Business-Level Strategies

Business-level strategy addresses the question of how a firm will compete in a particular industry. On the surface this seems to be a simple question, but it is quite complex. The reason is that there are a great many possible answers to the question. Consider, for example, the restaurants in your town or city. Chances are that you live fairly close to some combination of McDonald’s, Subway, Chili’s, Applebee’s, Panera Bread Company, dozens of other national brands, and a variety of locally based eateries that have just one location. Each of these restaurants competes using a business model that is at least somewhat unique. When an executive in the restaurant industry analyzes her company and her rivals, she needs to avoid getting distracted by all the nuances of different firm’s business-level strategies and losing sight of the big picture.

The solution is to think about business-level strategy in terms of generic strategies. A generic strategy is a general way of positioning a firm within an industry. Focusing on generic strategies allows executives to concentrate on the core elements of firms’ business-level strategies. The most popular set of generic strategies is based on the work of Professor Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School and subsequent researchers that have built on Porter’s initial ideas (Porter, 1980; Zeng, 2009).

Competitive Advantage: Cost Competitive Advantage: Uniqueness
Scope of Operations: Broad Target Walmart’s cost leadership strategy depends on attracting a large customer base and keeping prices low by buying massive quantities of goods from suppliers. Nordstrom builds its differentiation strategy around offering designer merchandise and providing exceptional service.
Scope of Operations: Narrow Target In using a focused cost leadership, Dollar General does not offer a full array of consumer goods, but those that it does offer are priced to move. Anthropologie follows a focused differentiation strategy by selling unique (and pricey) women’s apparel, accessories, and home furnishings.

Table 1 Business-Level Strategies. Firms compete on two general dimensions — the source of competitive advantage (cost or uniqueness) and the scope of operations (broad or narrow). Four possible generic business-level strategies emerge from these decisions. An example of each generic business-level strategy from the retail industry is illustrated above.

According to Porter, two competitive dimensions are the keys to business-level strategy. The first dimension is a firm’s source of competitive advantage. This dimension involves whether a firm tries to gain an edge on rivals by keeping costs down or by offering something unique in the market. The second dimension is firms’ scope of operations. This dimension involves whether a firm tries to target customers in general or whether it seeks to attract just a segment of customers. Four generic business-level strategies emerge from these decisions: (1) cost leadership, (2) differentiation, (3) focused cost leadership, and (4) focused differentiation. In rare cases, firms are able to offer both low prices and unique features that customers find desirable. These firms are following a best-cost strategy. Firms that are not able to offer low prices or appealing unique features are referred to as “stuck in the middle.”

Understanding the differences that underlie generic strategies is important because different generic strategies offer different value propositions to customers. A firm focusing on cost leadership will have a different value chain configuration than a firm whose strategy focuses on differentiation. For example, marketing and sales for a differentiation strategy often requires extensive effort while some firms that follow cost leadership such as Waffle House are successful with limited marketing efforts. This chapter presents each generic strategy and the “recipe” generally associated with success when using that strategy. When firms follow these recipes, the result can be a strategy that leads to superior performance. But when firms fail to follow logical actions associated with each strategy, the result may be a value proposition configuration that is expensive to implement and that does not satisfy enough customers to be viable.

Analyzing generic strategies enhances the understanding of how firms compete at the business level.

Limitations of Generic Strategies

Examining business-level strategy in terms of generic strategies has limitations. Firms that follow a particular generic strategy tend to share certain features. For example, one way that cost leaders generally keep costs low is by not spending much on advertising. Not every cost leader, however, follows this path. While cost leaders such as Waffle House spend very little on advertising, Walmart spends considerable money on print and television advertising despite following a cost leadership strategy. Thus a firm may not match every characteristic that its generic strategy entails. Indeed, depending on the nature of a firm’s industry, tweaking the recipe of a generic strategy may be essential to cooking up success.

