to feed into the minds of some business managers who treat the marketing function as either a form of warfare or as a complex game.  So, if you are charged with your businesses marketing function, are you to act like a field marshal planning troop movements or like John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician and inventor of Game Theory.

In truth, running a business is not warfare; and I suspect many business owners would be extremely worried if their staff were treating strategy as a game. You are not organising the D-Day landings; you are not playing Monopoly.

However, that does not mean your business strategy cannot learn from both military strategy and game strategy.  Even I succumb to occasional quoting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (and even Machiavelli’s The Prince).

The effective marketer will be able to learn from both military strategy and game strategy.

Some of the analogies in marketing that can be lifted from military strategy are:

  1.  Select and maintain your aim
  2. Use surprise with audacity and speed
  3. Maintain morale
  4.  Take offensive action
  5. Secure your defences and never be taken by surprise
  6. Maintain flexibility
  7. Use concentration of force
  8. Use economy of effort.

These principles can be summarised in four broad strategic options:

  • Offensive Marketing:
    • Careful consideration of the market leader’s position
    • Search for and attack weak points in the market leader’s position
    • Attack on as narrow a front as possible like the point of a spear splitting chain mail.
  • Defensive Marketing:
    • Only those in a market leadership position should consider defence as their primary strategy. Everyone else in the market needs to prioritise offense.
    • Attack is the best form of defence
    • Strong competitive moves should always be blocked.
    • Never underestimate or ignore the competition.
  • Flank Marketing:
    • Flank into uncontested areas
    • Use tactical surprise
    • The pursuit is as critical as the attack itself
  • Guerrilla Marketing:
    • Find a niche segment that is small enough to defend but also viable.
    • Regardless of your level of success, never act like a market leader.
    • Be prepared to retreat at short notice especially when faced with threats you cannot deal with.

Competitive strategy can also learn from gaming.  Like in many games, outcomes of marketing strategy are not reliant on the actions of your business alone: Outcomes are also reliant on the actions and reactions of your competitors.

Markets are becoming increasingly competitive as they mature and new technologies are leveraged. The game of marketing is becoming more difficult to win.

There is a real danger that this complexity will lead to the threat of damaging price wars as businesses desperately try to avoid losing customers, share and sales volume.   Increasingly it will appear that the only way to defend against competitors is to cut prices.  This in turn leads to a downward spiral where prices only go down, margins are eroded and profitability disappears.  This is marketing’s version of MAD; Mutually Assured Destruction.

To avoid MAD, you need to ‘manage’; the competitive process and your competitors.  This can be achieved by following these broad guidelines:

  1.  Never ignore new market entrants; particularly those focused on the bottom end of your market.  Look at the success of Lidl and Aldi as discount supermarkets and their effect on the pre-existing groceries market in the UK.  Look at Norton (a company now in administration).  Norton, BSA, Triumph and other UK motorbike manufacturers were once the dominant market leaders but they ignored the ‘cheap’, low powered motorbikes coming from Japan and lost their market dominance to Yamaha and Honda.  The UK motorbike industry went from a position of market dominance to that of also-rans.
  2. Always exploit competitive advantages (unless they are replaced by another advantage which is more attractive, powerful and meaningful to your target customers)
  3. Never launch a new product or take a new initiative without anticipating the probable response of your competitors.

Day (1996) wrote that successful businesses:

“Formulate strategies by devising creative alternatives that minimise or preclude or encourage cooperative competitive responses.  They adroitly use weaponry other than price including advertising, litigation and product innovation. They play the competitive game as though it were chess; by envisioning the long-term consequences of their moves.  Their goal is long-term success rather than settling for short-run gains or avoiding immediate losses.”

Too many businesses focus on past experience for future success.  They focus on past campaigns; they expect competitors to do as they have previously done.  These businesses often fail to ask what their competitors are likely to do in the future.  Often these assumptions are invalidated by small market changes.

Many businesses also look to simplify reality (and not just businesses, much of today’s politics, particularly Brexit, is based on simplification of often highly complex realities).  Such simplification may just be about sustainable in a static market. But ask yourself how many markets are static?

