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New realities of competitive advantage

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This week’s purchase of Yahoo suggests Verizon’s strategy department thinks much the same way as myriad other organisations; “size matters”. Whether it’s about minimising risk or increasing economies of scale, such logic has steered many companies to successful tenures. However, there are new trends in the marketplace that make such aphorisms more and more contentious.

It was a couple of years ago now that Rita McGrath wrote about “the end of sustainable competitive advantage”. Prior to this, the arrival of digital was, in general, supposed to have done away with such things. But perhaps the most recognisable face of the digital revolution over the past decade has been none other than Facebook. Facebook has consistently maintained competitive advantage through a savvy use of lock-in via network effects and an aggressive proclivity to buy out any competition (see Instagram, Whatsapp). Users spend about 50 minutes per day across these platforms.

What about organisations outside of TMT? For several years now, Zeitgeist has seen qual data showing the waning power of branding. As we’ve written extensively about in previous posts, this is partly to do with information asymmetry. In the early days of advertising, it wasn’t easy for an average person to be able to know much about a product like Colgate; a brand identity was a quick way to communicate what expectations a consumer should have. Nowadays, almost entirely due to the internet and digital communication, we are able to quickly ascertain what products meet our requirements (what size tube do I need), which are bullshitting (how much whiter teeth?) and which our friends use (still ranked as the most important data point for trying a new product). Companies like Colgate sit in the Consumer Packaged Goods [CPG] category, where most of the world’s most instantly recognisable brands reside. But according to research from Boston Consulting Group, between 2011 and 2015, CPG companies lost nearly three percentage points of market share in the US. Nestle has missed its sales growth targets for the past three years.

Part of what’s hitting the CPG sector is a sustained enthusiasm for “local”. Zeitgeist first saw this trend emerging in 2011 when he worked in a strategic capacity for retailers who were increasingly looking to tailor their store design and offering to the area they were in. This is happening in media too, where local content in the Chinese market is quickly adapting to the pyrotechnics and thrills of imported Hollywood fare, and reaping the rewards. Many of China’s businesses are built on being the home-grown version of x foreign product. Uber’s recent deal with Didi Chuxing is an example of this. Moreover, if you’ve decided you’re happy to pay a premium for a product, it is increasingly unlikely you’ll choose a mass produced one. A real treat would be buying a nice cheese from Jermyn Street’s Paxton & Whitfield, not from one of the thousands of Waitrose stores in the country. Deloitte report that US consumers would pay at least 10% more for the “craft” version of a good, a greater share than would pay extra for convenience or innovation.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, digital has had a profound impact on lowering barriers to entry. From The Economist,

[New entrants] can outsource production and advertise online. Distribution is getting easier, too: a young brand may prove itself with online sales, then move into big stores. Financing mirrors the same trend: last year investors poured $3.3 billion into private CPG firms, according to CB Insights, a data firm—up by 58% from 2014 and a whopping 638% since 2011.

Digital’s impact has also been to dovetail with the trends already mentioned. Consumers’ turning away from brand messaging and interest for local is a quest for authenticity in a crowded market. Rightly or wrongly, no other tactic has proved so successful to communicate a roughshod authenticity as the viral video over the past ten years. New entrants are communicating using different channels but also in different ways, that make incumbents uncomfortable. As pointed out though in an editorial from the FT this weekend, “It is tempting to see these young companies as miracles of branding. In fact, they expose outdated industry structures and offer dramatically more value to consumers.”

Large organisations, sensing the eroding advantage, are responding in different ways. P&G is increasingly focusing on its top tier brands, selling off or consolidating around 100 others. Unilever recently bought the famous Dollar Shave Club, and VC arms are popping up at companies like General Mills (think Lucky Charms) and Deloitte, which like other firms is also thinking about how to avoid disruption.

At the start of this piece we mentioned two reasons that going big could lead to sustained advantage: minimising risk and establishing economies of scale. In our eyes, the former is more at risk than ever, as firestorms on platforms like Twitter and Periscope can eviscerate a brand more quickly than ever; VW’s vast operations have not saved it from significant reputational damage. Economies of scale are also a risky proposition, as The Economist points out “Consolidating factories has made companies more vulnerable to the swing of a particular currency, points out Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets”.

But what about Facebook? At the start of the article we talked about its ongoing rule of the social world, but that definition seems too narrow for what the platform is trying to accomplish. Zuckerberg has talked about Facebook becoming a “utility” as part of a long-term vision over the coming decades. This is interesting given this is exactly what every mobile phone network operator in the world is trying to avoid. Reflecting on Yahoo’s demise last week, the Financial Times wrote that “the Achilles heel of each new wave of technology is that it eventually turns into a utility”. Teens don’t tend to find utilities exciting, and perhaps then it is no surprise that Pew reports declining usage and engagement with the platform from this age group. For Facebook then, commoditisation is as much a risk as disruption by a new entry.

 

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