The Nature of the Cost Leadership Strategy

It is tempting to think of cost leaders as companies that sell inferior, poor-quality goods and services for rock-bottom prices. Cost leaders can be very successful, a firm following a cost leadership strategy offers products or services with acceptable quality and features to a broad set of customers at a low price. Payless ShoeSource, for example, sells name-brand shoes at inexpensive prices. Its low-price strategy is communicated to customers through advertising slogans such as “Why pay more when you can Payless?” and “You could pay more, but why?” Little Debbie snack cakes offer another example. The brand was started in the 1930s when O. D. McKee began selling sugary treats for five cents. Most consumers today would view the quality of Little Debbie cakes as a step below similar offerings from Entenmann’s, but enough people believe that they offer acceptable quality that the brand is still around eight decades after its creation.

Perhaps the most famous cost leader is Walmart, which has used a cost leadership strategy to become the largest company in the world. The firm’s advertising slogans such as “Always Low Prices” and “Save Money. Live Better” communicate Walmart’s emphasis on price slashing to potential customers. Meanwhile, Walmart has the broadest customer base of any firm in the United States. Approximately one hundred million Americans visit a Walmart in a typical week (Zimmerman & Hudson, 2006). Incredibly, this means that roughly one-third of Americans are frequent Walmart customers. This huge customer base includes people from all demographic and social groups within society.

Cost leaders tend to share some important characteristics. The ability to charge low prices and still make a profit is challenging. Cost leaders manage to do so by emphasizing efficiency. At Waffle House restaurants, for example, customers are served cheap eats quickly to keep booths available for later customers. As part of the effort to be efficient, most cost leaders spend little on advertising, market research, or research and development. Waffle House, for example, limits its advertising to billboards along highways. Meanwhile, the simplicity of Waffle House’s menu requires little research and development.

Many cost leaders rely on economies of scale to achieve efficiency. Economies of scale are created when the costs of offering goods and services decreases as a firm is able to sell more items. This occurs because expenses are distributed across a greater number of items. Walmart spent approximately $2 billion on advertising in 2008. This is a huge number, but Walmart is so large that its advertising expenses equal just a tiny fraction of its sales. Also, cost leaders are often large companies, which allows them to demand price concessions from their suppliers. Walmart is notorious for squeezing suppliers such as Procter & Gamble to sell goods to Walmart for lower and lower prices over time. The firm passes some of these savings to customers in the form of reduced prices in its stores.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Cost Leadership

Each generic strategy offers advantages that firms can potentially leverage to enhance their success as well as disadvantages that may undermine their success. In the case of cost leadership, one advantage is that cost leaders’ emphasis on efficiency makes them well positioned to withstand price competition from rivals. Kmart’s ill-fated attempt to engage Walmart in a price war ended in disaster, in part because Walmart was so efficient in its operations that it could live with smaller profit margins far more easily than Kmart could.

Advantages High profits can be enjoyed if a cost leader has a high market share. An example is Kampgrounds of America, a chain of nearly 500 low cost camping franchises in the United States.
Low-cost firms such as many municipal golf courses can withstand price wars because high-priced competitors will not want to compete directly with a more efficient rival.
Disadvantages If perceptions of quality become too low, business will suffer.
Large volumes of sales are a must because margins are slim.
The need to keep expenses low might lead cost leaders to be late in detecting key environment trends.
Low-cost firms’ emphasis on efficiency makes it difficult for them to change quickly if needed.

Table 2 Executing a Low-Cost Strategy. Using a cost leadership strategy offers firms important advantages and disadvantages. Below we illustrate a few examples in relation to entertainment and leisure.

Beyond existing competitors, a cost leadership strategy also creates benefits relative to potential new entrants. Specifically, the presence of a cost leader in an industry tends to discourage new firms from entering the business because a new firm would struggle to attract customers by undercutting the cost leaders’ prices. Thus a cost leadership strategy helps create barriers to entry that protect the firm—and its existing rivals—from new competition.