You need to put in effort to learn about your competitors; their strengths and weaknesses; their ways of doing business; their alliances; and their strategic position. You need market intelligence.

In developing business and marketing strategies you are not Napoleon at Waterloo and you are not John Nash building complex mathematical models. That said, the successful marketer will know the principles of military strategy; they will know the rules of the game; and the shape of the game board.  Knowledge of games and military strategy can have a strong influence on business success.

Evaluating Brand Extension

Many entries ago, I discussed the theory of product and brand growth proposed by the American mathematician and marketing academic H. Igor Ansoff.

Ansoff believed that there were two customer groups, a brand’s existing customer base and new customers. He also stated that there were two types of brand products, existing products and new products.

This leads to a two by two matrix offering four strategic options for brand growth:

  1.  Market Penetration:  Selling more of your existing products to your existing customer base.  This could be tactics like Buy One Get One Free offers, improving delivery networks and increasing the number of retail outlets.
  2. Market Expansion:  Selling your existing products to new customers.  This could mean geographic expansion of the brand to new territories i.e. to paraphrase Andrea Leadsom, selling innovative jams to the Chinese.  It could mean selling products originally targeted at business customers in the consumer market.
  3. New Product Development/Brand Extension:  This is selling new products to your existing customers.  Dyson make vacuum cleaners but they have extended their cyclone technology into products such as hand driers, room fans, hair dryers and car air conditioning units.  Mars extended their chocolate bar brand into products such as ice cream and milk drinks.
  4. Diversification:  or selling new products to new customers.  Richard Branson’s Virgin group of companies operates a diversification policy. Virgin began as a record shop and importer.  It soon became a music label and a chain of record shops.  Today, the Virgin brand has a radio station, an airline, train franchises, a bank, a hotel chain, an online travel agency and a whole host of other businesses in a variety of sectors.

Ansoff stated that with each step from market penetration to diversification, risk of failure increased.  Diversification is the most risky strategy a business can follow.  It is therefore imperative that a firm looking at diversification strategies carries out comprehensive and accurate strategic planning.

In the early days of Virgin, Richard Branson was of the view that he would do things differently and the standard practice of planning had no place in Virgin’s operations. Virgin after all was a counter culture business.  it is widely known that if Branson hadn’t have signed Mike Oldfield and produced the album Tubular Bells, his company would have failed.  Branson was only able to develop the country house which was used as Virgin’s recording studio thanks to a significant loan from a member of his family.

Richard Branson now states that detailed strategic planning is critical to the success of the Virgin Group.

there is one part of the Ansoff Matrix that is controversial.  Ansoff said that you shouldn’t move on to the next riskiest strategy until all efforts have been exhausted in the lesser risk strategy.  So you do not try to expand your market until you have exhausted all efforts in penetrating your existing market.  Many leading business academics and leaders see this as too restrictive a position.  Business after all is about exploiting opportunities as they arise.

But clearly you need to clearly define the risks and rewards of a business opportunity before you act.  Julian Richer of Richer Sounds, the UK hi-fi retailer has a risk averse approach and has slowly built his brand over fifty years; whereas Richard Branson leaps into new sectors at a pace, giving each new business a defined time to succeed.

For many businesses, growth is defined by diversification or brand extension. For these businesses there is little opportunity to penetrate further or to expand.  For example, farmers will look to sell all their output (the harvest) and they are tied to contracts with suppliers.  For example dairy farmers have close links to dairies.

For these businesses, the instruction has been to diversify.  So farmers built golf courses and hotels, they entered tourism markets and became food manufacturers.  Often these farm-based diversifications are poorly thought through or are ‘me too’ efforts i.e. copying the activities of neighbours.  They have not asked or answered the six crucial questions of brand extension:

