Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors

Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors

by Michael E. Porter

Now nearing its 60th printing in English and translated into nineteen languages, Michael E. Porter's Competitive Strategy has transformed the theory, practice, and teaching of business strategy throughout the world. Porter introduces his three generic strategies - lowest cost, differentiation, and focuswhich bring structure to the task of strategic positioning. He…  See more details below


Now nearing its 60th printing in English and translated into nineteen languages, Michael E. Porter's Competitive Strategy has transformed the theory, practice, and teaching of business strategy throughout the world. Porter introduces his three generic strategies - lowest cost, differentiation, and focuswhich bring structure to the task of strategic positioning. He shows how competitive advantage can be defined in terms of relative cost and relative prices, thus linking it directly to profitability, and presents a whole new perspective on how profit is created and divided. The ideas in the book address the underlying fundamentals of competition in a way that is independent of the specifics of the ways companies go about competing.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Fortune Three overarching game plans that work in one industry after another explain how thousands of real-world competitors come out on top.

The New York Times American executives are grasping for a logic to global competition. Mr. Porter...has given them one.

Choice Few books warrant the too-common publisher's blurb "landmark." This one does. Highest recommendation.

Strategic Management Journal Represents a quantum leap...may well be one of the most important contributions to the discipline of strategic management.

Journal of Business Strategy Any manager who studies and uses the materials in this book should be able to devise more successful strategies.

Philip Kotler S.C. Johnson & Son, Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Northwestern University Porter's books on competitive strategy are the seminal works in the field.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2: Generic Competitive Strategies

Chapter 1 described competitive strategy as taking offensive or defensive actions to create a defendable position in an industry, to cope successfully with the five competitive forces and thereby yield a superior return on investment for the firm. Firms have discovered many different approaches to this end, and the best strategy for a given firm is ultimately a unique construction reflecting its particular circumstances. However, at the broadest level we can identify three internally consistent generic strategies (which can be used singly or in combination) for creating such a defendable position in the long run and outperforming competitors in an industry. This chapter describes the generic strategies and explores some of the requirements and risks of each. Its purpose is to develop some introductory concepts that can be built upon in subsequent analysis. Succeeding chapters of this book will have much more to say about how to translate these broad generic strategies into more specific strategies in particular kinds of industry situations.

Three Generic Strategies

In coping with the five competitive forces, there are three potentially successful generic strategic approaches to outperforming other firms in an industry:

1. overall cost leadership
2. differentiation
3. focus.

Sometimes the firm can successfully pursue more than one approach as its primary target, though this is rarely possible as will be discussed further. Effectively implementing any of these generic strategies usually requires total commitment and supporting organizational arrangements that are diluted if there is more than one primary target. The generic strategies are approaches to outperforming competitors in the industry; in some industries structure will mean that all firms can earn high returns, whereas in others, success with one of the generic strategies may be necessary just to obtain acceptable returns in an absolute sense.

Overall Cost Leadership

The first strategy, an increasingly common one in the 1970s because of popularization of the experience curve concept, is to achieve overall cost leadership in an industry through a set of functional policies aimed at this basic objective. Cost leadership requires aggressive construction of efficient-scale facilities, vigorous pursuit of cost reductions from experience, tight cost and overhead control, avoidance of marginal customer accounts, and cost minimization in areas like R&D, service, sales force, advertising, and so on. A great deal of managerial attention to cost control is necessary to achieve these aims. Low cost relative to competitors becomes the theme running through the entire strategy, though quality, service, and other areas cannot be ignored.

Having a low-cost position yields the firm above-average returns in its industry despite the presence of strong competitive forces. Its cost position gives the firm a defense against rivalry from competitors, because its lower costs mean that it can still earn returns after its competitors have competed away their profits through rivalry. A low-cost position defends the firm against powerful buyers because buyers can exert power only to drive down prices to the level of the next most efficient competitor. Low cost provides a defense against powerful suppliers by providing more flexibility to cope with input cost increases. The factors that lead to a low-cost position usually also provide substantial entry barriers in terms of scale economies or cost advantages. Finally, a low-cost position usually places the firm in a favorable position vis-a-vis substitutes relative to its competitors in the industry. Thus a low-cost position protects the firm against all five competitive forces because bargaining can only continue to erode profits until those of the next most efficient competitor are eliminated, and because the less efficient competitors will suffer first in the face of competitive pressures.