In many settings, cost leaders attract a large market share because a large portion of potential customers find paying low prices for goods and services of acceptable quality to be very appealing.  The need for efficiency means that cost leaders’ profit margins are often slimmer than the margins enjoyed by other firms. However, cost leaders’ ability to make a little bit of profit from each of a large number of customers means that the total profits of cost leaders can be substantial.

In some settings, the need for high sales volume is a critical disadvantage of a cost leadership strategy. Highly fragmented markets and markets that involve a lot of brand loyalty may not offer much of an opportunity to attract a large segment of customers. In both the soft drink and cigarette industries, for example, customers appear to be willing to pay a little extra to enjoy the brand of their choice. Lower-end brands of soda and cigarettes appeal to a minority of consumers, but famous brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Marlboro, and Camel still dominate these markets. A related concern is that achieving a high sales volume usually requires significant upfront investments in production and/or distribution capacity. Not every firm is willing and able to make such investments.

Cost leaders tend to keep their costs low by minimizing advertising, market research, and research and development, but this approach can prove to be expensive in the long run. A relative lack of market research can lead cost leaders to be less skilled than other firms at detecting important environmental changes. Meanwhile, downplaying research and development can slow cost leaders’ ability to respond to changes once they are detected. Lagging rivals in terms of detecting and reacting to external shifts can prove to be a deadly combination that leaves cost leaders out of touch with the market and out of answers.

The Nature of the Differentiation Strategy

A famous cliché contends that “you get what you pay for.” This saying captures the essence of a differentiation strategy. A firm following a differentiation strategy attempts to convince customers to pay a premium price for its good or services by providing unique and desirable features. The message that such a firm conveys to customers is that you will pay a little bit more for our offerings, but you will receive a good value overall because our offerings provide something special.

In terms of the two competitive dimensions described by Michael Porter, using a differentiation strategy means that a firm is competing based on uniqueness rather than price and is seeking to attract a broad market (Porter, 1980). Coleman camping equipment offers a good example. If camping equipment such as sleeping bags, lanterns, and stoves fail during a camping trip, the result will be, well, unhappy campers. Coleman’s sleeping bags, lanterns, and stoves are renowned for their reliability and durability. Cheaper brands are much more likely to have problems. Lovers of the outdoors must pay more to purchase Coleman’s goods than they would to obtain lesser brands, but having equipment that you can count on to keep you warm and dry is worth a price premium in the minds of most campers.

Successful use of a differentiation strategy depends on offering unique features and communicating the value of these features to potential customers. As a result, advertising in general and brand building in particular are important to this strategy. Few goods are more basic and generic than table salt. This would seemingly make creating a differentiated brand in the salt business next to impossible. Through clever marketing, however, Morton Salt has done so. Morton has differentiated its salt by building a brand around its iconic umbrella girl and its trademark slogan of “When it rains, it pours.” Would the typical consumer be able to tell the difference between Morton Salt and cheaper generic salt in a blind taste test? Not a chance. Yet Morton succeeds in convincing customers to pay a little extra for its salt through its brand-building efforts.

FedEx and Nike are two other companies that have done well at communicating to customers that they provide differentiated offerings. FedEx’s former slogan “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight” highlights the commitment to speedy delivery that sets the firm apart from competitors such as UPS and the US Postal Service. Nike differentiates its athletic shoes and apparel through its iconic “swoosh” logo as well as an intense emphasis on product innovation through research and development.

Advantages Buyer loyalty is common among handbag buyers. Many individuals enjoy seeing–and being seen with–a designer logo on the products they buy such as the iconic C that is shown on Coach bags. Chanel enjoys strong margins because their well-known name allows them to charge a premium for their handbags.
Disadvantages Less-expensive bags from retailers such as Target provide enough of a trendy look to satisfy many price-sensitive buyers. These individuals will choose to save their money by avoiding expensive bags from top-end designers. Imitations may steal customers, such as is common with knock-off handbags sold by street vendors.

