Competitive advantage is an essential business concept, but not one that many companies do well. A winning competitive advantage is one that fits the company’s internal situation and its external environment, is sustainable, and results in good, consistent performance (Gamble, Peteraf, & Thompson, 2013, pg. 9). These criteria are all unique but interdependent. The company’s resources and capabilities play a big role in determining both the initial viability and the sustainability of a competitive advantage. Selecting a competitive advantage that is best suited to the firm allows the company to operate at optimum levels while creating a consistent and valuable experience for customers. This combination is what generates a sustainable competitive advantage.
Putting a firm’s resources to their highest and best use creates a natural efficiency that yields value and profit for the firm and customer. However many companies fail because they try to emulate the strategy of another firm without realizing that no two firms will have the exact same mix of internal and external environments, and so they cannot guarantee that the same strategy will yield the same results. If the strategy doesn’t fit the reality of their business—its capabilities, customer, competitors, market, etc.-they will not be able to compete, at least not for long.
Achieving True Competitive Advantage in Your Firm
Identify Your Core Competency
A core competence is rare, hard to imitate, not easily substituted, and “central to a company’s strategy and competitiveness” (Gamble, Peteraf, & Thompson, 2013, pg. 72). Companies get in trouble when they lose sight of their core competencies and try too hard to imitate rivals and big firms in their industry. I’ve seen it happen many times. Each firm has something that they and they alone are really good at. Identifying that item helps to establish the firm’s Unique Value Proposition and helps to truly set them apart from their competitors. A company can’t be everything to everyone and survive. Focusing on your firm’s core competency will keep you from overextending your resources and from making critical strategic errors. This is especially true for firms utilizing a true differentiation strategy. As authors Zook and Allen note in their article for the Harvard Business Review, “The growth generated by successful differentiation begets complexity, and a complex company tends to forget what it’s good at” (2011). As you grow, stay focused on your strengths, and don’t try to dive into areas where you have no competency or advantage, no matter how green the grass may appear.
Deliver Consistent Value To Build Brand Loyalty
As mentioned earlier, a sustainable competitive advantage is one that delivers consistent value for customers, which in turn builds brand loyalty. Consistent delivery requires a great deal of investment of time, training, and resources to do well, especially for companies with multiple locations. Ensuring that a customer enjoys the same experience at a location in Montana as they do in Florida takes solid processes, systems, training, management, and care in the design of products and services. Though it takes more work, the fact that the customer experience is not only more enjoyable, but consistent across locations means that the customer can remain a customer whether they move or travel. Even single location companies can compete with consistent delivery of a valuable experience to the customer and excel against their competitors. Customers will return time and time again when they know and trust that they will get a good value. This is often the reason why more expensive brands still attract large followings over low cost providers. Which brings me to my next point.
Focus on Being Different, Not Cheaper
Cheap is not a strategy. As Seth Godin stated in his blog “Cheap is the last refuge for the [company] who can’t figure out how to be better” (2016). Starbucks continues to do well not because of the price of its coffee, but because of the consistency in its delivery paired with other key factors, such as social responsibility and convenience of locations, that appeal to the market. Companies like Starbucks compete on overall value and appeal, while low cost providers such as McDonald’s will always compete on price. Customers that go there because it’s cheaper will jump ship as soon as they find another provider who can do it for less. It’s hard to stay profitable and cheap at the same time. Zook and Allen said it best, “You earn money not just by performing a valuable task but by being different from your competitors in a manner that lets you serve your core customers better and more profitably” (2011).
Learn to Adapt
As markets and the competitive landscape evolve and change, companies need to look for ways to adapt without straying from their core competency. We have watched many companies die a slow and painful death because they weren’t able to translate their core competencies to the demands of a changing market. The news and publishing industries along with retail have been struggling to deliver in a digital world. Sears, who was once a go to for valuable home goods, tried to reposition the retail giant as a tech company and is now buckling under the consequences of a bad strategy. Stores are crumbling, morale is low, and the company is in a financial tailspin (Peterson, 2017). Sears strayed too far from its core competencies and its unlikely it will survive. Companies often confuse the product with its core competency. Often it’s the delivery that creates the true advantage. Be careful not to assume that market changes are fads or that in order to compete you have to emulate emerging leaders. Adapt, but don’t conform or lose sight of what your company does best.
Gamble, J.E., Peteraf, M.A., & Thompson, Jr., AA. (2013). Essentials of strategic management: The quest for competitive advantage. (4th ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Godin, S. (2016, August 25). In pursuit of cheap. Seth’s Blog. Retrieved from http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/08/in-pursuit-of-cheap.html.
Peterson, H. (2017, January 8). Inside Sears’ death spiral: How an iconic American brand has been driven to the edge of bankruptcy. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/sears-failing-stores-closing-edward-lampert-bankruptcy-chances-2017-1
Zook, C. & Allen, J. (2011, November). The great repeatable business model. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2011/11/the-great-repeatable-business-model.