  1.  What is the attraction of the new market or product category?  Is the target market growing? Is it less price sensitive than existing markets?  Are existing service levels poor and your existing service offers can thrive?
  2. What advantages do you bring to the new sector?  Do you have better distribution networks? Can you offer better customer service? Can you offer new technologies? Can you provide more efficient manufacture? Do you have higher productivity than your competitors? Can you provide better market coverage and share of voice?
  3. Can you make your market advantages durable?  Do you have intellectual property ownership of technologies? Can you offer the new extension through your existing dealer network? Can you develop exclusive partnerships with retailers? Can you demand eye level shelf space or aisle ends? Can you cut out middle men and sell direct?
  4. What will be the reaction of your new competitors to the market extension? Dyson entered the vacuum cleaner market when the existing market leader, Hoover, was in significant financial difficulty and reeling from the failure of the Sinclair C5 and the disastrous free flights special offer.  Do you have resources available to fight off the reaction of competitors e.g. price drops or aggressive advertising campaigns? Can you offer technological solutions to disrupt competitor’s defence of market share?
  5. How legitimate would your brand be in the new sector? Laughing Cow Cheese is a brand with a child-friendly family image, so an extension into the alcoholic beverage market was not legitimate.  Coca Cola, commonly used as a spirits mixer has successfully extended into the pre-mixed alcoholic beverage market (in conjunction with Bacardi Rum).  Donald Trump released a fragrance.  However it is unlikely that Trump cologne would succeed in the UK where trump is slang for breaking wind.
  6. What does the proposed extension bring to the parent brand?  Some extensions may dilute your existing brand image and identity.

Of course you must seize opportunities to pitch your business ahead but market extensions should simultaneously surprise and leave their mark.  They must be a mix of doing the unexpected and retain brand consistency.

When a brand extension is chosen it must be able to export existing brand attributes and equities; but be able to defend the new market position.

A good example is Apple which caught the music industry on the hop with the development of the iPod and iTunes but retained the brand reputation for design and quality manufacture.

Some firms through history make really surprising leaps into new sectors.  Take as an example Yamaha.

I have just bought an excellent Yamaha acoustic guitar.  Yamaha started in the 19th by making organs and pianos.  Soon it was making guitars and other acoustic instruments.  In World War Two, Yamaha’s factories were turned over to manufacturing military equipment.  After the war, the company repurposed the military manufacturing plant to make motorcycles.  In the 1970’s Yamaha’s piano division started making synthesisers.  This led to the company moving into the semiconductor market where it is now a major producer.

So don’t reject diversification or market expansion as strategies for your business: but if you intend to diversify or expand make sure you have comprehensive SMART strategies in place.

Organisational Buying

Marketing to organisations is different to marketing to consumers. Repeat: MARKETING TO ORGANISATIONS IS DIFFERENT TO MARKETING TO BUSINESSES.

The reason is simple, when selling to consumers you are predominantly selling to individuals.  When selling to organisations; such as businesses, local authorities and government departments; you will likely be selling to a group of people operating within strictly defined protocols.

When I worked in local government, I was a client facing enforcement and advice professional.  I didn’t do much purchasing (the exception being equipment for legal metrology equipment and laboratory services).  For big purchases, such as IT equipment, and routine purchases, such as stationery, my employer had a central purchasing unit staffed by professional buyers.

Even within the purchasing activities I had responsibility for, I had to operate within tight policies.  I had to get a minimum of two quotes for any purchase unless I could show an exceptional reason for not doing so (e.g. only one laboratory could do the required testing).  I also had to show ‘best value’ that the products and services I was procuring could give more ‘bang for their buck’ than the rejected alternatives.

In organisations there are four types of purchase:

  1. Routine Order Products:  These are regular, low risk purchases like stationery.
  2. Procedural Problem Products:  These purchases affect the way work is carried out e.g. buying new software. Often these will involve training beyond the purchase of the product or service.
  3. Performance Problem Products: These purchases improve the users requirements and expectations.  For example buying new machinery which is more productive and less likely to require maintenance.  A major issue is the compatibility of the purchased product with existing equipment.
  4. Political Problem Products:  These are purchases which take resources away from other parts of the organisation.  For example, a business may face a choice between purchasing a new packaging system and a new computerised order tracking system.  The businesses delivery team manager will be put out if the ordering system is not purchased. The businesses operations manager will be put out if the new packaging machinery is not bought.  So the choice of purchase may result in destructive office politics.