Table 3 Executing a Differentiation Strategy. A differentiation strategy offers important advantages and disadvantages for firms that adopt it. Below we illustrate a few examples in relation to an often differentiated product–women’s handbags.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Differentiation

Each generic strategy offers advantages that firms can potentially leverage to enjoy strong performance, as well as disadvantages that may damage their performance. In the case of differentiation, a key advantage is that effective differentiation creates an ability to obtain premium prices from customers. This enables a firm to enjoy strong profit margins. Coca-Cola, for example, currently enjoys a profit margin of approximately 33 percent, meaning that about thirty-three cents of every dollar it collects from customers is profit. In comparison, Walmart’s cost leadership strategy delivered a margin of under 4 percent in 2010.

In turn, strong margins mean that the firm does not need to attract huge numbers of customers to have a good overall level of profit. Luckily for Coca-Cola, the firm does attract a great many buyers. Overall, the firm made a profit of just under $12 billion on sales of just over $35 billion in 2010. Interestingly, Walmart’s profits were only 25 percent higher ($15 billion) than Coca-Cola’s while its sales volume ($421 billion) was twelve times as large as Coca-Cola’s.1 This comparison of profit margins and overall profit levels illustrates why a differentiation strategy is so attractive to many firms.

To the extent that differentiation remains in place over time, buyer loyalty may be created. Loyal customers are very desirable because they are not price sensitive. In other words, buyer loyalty makes a customer unlikely to switch to another firm’s products if that firm tries to steal the customer away through lower prices. Many soda drinkers are fiercely loyal to Coca-Cola’s products. Coca-Cola’s headquarters are in Atlanta, and loyalty to the firm is especially strong in Georgia and surrounding states. Pepsi and other brands have a hard time convincing loyal Coca-Cola fans to buy their beverages, even when offering deep discounts. This helps keep Coca-Cola’s profits high because the firm does not have to match any promotions that its rivals launch to keep its customers.

Meanwhile, Pepsi also has attracted a large set of brand-loyal customers that Coca-Cola struggles to steal. This enhances Pepsi’s profits. In contrast, store-brand sodas such as Sam’s Choice (which is sold at Walmart) seldom attract loyalty. As a result, they must be offered at very low prices to move from store shelves into shopping carts.

Beyond existing competitors, a differentiation strategy also creates benefits relative to potential new entrants. Specifically, the brand loyalty that customers feel to a differentiated product makes it difficult for a new entrant to lure these customers to adopt its product. A new soda brand, for example, would struggle to take customers away from Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Thus a differentiation strategy helps create barriers to entry that protect the firm and its industry from new competition.

The big risk when using a differentiation strategy is that customers will not be willing to pay extra to obtain the unique features that a firm is trying to build its strategy around. In 2007, department store Dillard’s stopped carrying men’s sportswear made by Nautica because the seafaring theme of Nautica’s brand had lost much of its cache among many men (Kapner, 2007). Because Nautica’s uniqueness had eroded, Dillard’s believed that space in its stores that Nautica had been occupying could be better allocated to other brands.

In some cases, customers may simply prefer a cheaper alternative. For example, products that imitate the look and feel of offerings from Ray-Ban, Tommy Bahama, and Coach are attractive to many value-conscious consumers. Firms such as these must work hard at product development and marketing to ensure that enough customers are willing to pay a premium for their goods rather than settling for knockoffs.

In other cases, customers desire the unique features that a firm offers, but competitors are able to imitate the features well enough that they are no longer unique. If this happens, customers have no reason to pay a premium for the firm’s offerings. IBM experienced the pain of this scenario when executives tried to follow a differentiation strategy in the personal computer market. The strategy had worked for IBM in other areas. Specifically, IBM had enjoyed a great deal of success in the mainframe computer market by providing superior service and charging customers a premium for their mainframes. A business owner who relied on a mainframe to run her company could not afford to have her mainframe out of operation for long. Meanwhile, few businesses had the skills to fix their own mainframes. IBM’s message to customers was that they would pay more for IBM’s products but that this was a good investment because when a mainframe needed repairs, IBM would provide faster and better service than its competitors could. The customer would thus be open for business again very quickly after a mainframe failure.

