14 Sources of Competitive Advantage

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Competitive advantage comes from many places beyond simply the product and service and below I have outlined 14 possibilities for advantage. They are supported by considerable data, research and experience; the data sources are included in a bibliography below for your reference. Sources of competitive advantage lie all along the value chain based on Michael Porter’s seminal work, Competitive Advantage and famously depicted below.


With so many options, how do you know the right competitive advantage for your business? It needs to be unique and “to lower buyer cost or raise buyer performance through the impact of its value chain on the buyer’s value chain.”(1) Notice here the dollars and cents value impact on your customers. It is only real competitive advantage when it accomplishes this.
Feel free to contact us to determine and possibly assist with the implementation of the most effective differentiator for your firm.

Leadership: Sources of Competitive Advantage

Here, I have replaced Michael Porter’s infrastructure with top management’s role, which inevitably cuts across departments or involves the external environment. We begin with examples of the company’s strategies and impact on the external environment.

Externally-focused Strategies

XinHui_RT-Mart_1st_floor_supermarket_19 Globalization in Local Markets1. Localization in Global Markets
Implementing simultaneous strategies of localization and globalization in global market returned Panasonic to a profitable growth path. In 2000, the company suffered its first loss due to Chinese competitors effectively exporting to the US, Europe and South Asia. In response, Panasonic shifted from a US-based to a global view. It set up a center focused both on local Chinese market needs and on globally available and soon-to-be available Panasonic products. The center uncovered a need for narrower refrigerators, allowing fridge sales to increase ten-fold in one year. It also found a need to sterilize laundry. Panasonic was the first major player to bring this capability to market. As a result, the front-loaded washer market share in China increased from 3% to 15%. (3)

2. Strategic Alliance or Acquisition
Strategic Alliances are an important source of capabilities a firm may not otherwise possess. Few firms have all the capabilities needed to compete effectively in our world of fast-paced change. “Despite the fact that an alliance is formed nearly every 90 seconds, failure rates appear to occur in nearly 60 percent of all alliances.(4) In most instances, failure is not a function of the alliance being a bad strategic option; rather, failure is attributable to managerial error.”(4) Consequently, successful strategic alliances can bring significant competitive advantage.
Another option is to purchase the capability. At Sonoco Retail Packaging, we could see that our ability to pack retail products would be complemented by the ability to design, manufacture and pack out popular point-of-purchase displays. As a result, we acquired a premier POP display company, yielding an important capability that customers needed, and so generating additional sales and profits.

Competitive Action3. Competitive Actions
Following an extensive study of competitive actions and responses in the airline industry, Ming-Jer Chen concludes that the more responses a company’s competitive action provokes, the more that company’s profits drop. (5) Highly visible attacks to the core of competitors will draw a lot of response, as confirmed by airline data. Competitive attacks that are difficult to respond to draw less reaction, as demonstrated by considerable airline data in the study. Attacks that are difficult to respond to include those that demand a costly response, significant organizational change, or sophisticated coordination among different departments. These are the competitive actions companies will want to make.
Still, effective competitive actions can vary by environment. In nascent markets, plenty of ambiguity exists and investors prefer companies with more predictable and simple competitive moves. This encourages improved investor valuation and so offers competitive advantage. (6)

4. Customer Clusters
Research has shown that firms located near customers cluster innovate more quickly. (7, 8) This is largely due to more customer participation and a real-time information flow. Far flung customers makes it more difficult to assess and maintain satisfaction. (7)

Internal Leadership Role

5. Company-Wide Market Orientation
Too many companies merely give lip service to focusing on the market and customers. A real market orientation involves offering more customer value due to an outstanding Customer Value cartoonunderstanding of the customer and competitors that permeates the organization. Based on 9 years of data, Kumar et al find that ‘market orientation has a positive effect on business performance in the short and the long run.” It can take some time for the market orientation to have a positive effect, so management needs to provide support. At the beginning of the 9 year period, a company with a market orientation had an advantage. Later on, the nature of competition changed and a market orientation was necessary to compete successfully. Still, the study finds that under highly competitive pressure, a company can gain advantage with a market orientation. (9)
At a multi-million packaging company, I led the shift from a product to a market focus. Initially, the company produced the plethora of products the equipment could produce. As a result, the company was mediocre in most markets, and poorly performing in some, having suffered a significant loss the previous year. I coached the management team to explore market options, utilizing the extensive knowledge in Sales, Production and market analyst assistance. Given the company’s sophisticated capabilities, market trends and the high margins, we selected the high end market segment as an area of focus, shedding the high volume, low margin product lines. The company pulled together to pursue high quality packaging accounts and to move into a new, higher end product line. The new business added considerable profits to our bottom line, returning the company to profitability.

