Copying is the weariest form of strategy
If there’s one thing you can rely on, it’s that ‘successful’ strategies will only last as long as it takes for your competitors to replicate them. Very few companies succeed in developing sustainable competitive strategies; conversely, many invest heavily in easily-emulated tactics that serve to simply work against all players.
I had an interesting conversation some time ago with a Pizza Haven franchisee. While waiting for my ‘Tuesday Special Offer’ (importantly, that’s two large pizzas, garlic bread and Coke for $11.95), I asked him how business was going.
Well, he said I only bought this franchise recently, and it’s been tough. There’s so much competition now, we’re making almost nothing off our pizzas – the prices are just too low.
I avoided giving him a lesson in marketing strategy and settled for near-meaningless sympathetic mumblings instead. Aside from observing that he should have figured out the problem before spending $600k on a franchise, what I really wanted to do was remind him of who was responsible for the savage price competition in the first place: Pizza Haven.
Flash back to the early 90s, and Pizza Hut was far and away the dominant player in the take-away and home-delivered pizza market. At that point, the cost of a large pizza hovered somewhere around the $14 mark.
Enter Pizza Haven, with a very simple price-based strategy: two-for-one pizzas. Their phone number even highlighted their USP (131 241).
That’s right, their differentiator was that they were cheaper than their competitors. Why they didn’t expect Pizza Hut to simply match their prices is beyond me. A classic strategic error, particularly for a little player with a higher cost-base and relatively shallow pockets. Predictably, Pizza Hut simply matched Pizza Haven’s prices and once again levelled the playing field. Pizza Haven’s USP disappeared. Sure, overall volumes may have been higher as consumers responded to lower prices, but the fact that Pizza Haven only has 10 remaining stores across the country probably says something about how successful their strategy was in the long run.
Just quickly, another one: Coke recently released its ‘Mother’ energy drink, opting for a 500ml can as a differentiating factor from the 250ml cans of market leaders V and Red Bull. The original concept behind the reduced-size cans was to imply potency – you didn’t need much, because it was powerful stuff. Once Mother hit the market with an oversized can (not the first, mind you), V felt compelled to respond with an oversized option of its own. The field was immediately levelled again (although perhaps they’ve succeeded in raising the average purchase size/price for both parties). Either way, the major differentiator was lost.
Creating real sustainable advantage is about focusing your energies on developing those things that are not easily replicated by your competitors. Price and packaging rarely fall into this category – these are generally tactical, rather than strategic, elements.
The term ‘strategy’ (and every variant thereof) is overused. However, genuine strategic thinking, which sets one brand apart from another for the long haul, is sadly scarce. In most industries, this means ‘strategic convergence’: each player simply doing the same thing but trying to be better at it. The brands that succeed are those that set themselves apart and are free to play in their own space: think brands like Apple, Nike, eBay, Amazon.
Copying is, indeed, the weariest form of strategy – and consumers are already tired of it. If you want people to wake up and take notice, it’s time to be really, sustainably different.