Achieving a low overall cost position often requires a high relative market share or other advantages, such as favorable access to raw materials. It may well require designing products for ease in manufacturing, maintaining a wide line of related products to spread costs, and serving all major customer groups in order to build volume. In turn, implementing the low-cost strategy may require heavy up-front capital investment in state-of-the art equipment, aggressive pricing, and start-up losses to build market share. High market share may in turn allow economies in purchasing which lower costs even further. Once achieved, the low-cost position provides high margins which can be reinvested in new equipment and modern facilities in order to maintain cost leadership. Such reinvestment may well be a prerequisite to sustaining a low-cost position.

The cost leadership strategy seems to be the cornerstone of Briggs and Stratton's success in small horsepower gasoline engines, where it holds a 50 percent worldwide share, and Lincoln Electric's success in arc welding equipment and supplies. Other firms known for successful application of cost leadership strategies to a number of businesses are Emerson Electric, Texas Instruments, Black and Decker, and Du Pont.

A cost leadership strategy can sometimes revolutionize an industry in which the historical bases of competition have been otherwise and competitors are ill-prepared either perceptually or economically to take the steps necessary for cost minimization. Harnischfeger is in the midst of a daring attempt to revolutionize the rough-terrain crane industry in 1979. Starting from a 15 percent market share, Harnischfeger redesigned its cranes for easy manufacture and service using modularized components, configuration changes, and reduced material content. It then established subassembly areas and a conveyorized assembly line, a notable departure from industry norms. It ordered parts in large volumes to save costs. All this allowed the company to offer an acceptable quality product and drop prices by 15 percent. Harnischfeger's market share has grown rapidly to 25 percent and is continuing to grow. Says Willis Fisher, general manager of Harnischfeger's Hydraulic Equipment Division:

We didn't set out to develop a machine significantly better than anyone else but we did want to develop one that was truly simple to manufacture and was priced, intentionally, as a low cost machine.

Competitors are grumbling that Harnischfeger has "bought" market share with lower margins, a charge that the company denies.


The second generic strategy is one of differentiating the product or service offering of the firm, creating something that is perceived industrywide as being unique. Approaches to differentiating can take many forms: design or brand image (Fieldcrest in top of the line towels and linens; Mercedes in automobiles), technology (Hyster in lift trucks; MacIntosh in stereo components; Coleman in camping equipment), features (Jenn-Air in electric ranges); customer service (Crown Cork and Seal in metal cans), dealer network (Caterpillar Tractor in construction equipment), or other dimensions. Ideally, the firm differentiates itself along several dimensions. Caterpillar Tractor, for example, is known not only for its dealer network and excellent spare parts availability but also for its extremely high-quality durable products, all of which are crucial in heavy equipment where downtime is very expensive. 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.

Differentiation, if achieved, is a viable strategy for earning above-average returns in an industry because it creates a defensible position for coping with the five competitive forces, albeit in a different way than cost leadership. Differentiation provides insulation against competitive rivalry because of brand loyalty by customers and resulting lower sensitivity to price. It also increases margins, which avoids the need for a low-cost position. The resulting customer loyalty and the need for a competitor to overcome uniqueness provide entry barriers. Differentiation yields higher margins with which to deal with supplier power, and it clearly mitigates buyer power, since buyers lack comparable alternatives and are thereby less price sensitive. Finally, the firm that has differentiated itself to achieve customer loyalty should be better positioned vis-a-vis substitutes than its competitors.

Achieving differentiation may sometimes preclude gaining a high market share. It often requires a perception of exclusivity, which is incompatible with high market share. More commonly, however, achieving differentiation will imply a trade-off with cost position if the activities required in creating it are inherently costly, such as extensive research, product design, high quality materials, or intensive customer support. Whereas customers industrywide acknowledge the superiority of the firm, not all customers will be willing or able to pay the required higher prices (though most are in industries like earthmoving equipment where despite high prices Caterpillar has a dominant market share). In other businesses, differentiation may not be incompatible with relatively low costs and comparable prices to those of competitors...

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Meet the Author

Michael E. Porter, one of the world's leading authorities on competitive strategy and international competitiveness, is the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. In 1983, Professor Porter was appointed to President Reagan's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, the initiative that triggered the competitiveness debate in America. He serves as an advisor to heads of state, governors, mayors, and CEOs throughout the world. The recipient of the Wells Prize in Economics, the Adam Smith Award, three McKinsey Awards, and honorary doctorates from the Stockholm School of Economics and six other universities, Porter is the author of fourteen books, among them Competitive Strategy, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, and Cases in Competitive Strategy, all published by The Free Press. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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