6. Strategic Fit between Marketing and Manufacturing
“Organizing marketing activities in ways that fit a business’s strategy type can form a significant source of competitive advantage.” (10) The crux of this is to ensure the customer requirements of the company’s marketing strategy are met by the manufacturing strategy. Misalignments need to be identified and transformed into strategic fit.
Marketing n ManufacturingStrategic fit between marketing and manufacturing can drive such strong relationships of trust and reputation that “the potential exists for any organization to develop intimate relations with customers to the point that they may be relatively rare and difficult for rivals to replicate”(11). “The “best” products do not necessarily win. The best-networked ones usually do.” (10) This phrase highlights the necessary partnership of manufacturing and marketing.
For manufacturing-focused companies, it is essential to note that “three organizational challenges at the heart of entrepreneurial strategy fall squarely in the bailiwick of marketing: (1) scanning and projecting current, emerging and potential environmental change; (2) Perceiving the outlines of potential opportunity lurking but rarely manifestly evident in such change; and (3) Translating (perceived) opportunity into (potential) solutions that generate value for some set of customers.” Effective marketing is essential to a successful company. (11).

7. Implementation of Strategy
It is possible to compete successfully with superior implementation of strategy rather than superior strategy. (12) As markets become more mature, the environment becomes less dynamic and there are fewer opportunities to develop a better product or new strategy. Consequently, superior implementation can win the day.
It is important to realize that “an implementation leader has an internal focus, possessing great organizational and motivational abilities” while a strategy of differentiation demands a leader with an external focus who is a “great strategist — brilliant, capable of seeing what others do not see” while (12)

Human Resources: Sources of Competitive Advantage

8. Human Capital
Human capital in the form of a highly trained workforce can be the source of competitive advantage, particularly if employees do not take their skills to competitors. (13, 14) Firm-specific capital is not valuable when transferred to a new firm, and so it in particular is a good source of competitive advantage. (15, 16) However, if a firm is able to retain employees then the skills of interest to competitors can be a source of competitive advantage. (15, 16)

Human Capital, Employee Engagement9. Employee Engagement
Many studies demonstrate that employee engagement can be a source of competitive advantage. One study, taking place in the labor-intensive hotel industry, found that the ‘highly satisfied, motivated, committed and fully engaged’ employees yielded a higher market share than their competitor. (18)

Technology Development: Sources of Competitive Advantage

Technology10. Technological Change
In this time of great technological advances, there are many opportunities for gaining competitive advantage through technological innovation. However, a company needs to create a culture that is open to adopting new technology effectively. One study concerning adopting electronic data interchange (EDI) in the automotive industry notes that the company benefited from: “cost saving, time saving, increased efficiency, better communication, less error and delays. Consequently, customer satisfaction and performance level has been dramatically increased.” (19) However, the value is only achieved with the selection and effective implementation of the correct technology, which is not easy.

11. Business Analytics
Recently, “58% of the more than 4,500 respondents to a survey conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review, in partnership with the IBM Institute for Business Value, said their companies were gaining competitive value from analytics — up from just 37% who said that last year.” (20) Data-oriented cultures implement analytics more effectively. However, creating this culture can be difficult. 44% of respondents considered organizational challenges difficult to resolve as compared to 21% who found them easy to handle. Those early in business analytic implementation find these issues most difficult. (20)

Logistics and Operations: Sources of Competitive Advantage

Production System12. Production System
Implementing an effective production system can bring companies competitive advantage. One study shows that industrial companies in Jordan who implemented Just-In-Time (JIT) attained positive and statistically significant advantages in costs, quality and financial results. (21) At an RR Donnelley facility I ran, we implemented JIT in a small run, quick turn pressroom. It yielded considerable customer satisfaction and maintained sales in a highly competitive market.

13. Business Processes
Managing consistent business process seamlessly is another source of competitive advantage. For example, Toyota added product value due to the Six Sigma and product design processes. Business process improvement can be a cost-effective strategy as it can occur without technological change. However, it is critical that the processes are tied closely to the business strategy and objectives. (22)

Government Programs: Sources of Competitive Advantage

14. National Export Promotion
Countries adopting specific export promotion programs can offer companies competitive advantages in products, services and costs. This has a stronger positive effect on smaller firms and those less experienced in exporting. (23)

There are many possible sources of competitive advantage. As mentioned, the key is that the chosen advantage would provide value to your market. Feel free to contact us to determine and possibly assist with the implementation of the most effective differentiator for your firm.


