QuickMBA / Strategy / Competitive Advantage

Competitive Advantage

When a firm sustains profits that exceed the average for its industry, the firm is said to possess a competitive advantage over its rivals. The goal of much of business strategy is to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.

Michael Porter identified two basic types of competitive advantage:

  • cost advantage
  • differentiation advantage

A competitive advantage exists when the firm is able to deliver the same benefits as competitors but at a lower cost (cost advantage), or deliver benefits that exceed those of competing products (differentiation advantage). Thus, a competitive advantage enables the firm to create superior value for its customers and superior profits for itself.

Cost and differentiation advantages are known as positional advantages since they describe the firm's position in the industry as a leader in either cost or differentiation.

A resource-based view emphasizes that a firm utilizes its resources and capabilities to create a competitive advantage that ultimately results in superior value creation. The following diagram combines the resource-based and positioning views to illustrate the concept of competitive advantage:

A Model of Competitive Advantage



Cost Advantage
Differentiation Advantage




Resources and Capabilities

According to the resource-based view, in order to develop a competitive advantage the firm must have resources and capabilities that are superior to those of its competitors. Without this superiority, the competitors simply could replicate what the firm was doing and any advantage quickly would disappear.

Resources are the firm-specific assets useful for creating a cost or differentiation advantage and that few competitors can acquire easily. The following are some examples of such resources:

  • Patents and trademarks
  • Proprietary know-how
  • Installed customer base
  • Reputation of the firm
  • Brand equity

Capabilities refer to the firm's ability to utilize its resources effectively. An example of a capability is the ability to bring a product to market faster than competitors. Such capabilities are embedded in the routines of the organization and are not easily documented as procedures and thus are difficult for competitors to replicate.

The firm's resources and capabilities together form its distinctive competencies. These competencies enable innovation, efficiency, quality, and customer responsiveness, all of which can be leveraged to create a cost advantage or a differentiation advantage.

Cost Advantage and Differentiation Advantage

Competitive advantage is created by using resources and capabilities to achieve either a lower cost structure or a differentiated product. A firm positions itself in its industry through its choice of low cost or differentiation. This decision is a central component of the firm's competitive strategy.

Another important decision is how broad or narrow a market segment to target. Porter formed a matrix using cost advantage, differentiation advantage, and a broad or narrow focus to identify a set of generic strategies that the firm can pursue to create and sustain a competitive advantage.

Value Creation

The firm creates value by performing a series of activities that Porter identified as the value chain. In addition to the firm's own value-creating activities, the firm operates in a value system of vertical activities including those of upstream suppliers and downstream channel members.

To achieve a competitive advantage, the firm must perform one or more value creating activities in a way that creates more overall value than do competitors. Superior value is created through lower costs or superior benefits to the consumer (differentiation).

Recommended Reading

Porter, Michael E., Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance

In Competitive Advantage, Michael Porter analyzes the basis of competitive advantage and presents the value chain as a framework for diagnosing and enhancing it. This landmark work covers:

  • The 10 major drivers of the firm's cost position
  • Differentiation with the buyer's value chain in mind
  • Buyer perception of value and signals of value
  • How to defend against substitute products
  • The role of technology in competitive advantage
  • Competitive scope and its impact on competitive advantage
  • Implications for offensive and defensive competitive strategy

Competitive Advantage makes these concepts concrete and actionable. It rightfully has earned its place in the business strategist's core collection of strategy books.

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