This positioning failed when IBM used it in the personal computer market. Rivals such as Dell were able to offer service that was just as good as IBM’s while also charging lower prices for personal computers than IBM charged. From a customer’s perspective, a person would be foolish to pay more for an IBM personal computer since IBM did not offer anything unique. IBM steadily lost market share as a result. By 2005, IBM’s struggles led it to sell its personal computer business to Lenovo. The firm is still successful, however, within the mainframe market where its offerings remain differentiated.

Companies that use a cost leadership strategy and those that use a differentiation strategy share one important characteristic: both groups try to be attractive to customers in general. These efforts to appeal to broad markets can be contrasted with strategies that involve targeting a relatively narrow niche of potential customers. These latter strategies are known as focus strategies (Porter, 1980).

The Nature of the Focus Cost Leadership Strategy

Focused cost leadership is the first of two focus strategies. A focused cost leadership strategy requires competing based on price to target a narrow market. A firm that follows this strategy does not necessarily charge the lowest prices in the industry. Instead, it charges low prices relative to other firms that compete within the target market. Redbox, for example, uses vending machines placed outside grocery stores and other retail outlets to rent DVDs of movies for $1. There are ways to view movies even cheaper, such as through the flat-fee streaming video subscriptions offered by Netflix. But among firms that rent actual DVDs, Redbox offers unparalleled levels of low price and high convenience.

Another important point is that the nature of the narrow target market varies across firms that use a focused cost leadership strategy. In some cases, the target market is defined by demographics. Claire’s, for example, seeks to appeal to young women by selling inexpensive jewelry, accessories, and ear piercings. Claire’s use of a focused cost leadership strategy has been very successful; the firm has more than three thousand locations and has stores in 95 percent of US shopping malls.

In other cases, the target market is defined by the sales channel used to reach customers. Most pizza shops offer sit-down service, delivery, or both. In contrast, Papa Murphy’s sells pizzas that customers cook at home. Because these inexpensive pizzas are baked at home rather than in the store, the law allows Papa Murphy’s to accept food stamps as payment. This allows Papa Murphy’s to attract customers that might not otherwise be able to afford a prepared pizza.

The Nature of the Focused Differentiation Strategy

Focused differentiation is the second of two focus strategies. A focused differentiation strategy requires offering unique features that fulfill the demands of a narrow market. As with a focused low-cost strategy, narrow markets are defined in different ways in different settings. Some firms using a focused differentiation strategy concentrate their efforts on a particular sales channel, such as selling over the Internet only. Others target particular demographic groups. One example is Breezes Resorts, a company that caters to couples without children. The firm operates seven tropical resorts where vacationers are guaranteed that they will not be annoyed by loud and disruptive children.

While a differentiation strategy involves offering unique features that appeal to a variety of customers, the need to satisfy the desires of a narrow market means that the pursuit of uniqueness is often taken to the proverbial “next level” by firms using a focused differentiation strategy. Thus the unique features provided by firms following a focused differentiation strategy are often specialized.

When it comes to uniqueness, few offerings can top Kopi Luwak coffee beans. High-quality coffee beans often sell for $10 to $15 a pound. In contrast, Kopi Luwak coffee beans sell for hundreds of dollars per pound (Cat’s Ass Coffee). This price is driven by the rarity of the beans and their rather bizarre nature. As noted in a 2010 article in the New York Times, these beans are found in the droppings of the civet, a nocturnal, furry, long-tailed catlike animal that prowls Southeast Asia’s coffee-growing lands for the tastiest, ripest coffee cherries. The civet eventually excretes the hard, indigestible innards of the fruit—essentially, incipient coffee beans—though only after they have been fermented in the animal’s stomach acids and enzymes to produce a brew described as smooth, chocolaty and devoid of any bitter aftertaste (Onishi, 2010).