The latter category of purchase above is common when businesses are making big strategic purchases which are of high value and which directly affect the future of a business.  Whereas routine purchases may be delegated to an individual member of staff; major purchases are usually made by a group, a ‘decision-making unit’ or DMU.

Members of a decision-making unit will often take up the following roles:

  • Initiator: This is the individual who initiates the purchasing process and proposes a purchasing solution to solve a particular problem. It could be a departmental manager or in organisations using systems such as Kaizen or TQM, an individual employee or group of employees.
  • User(s):  Those who will actually use the product purchased.  This may or not be the initiator.
  • Buyer:  A professional negotiator who carries out the process of the purchase.  For complicated or expensive products or services these negotiations may take significant time and there may be significant lead times before the purchased product is delivered.
  • Influencer:  These members of the DMU may have little or no impact on the process of buying but may have a major impact on the decision to purchase.  This could be the company’s accountant or union representatives within the organisation.
  • Decider:  The person who has the final say on the purchase.  This could be the company owner or in a local authority, a vote by councillors.
  • Gatekeeper: This person controls the flow of information to the DMU.  The personal assistants of senior managers are a good example as they often control who the senior manager talks to and meets as they control his diary.

Political tensions often build in a decision-making unit.  This can be for the following reasons:

  1. Individual self-interest; a particular manager may see a purchase choice as a route to personal advancement or reward.
  2. Operational needs of particular departments: Organisations have limited resources and often choices need to be made as to what to purchase when. If a purchase negatively affects other parts of an organisation, or limits its expectations, tensions can arise.
  3. Professional Pride:  Individuals have professional pride and if a purchasing decision dents that pride, tensions grow.  I have worked in an organisation that treated my profession with contempt.  It was a hugely frustrating experience and guess what, I left.
  4. Different incentives and reward expectations:  If an operations manager receives his bonus based on the productivity of his plant, and the failure to purchase equipment which improves that productivity occurs; you may find that the manager becomes obstructive.

As organisational buying is more complex than consumer purchasing, academics have tried to build frameworks which map the process and develop logical processes.

The Webster Webb framework sets four variables which influence the purchasing decision:

  1.  Environmental:  This is effectively PESTEL analysis and issues such as the actions of competitors.  If the macro-political situation is confused or complicated, firms may be less willing to make major purchases.  Brexit Britain is one such environment, where some firms are actively divesting from the market and others are holding back on major purchases due to market uncertainty.  It is also noticeable that UK productivity has been weak for some time.
  2. Organisational:  Purchases are directly affected by an organisations goals, the organisation’s culture and policies and procedures.  If a firms goal is, like Lloyd’s bank, ‘to be the best for customers’, it is likely that purchases which improve the customer experience will be prioritised. If the organisation has a traditional top-down management structure, the views and personalities of those at the top will strongly affect purchasing decisions.
  3. Interpersonal: The relationships between individuals and the buying centre may affect purchasing decisions.  For example, in the 1970s in the UK, it would be a difficult task to make purchase which significantly cut the number of employees in a firm.  There would be significant resistance from unions and purchases may postponed or not made as a result of how they would affect the union’s members. That was a world where there were major strikes over minor demarcation issues, the most ridiculous was at the BBC where studios were shut down because of a dispute over who was responsible for the Play School clock (the scenery shifters said it was scenery and therefore their responsibility but because it contained electrical components the BBC electricians believed it was their responsibility).
  4. Individual:  Different DMU members will have different attitudes to risk, they will have different personal goals, they will have different experience, they will have different education and training.

The Sheith Framework has similar elements to the Webster-Webb framework. However, it places an emphasis on the psychology of the purchasing process.  it states that there are four factors to organisational buying:

  • The experience of DMU members
  • Factors inherent in the buying process
  • The character of the decision-making process
  • Situational factors

The expectations of DMU members may differ as a result of their functionality.  A firm’s chief engineer will have different expectations to those of the firm’s finance director.  This means sales presentation and literature could be subject to perceptual distortion.

