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No Need For Differentiation

Written by Freek Vermeulen

For decades, strategy gurus have been telling firms to differentiate. From Michael Porter to Costas Markides and through the Blue Oceans of Kim and Mauborgne, strategy scholars have been urging executives to distinguish their firm’s offerings and carve out a unique market position. Because if you just do the same thing as your competitors, they claim, there will be nothing left for you than to engage in fierce price competition, which brings everyone’s margins to zero – if not below.

Yet, at the same time, we see many industries in which firms do more or less the same thing. And among those firms offering more or less the same thing, we often see very different levels of success and profitability. How come? What explains the apparent discrepancy?

To understand this, you have to realise that the field of Strategy arose from Economics. The strategy thinkers who first entered the scene in the 1980s and 90s based their recommendations on economic theory, which would indeed suggest that, as a competitor, you have to somehow be different to make money. Over the last decade or two, however, we have been seeing more and more research in Strategy that builds on insights from Sociology, which complements the earlier economics-based theories, yet may be better equipped to understand this particular issue.

Consider, for example, the case of McKinsey. Clearly, McKinsey is a highly successful professional services firm, making rather healthy margins. But is their offering really so different from others, like BCG, or Bain? They all offer more or less the same thing: a bunch of clever, reasonably well-trained analytical people wearing pin-striped suits and using a problem-solving approach to make recommendations about general management problems. McKinsey’s competitive advantage apparently does not come from how it differentiates its offering.

The trick is that when there is uncertainty about the quality of a product or service, firms do not have to rely on differentiation in order to obtain a competitive advantage. Whether you’re a law firm or a hairdresser, people will find it difficult – at least beforehand – to assess how good you really are. But customers, nonetheless, have to pick one.  McKinsey, of course, offers the most uncertain product of all: Strategy advice. When you hire them – or any other consulting firm – you cannot foretell the quality of what they are going to do and deliver. In fact, even when you have the advice in your hands (in the form of a report or, more likely, a powerpoint “deck”), you can still not quite assess its quality. Worse, even years after you might have implemented it, you cannot really say if it was any good, because lots of factors influence firm performance, and whether the advice helped or hampered will forever remain opaque.

Research in Organizational Sociology shows that when there is such uncertainty, buyers rely on other signals to decide whether to purchase, such as the seller’s status, its social network ties, and prior relationships. And that is what McKinsey does so well. They carefully foster their status by claiming to always hire the brightest people and work for the best companies. They also actively nurture their immense network by making sure former employees become “alumni” who then not infrequently end up hiring McKinsey. And they make sure to carefully manage their existing client relationships, so that no less than 85 percent of their business now comes from existing customers.

Status, social networks, and prior relationships are the forgotten drivers of firm performance. Underestimate them at your peril. How you manage them should be as much part of your strategizing as analyses of differentiation, value propositions, and customer segments.


2 thoughts on “No Need For Differentiation

  1. avatar CityAlice says:

    Sounds like their strategy works well for them. Interesting take in differentiation.

  2. avatar mike says:

    But surely the differentiation with McKinsey then is

    ‘always hire the brightest people and work for the best companies’ and
    ‘carefully manage their existing client relationships’

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