Although many consumers consider Kopi Luwak to be disgusting, a relatively small group of coffee enthusiasts has embraced the coffee and made it a profitable product. This illustrates the essence of a focused differentiation strategy—effectively serving the specialized needs of a niche market can create great riches.

Larger niches are served by Whole Foods Market and Mercedes-Benz. Although most grocery stores devote a section of their shelves to natural and organic products, Whole Foods Market works to sell such products exclusively. For customers, the large selection of organic goods comes at a steep price. Indeed, the supermarket’s reputation for high prices has led to a wry nickname—“Whole Paycheck”—but a sizable number of consumers are willing to pay a premium to feel better about the food they buy.

The dedication of Mercedes-Benz to cutting-edge technology, styling, and safety innovations has made the firm’s vehicles prized by those who are rich enough to afford them. This appeal has existing for many decades. In 1970, acid-rocker Janis Joplin recorded a song called “Mercedes Benz” that highlighted the automaker’s allure. Since then Mercedes-Benz has used the song in several television commercials, including during the 2011 Super Bowl.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Focused Strategies

Each generic strategy offers advantages that firms can potentially leverage to enhance their success as well as disadvantages that may undermine their success. In the case of focus differentiation, one advantage is that very high prices can be charged. Indeed, these firms often price their wares far above what is charged by firms following a differentiation strategy. REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.), for example, commands a hefty premium for its outdoor sporting goods and clothes that feature name brands, such as The North Face and Marmot. Nat Nast’s focus differentiation strategy centers on selling men’s silk camp shirts with a 1950s retro flair. These shirts retail for more than $100. Focused cost leaders such as Checkers Drive In do not charge high prices like REI and Nat Nast do, but their low cost structures enable them to enjoy healthy profit margins.

A second advantage of using a focus strategy is that firms often develop tremendous expertise about the goods and services that they offer. In markets such as camping equipment where product knowledge is important, rivals and new entrants may find it difficult to compete with firms following a focus strategy.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • High prices can be charged. Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI), for example, commands a premium for their outdoor sporting goods and clothes that feature name brands such as The North Face and Marmot.
  • Firms using a focus strategy often develop great expertise about the good or service being sold. Thus, customers may gravitate toward a specialty camping shop in order to learn how to best take advantage of limited vacation time.
  • Limited demands exist for specialized goods and services, so every potential sale counts.
  • The area of focus may be taken over by others or even disappear over time. Many gun stores went out of business after large retailers such as Walmart started carrying an array of firearms.
  • Other firms may provide an even narrower focus. An outdoor sporting goods store, for example, might lose business to a store that focuses solely on ski apparel because the latter can provide more guidance about how skiers can stay warm and avoid broken bones.

Table 4 Executing a Focus Strategy. Using one of the focus strategies offers firms important advantages and disadvantages. Below we illustrate a few examples in relation to an industry where many different types of focus exist–sporting goods.

In terms of disadvantages, the limited demand available within a niche can cause problems. First, a firm could find its growth ambitions stymied. Once its target market is being well served, expansion to other markets might be the only way to expand, and this often requires developing a new set of skills. Also, the niche could disappear or be taken over by larger competitors. Many gun stores have struggled and even gone out of business since Walmart and sporting goods stores such as Academy Sports and Bass Pro Shops have started carrying an impressive array of firearms.

In contrast to tacky Hawaiian souvenirs, the quality of Kamaka ukuleles makes them a favorite of ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro and others who are willing to pay $1,000 or more for a high-end instrument.

Finally, damaging attacks may come not only from larger firms but also from smaller ones that adopt an even narrower focus. A sporting goods store that sells camping, hiking, kayaking, and skiing goods, for example, might lose business to a store that focuses solely on ski apparel because the latter can provide more guidance about how skiers can stay warm and avoid broken bones.