Factors in the decision-making process include perceived risk of the purchase, time pressures, the type of purchase or the organisations orientation i.e. is the organisation pursuing an aggressive or a defensive strategy.  If a firm needs a particular piece of equipment to meet a tight deadline, then it may make fewer procedural checks before making that purchase.  other factors include organisational size.  A routine purchase for a large company may be a major purchase for a small company.

The level of decentralisation may affect purchasing decisions.  As stated earlier, I used to work for a council that had a central purchasing unit which undertook all the purchasing negotiations.  But I have also worked in an organisation where many purchasing decisions were delegated to individual managers and members of staff.

The process of purchasing may affect the buying process.  For example, where purchasing decisions are to be made jointly, there may be more room for conflict than where purchasing decisions are made by individuals

There are four types of organisational conflict:

  • Problem-solving
  • Persuasion
  • Bargaining, and
  • Politicking

Problem-solving and Persuasion are seen as rational sources of conflict.  Bargaining and Politicking are seen as irrational sources of conflict.  But bargaining and politicking are common in organisations.  Who hasn’t been in an organisation without office politics or experienced those office politics becoming toxic?

Situational factors affect purchasing decisions e.g. long lead times for delivery, industrial relations at potential suppliers, takeovers and mergers, financial issues, production breakdowns and tax changes.  For example, McDonald’s in the UK stopped using Heinz tomato ketchup when Heinz headhunted one of their senior managers.  This ‘poaching’ of the manager was seen as a significant breakdown in the relationship between the two companies.

The Communications Element of the Marketing Mix

Before you decide to spend money on advertising; or any other kind of external communications; or indeed, how much to spend; you need to know if your choice of communications are the best way to meet your marketing objectives.  It is often the case that advertising budgets can become a solution looking for a problem.

You also need to ask, are communications the priority?  Do other aspects of your marketing mix needing fixed first?

There is no point in spending thousands advertising a new feature of your product if consumers are complaining about how terrible your after sales service is.

Sort those issues which are a priority, then think about your communications mix.

Your communications strategy must reflect your organisational goals and the critical success factors you set.

When choosing your mix of communications tools (PR, TV advertising, print, social media, etc) you need the appropriate mix of push and pull media.  Push media is pushing your product into the minds of consumers e.g. traditional advertising. Pull media is getting consumers to demand your products from retailers and other suppliers (this could be media like social media and PR).

A strategy that is all push and no pull; or vice versa; is unlikely to succeed in modern markets.

And you cannot rely on past methodology.  The world of communications is constantly mutating.  In the 1950s most communications were broadcast monologues.  Today, the aim of communications is often to create two and three way communication.  Communications is about conversations; between companies and their customers; between existing customers; and between customers and prospective customers.

The level of advertising and communications spend do not automatically lead to results and simply trying to match the share of voice of a market leader may be a process in wasting scarce resources.

Definitely do not choose communications channels out of habit.

The best way to decide on your communications mix is:

  1. Match communications tools based on their strengths and ability to match the purpose of the communications.  For example social media is a step towards creating electronic word of mouth and a brand community (although other communications tools will be needed to meet those objectives). Social media is not a proven sales channel.  Remember the mnemonic DRIP (Differentiate, Reinforce, Inform, Persuade).  Depernding on the purpose of your message different communications tools will be appropriate.  For example, advertising may be the priority if you are aiming to differentiate your offer from that of your competitors; print media and PR may be the best way to inform your customers of product attributes; Social media may be a good way of reminding existing customers of your products; Sales Representatives may be the best way to persuade your target customers to buy.
  2. Match your communications profile to the expectations of your target audience.  So if you aim to sell fashion to the under thirties, social media and digital communications may be the priority in your mix.  If you are selling stairlifts to pensioners, direct mail and television advertising may be the priority.  it is not by accident that daytime TV is filled with adverts for over-50’s pension plans and disability aids.  Tesco will show families with children in their communications; BMW will show male professionals and executives.  Look for archetypes, not stereotypes.
  3. Integrated communications campaigns work better.  Promotion and other communications should be part of a wider customer journey.  It is a mistake to put all your communications in one channel.  I see small business after small business heavily investing in social media as their sole communications channel thinking they have found a silver bullet to solve their communications ills; they haven’t, they simply could be wasting their finite communications budget.  It is best to integrate communications channel that work well together and which compliment each other.  Choose channels that are synergistic and may create a greater whole than individual channels.

You need to map that customer journey from their first awareness of your brand through to them being repeat purchasers and then habitual purchasers.

Commercial communications are increasingly two way interactions.  You should reflect this in your communications strategy. Do not shout a monologue into the void. Focus on conversation, duologue and dialogue.  Increasingly getting target customers to talk to each other is a top-level aim of commercial communications.

We live in an over-communicated society.  Consumers are bombarded with commercial messages every day.  It isn’t a case of being the one who shouts loudest, be the one who shouts differently.  Stand apart from the communications churn.

To do all this you need a communications and advertising plan which:

  • Sets a budget
  • Determines your target audience
  • Determines the content of communications
  • Decides your media mix
  • Decides on advertising frequency
  • Defines how communications will be classed as successful

Your advertising objectives should be to:

  • Convey information
  • Alter perceptions and attitudes
  • Create desires
  • Establish connections
  • Direct actions
  • Provide reassurance
  • Remind
  • Give reasons for purchase
  • Demonstrate product/service features
  • Generate enquires and footfall

Those objectives should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound)

And remember the Six I’s of Digital Communication:

  1.  Integrate across media channels. It is not by accident that Amazon, Uber, Just Eat, Trivago and other internet-based retailers and service providers all use traditional advertising channels.
  2. Create Independence of location: think remote marketing and remote delivery.
  3. Think Industry restructuring: Digital is often about disrupting existing market models.
  4. Think Individualisation: We live in a world where new technology and just in time supply chains mean mass customisation and micro-targeting of communications
  5.  Think Interactivity: Conversation not monologue

Increasingly, communications are as much about creating a brand community as pushing products onto consumers. The communications models of even twenty years ago are no longer appropriate.  Look to the future of communication, not the past.

 

Some detail about Porter’s Generic Strategies

In the 1980s Michael Porter of Harvard Business School created his generic strategy model.  In it he suggests that there are three potential strategies for a business to follow when creating a marketing plan: Cost Focus, Differentiation, and Focus (Niche).  He suggests that businesses who try to adopt two or more of these strategies simultaneously enter a marketing wilderness; a wasteful middle of the road position.  Other academics have gone further to describe this middle ground position as a marketing death zone.

There has been some controversy over Porter’s three generic strategy model. Academics point to some businesses which are clearly not following the model. However, many of these businesses either prove Porter’s point or are clear exceptions to his rule which use tactics to mitigate the effects of a middle of the road position.

The point of Porter’s model is that a focus on one of the three generic strategies allows marketers to create clear and meaningful selling propositions.  Porter’s position is that businesses should choose a generic strategy and stick to it.  They need consistency when pursuing a strategy and they should choose a strategy which matches their organisational strengths.

Porter originally defined cost leadership as a strategy aimed at achieving the lowest cost of production so prices were lower than competitors.  This is the strategy pursued by businesses such Lidl and RyanAir.  The strategic focus is to drive down costs to reduce prices and to use that lower price position to increase market share.  The aim is to become the market leader.

This position has seen some criticism.  It was the strategy of Carrillion, the construction and public service contract firm which went spectacularly bust a few years ago.  Carillion aimed to always be the low bidder for contracts. When costs increased due to issues such as construction delays, or if they failed to achieve a contract, Carillion were bidding at such a low margin, their earnings were wiped out and they had to increase borrowing to an unsustainable level.  The company was even using subcontractors as a line of credit; often refusing to pay the agreed subcontractor price.

A second form of cost focus is the concept of Best Value i.e. not being the cheapest offer in the market but offering the best value to customers e.g. by offering better post purchase service and other product halo functionality i.e. functionality which does not cost a lot to supply but which target customers value.