Strategy at the Movies


One man’s trash is another man’s fashion? That’s what fashion mogul Jacobim Mugatu was counting on in the 2001 comedy Zoolander. In his continued effort to be the most cutting-edge designer in the fashion industry, Mugatu developed a new line of clothing inspired “by the streetwalkers and hobos that surround us.” His new product line, Derelicte, characterized by dresses made of burlap and parking cones and pants made of garbage bags and tin cans, was developed for customers who valued the uniqueness of his…eclectic design. Emphasizing unique products is typical of a company following a differentiation strategy; however, Mugatu targeted a very specific set of customers. Few people would probably be enticed to wear garbage for the sake of fashion. By catering to a niche target market, Mugatu went from a simple differentiation strategy to a focused differentiation. Mugatu’s Derelicte campaign in Zoolander is one illustration of how a particular firm might develop a focused differentiation strategy.

Southwest Airlines provides low cost flights to vacations destinations such as San Antonio, San Diego, and Orland. While many airlines make passengers feel like cattle loaded on to a truck, Southwest creates fun by, for example, getting children excited about visiting Sea World when they see this custom Shamu plane design. Chipotle Mexican Grill relies on organic ingredients to create very tasty burritos that are sold at prices comparable to those of fast-food restaurants. When noon arrives, many hungry people prefer to spend their lunch dollars on a top-shelf burrito rather than a greasy burger combo meal.
Target offers extremely competitive prices, but the firm also differentiates itself from other discount retailers by carrying products from trendy designers such as Michael Graves, Isaac Mizrahi, Fiorruci, and Liza Lange. Pabst Blue Ribbon is offered at an extremely low price and its taste (or lack thereof) is comparable that to other inexpensive beers. “PBR” enjoys brand loyalty, however, due to its high name recognition. The frequent appearance of PBR’s well-known logo on signs, T-shirts, and other merchandise has helped make PBR an enduring favorite among beer consumers with light wallets.

Table 4 Best-Cost Strategy. Firms that charge relatively low prices and offer substantial differentiation are following a best-cost strategy. This strategy is difficult to execute, but it is also potentially very rewarding. Several examples of firms pursuing a best-cost strategy are illustrated below.

The Challenge of Following a Best-Cost Strategy

Some executives are not content to have their firms compete based on offering low prices or unique features. They want it all! Firms that charge relatively low prices and offer substantial differentiation are following a best-cost strategy. This strategy is difficult to execute in part because creating unique features and communicating to customers why these features are useful generally raises a firm’s costs of doing business. Product development and advertising can both be quite expensive. However, firms that manage to implement an effective best-cost strategy are often very successful.

Target appears to be following a best-cost strategy. The firm charges prices that are relatively low among retailers while at the same time attracting trend-conscious consumers by carrying products from famous designers, such as Michael Graves, Isaac Mizrahi, Fiorucci, Liz Lange, and others. This is a lucrative position for Target, but the position is under attack from all sides. Cost leader Walmart charges lower prices than Target. This makes Walmart a constant threat to steal the thriftiest of Target’s customers. Focus differentiators such as Anthropologie that specialize in trendy clothing and home furnishings can take business from Target in those areas. Deep discounters such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls offer another viable alternative to shoppers because they offer designer clothes and furnishings at closeout prices.

Pursuing the Best-Cost Strategy through a Low-Overhead Business Model

One route toward a best-cost strategy is for a firm to adopt a business model whose fixed costs and overhead are very low relative to the costs that competitors are absorbing. The Internet has helped make this possible for some firms. Amazon, for example, can charge low prices in part because it does not have to endure the expenses that firms such as Walmart and Target do in operating many hundreds of stores. Meanwhile, Amazon offers an unmatched variety of goods. This combination has made Amazon the unquestioned leader in e-commerce.

Another example is Netflix. This firm is able to offer customers a far greater variety of movies and charge lower prices than video rental stores by conducting all its business over the Internet and via mail. Netflix’s best-cost strategy has been so successful that $10,000 invested in the firm’s stock in May 2006 was worth more than $90,000 five years later.1

Moving toward a best-cost strategy by dramatically reducing expenses is also possible for firms that cannot rely on the Internet as a sales channel. Owning a restaurant requires significant overhead costs, such as rent and utilities. Some talented chefs are escaping these costs by taking their food to the streets. Food trucks that serve high-end specialty dishes at very economical prices are becoming a popular trend in cities around the country. In Portland, Oregon, a food truck called the Ninja Plate Lunch offers large portions of delectable Hawaiian foods such as pulled pork for around $5. Another Portland food truck is PBJ’s, whose unique and inexpensive sandwiches often center on organic peanut butter. Beyond keeping costs low, the mobility of food trucks offers important advantages over a traditional restaurant. Some food trucks set up outside big-city nightclubs, for example, to sell partygoers a late-night snack before they head home.

Stuck in the Middle: Neither Inexpensive nor Differentiated

Some firms fail to effectively pursue one of the generic strategies. A firm is said to be stuck in the middle if it does not offer features that are unique enough to convince customers to buy its offerings, and its prices are too high to compete effectively based on price. Arby’s appears to be a good example. Arby’s signature roast beef sandwiches are neither cheaper than other fast-food sandwiches nor standouts in taste. Firms that are stuck in the middle generally perform poorly because they lack a clear market or competitive pricing. Perhaps not surprisingly, parent company Wendy’s has been trying to sell Arby’s despite having recently acquired the company in 2008. Stockholders apparently agreed with the plan to cut Arby’s loose—the price of Wendy’s stock rose 7 percent the day the plan was announced (McWilliams, 2011).

Doing Everything Means Doing Nothing Well

Michael Porter has noted that strategy is as much about executives deciding what a firm is not going to do as it is about deciding what the firm is going to do (Porter, 1996). In other words, a firm’s business-level strategy should not involve trying to serve the varied needs of different segment of customers in an industry. No firm could possibly pull this off.

Getting Outmaneuvered by Competitors

In many cases, firms become stuck in the middle not because executives fail to arrive at a well-defined strategy but because firms are simply outmaneuvered by their rivals. After six decades as an electronics retailer, Circuit City went out of business in 2009. The firm had simply lost its appeal to customers. Rival electronics retailer Best Buy offered comparable prices to Circuit City’s prices, but the former offered much better customer service. Meanwhile, the service offered by discount retailers such as Walmart and Target on electronics were no better that Circuit City’s, but their prices were better.

The results were predictable—customers who made electronics purchases based on the service they received went to Best Buy, and value-driven buyers patronized Walmart and Target. Circuit City’s demise was probably inevitable because it lacked a competitive advantage within the electronics business. Although Target was on the winning end of this battle, Target executives need to worry that their firm could become stuck in the middle between Walmart’s better prices on one side and the trendiness of specialty shops on the other.

IBM’s personal computer business offers another example. IBM tried to position its personal computers via a differentiation strategy. In particular, IBM’s personal computers were offered at high prices, and the firm promised to offer excellent service to customers in return. Unfortunately for IBM, rivals such as Dell were able to provide equal levels of service while selling computers at lower prices. Nothing made IBM’s computers stand out from the crowd, and the firm eventually exited the business.

At its peak in the mid-2000s, Movie Gallery operated approximately 4,700 video rental stores. By 2010, the firm was dead. This rapid demise can be traced to the firm becoming outmaneuvered by Netflix. When Netflix began offering inexpensive DVD rentals through the mail, customers defected in droves from Movie Gallery and other video rental stores such as Blockbuster. Netflix customers were delighted by the firm’s low prices, vast selection, and the convenience of not having to visit a store to select and return videos. Movie Gallery was stuck in the middle—its prices were higher than those of Netflix, and Netflix’s service was superior. Once individuals lacked a compelling reason to be Movie Gallery customers, the firm’s fate was sealed.

Netflix and Redbox have left video rental stores such as Movie Gallery and Blockbuster stuck in the middle. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in late 2010.


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