A cost focus strategy can be created through:

  • Building the size of the organisation and creating economies of scale
  • Using tools like value chain analysis to identify the value factors important to customers
  • Relocating manufacture to areas of the world with cheaper labour costs.
  • Increasing operational efficiency and effectiveness e.g. Just in Time supply chains
  • Increasing productivity
  • Building strategic alliances and vertical integration
  • Finding cheaper sources of supply.
  • A focus on organisational learning
  • Creating cost linkages
  • Good timing i.e. time to market
  • Superior management and leadership skills
  • Investments in new and advanced technology
  • Smart buying.

The benefits of cost leadership come from out performing your competitors (something Carillion failed to do).  You must be able to resist the five forces of your businesses micro-environment – Supplier and Customer bargaining power, new market entrants, current competitors and substitute products and services.

There can be serious problems with a cost focus approach.  You are highly vulnerable if cheaper alternatives come on the market and you can enter a downward spiral in margins if a price war begins.  You also need to be able to maintain cost advantages over the long-term.

A cost-focus strategy is best used in price driven markets in order to gain market leadership from complacent competitors with higher cost bases.

Cost leadership requires the construction of efficient scale facilities and a vicious pursuit of cost reduction through exploitation of the experience curve, tight cost controls and avoiding marginal customer accounts (Carillion made all their customer accounts marginal).  it also requires cost minimisation in areas such as after sales service, sales force, advertising, etc.

In a differentiation strategy, you focus on a particular element of your marketing mix that customers see as important.  This could be being seen as a quality leader, a technology leader, speed to market and speed of supply, reliability, design, after sales service levels, unique product features and brand image.  It means developing stronger and more meaningful relationships with the stakeholders and customers of your business.

So BMW are renowned for engineering excellence and consistency.  Apple are leaders in the visual and tactile design of their products, etc.

Bear in mind the focus mix factor is consistent across the product range when other factors vary, this allows large firms to address the mass market and adapt products for particular market segments.  However, on occasions the focus factor is inconsistent with a target market. This is why Toyota created Lexus so as to enter the executive and luxury car market.  Other firms create ‘fighter brands, a defensive strategy against their primary brand being undercut and to make market entry more difficult.

Again, scale of operations is required to ensure the target mix factor can be properly maintained across a product range.  Often a a differentiation strategy is best employed where products are very similar across the market e.g. cigarettes, beer.

To achieve a differentiation strategy you need:

  • A strong brand identity
  • the ability to identify and utilise what customers see as important
  • High performance over a spectrum of attributes
  • The ability to create strategic break points
  • Cost parity with your competition in areas which affect differentiation
  • Packaging innovation and the ability to build in additional features
  • Speed of distribution
  • Distribution breadth or depth
  • High service levels
  • Better after-sales service
  • Flexibility
  • Focused relationship building

You derive benefit from a differentiation through creating distance from your competitors and through creating market competitive advantage.

It can be difficult to sustain the bases of differentiation e.g. fashion brands quickly find that high street retailers quickly adopt design features.  Firms such as H & M will have similar styles in store within days of London fashion week.  Differentiation needs to be meaningful to target consumers; they must value the difference.

Too often a differentiation strategy focuses on the core product and not the halo surrounding it. Differentiation factors can become less important over time.  Car stereos used to be a novelty, now you would complain if your car doesn’t have an MP3 port.

Differentiation can mean a loss of cost competitivity and you can lose barriers to market entry.

A differentiation strategy is best used in mature markets where points of difference are small but important.  Differentiation points must be such that it is difficult for competitors to copy them e.g. protected via intellectual property.

A focus or niche marketing strategy is often the best bet for SMEs.  Here you concentrate on a single identified market segment (or a small number of closely related segments).  you need to create a strong specialist reputation.

The benefits of niche marketing means you have a detailed understanding of your market through which you can create barriers to entry.  You also have the ability  to concentrate your resources and efforts on a clearly defined market.

A niche strategy can make it difficult to grow your market or to spread your business to new sectors.  For example, Xerox were so well known as a photocopier brand, their attempt to enter the desk top computer market failed spectacularly.

A niche strategy is best used by firms with small market share or who are new to the market.