  1. Michael Porter, Competitive Advantage, 1985
  2. http://www.monografias.com/trabajos89/strategy-michael-porter/strategy-michael-porter.shtml
  3. Toshiro Wakayama. What Panasonic Learned in China Harvard Business Review December 2012 p. 109-113
  4. Mowla Mohammad Masrurul. An Overview of Strategic Alliance: Competitive Advantages in Alliance Constellations Advances In Management Vol. 5 (12) Dec. (2012)
  5. Ming-Jer Chen. Competitive Attack, Retaliation And Performance: An Expectancy-Valence Framework: Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 15, 85-102 (1994)
  6. Walter J. Ferrier, and Robert Wiltbank. Value from Gestalt: How Sequences of Competitive Actions Create Advantage for Firms In Nascent Markets Violina Rindova, Strategic Management Journal, 31: 1474–1497 (2010)
  7. Karagozoglu, Necmi and Warren B. Brown (1993), “Time-Based Management of New Product Development Process,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, 10 (3), 204–215.
  8. Moorman, Christine and Anne S. Miner (1998), “The Convergenceof Planning and Execution: Improvisation in New Product Development,” Journal of Marketing, 62 (July), 1–20.
  9. Ellis, Paul D. (2007), “Distance, Dependence and Diversity of Markets: Effects on Market Orientation,” Journal of International Business Studies, 38 (3), 374–86.
  10. V. Kumar, Eli Jones, Rajkumar Venkatesan, & Robert P. Leone. Is Market Orientation a Source of Sustainable Competitive Advantage or Simply the Cost of Competing? Journal of Marketing, Vol. 75 (January 2011), 16 –30
  11. “Products and Services: Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage by Talil Hanna Abrhiem inBusiness and Management Review Vol. 2(6) pp. 34 – 45 August, 2012; Online at: http://www.businessjournalz.org/bmr
  12. Srivastava, R.K. Fahey, L., & Christensen, H.K. (2001). The resource based view and marketing: The role of market-based assets in gaining competitive advantage. Journal of Management, 27(6), 777-803.
  13. William G. Egelhoff Great Strategy or Great Strategy Implementation — Two Ways of Competing in Global Markets. MIT Sloan Management Review Magazine: Winter 1993 January 15, 1993
  14. Hall, R. 1993. A framework linking intangible resources and capabilities to sustainable competitive advantage. Strategic Management Journal, 14: 607–618.
  15. Barney, J. B. 1991. Firm resources and sustained competitive advantage. Journal of Management, 17: 99–120.
  16. Rumelt, R. P. 1984. Towards a strategic theory of the firm. In N. J. Foss (Ed.), Competitive strategic management: 556– 570 Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  17. Ployhart, R. E., & Moliterno, T. P. 2011. Emergence of the human capital resource: A multilevel model. Academy of Management Review, 36: 127–150.
  18. Coff, R. W. 1997. Human assets and management dilemmas: Coping with hazards on the road to resource-based theory. Academy of Management Review, 22: 374–402.
  19. Farai Ncube and Steven Jerie. Leveraging Employee Engagement for Competitive Advantage in the Hospitality Industry. A Comparative Study of Hotels A and B in Zimbabwe, Journal of Emerging Trends in Economics and Management Sciences (JETEMS) 3(4): 380-388
  20. Asli Goksoy. The New Competitive Advantage: Technological Change: An Application of Electronic Data Interchange Implementation in SME in the Automotive Industry International Journal of Business Administration Vol. 3, No. 6; 2012 www.sciedu.ca/ijba
  21. David Kiron and Rebecca Shockley. Creating Business Value with Analytics MIT Sloan Management Review September 15, 2011
  22. Seif Obeid ALshbiel. JIT Production System And Its Effect On Achieving Competitive Advantage For Public Shareholding Industrial Companies In Jordan, Interdisciplinary Journal Of Contemporary Research In Business October 2012 Vol 4, No 6 ijcrb.webs.com
  23. Pramendra Kumar Singh. Management of Business Processes Can Help an Organization Achieve Competitive Advantage International Management Review Vol. 8 No. 2 2012
  24. Leonidas C. Leonidou, Dayananda Palihawadana, and Marios Theodosiou. National Export-Promotion Programs as Drivers of Organizational Resources and Capabilities: Effects on Strategy, Competitive Advantage, and Performance Journal of International Marketing Vol. 19, No. 2, 2011, pp. 1–29 ISSN 1069-0031X (print) 1547-7215 (electronic)

Photo credits:
Competitive Action photo by Olivier Hodac
Company-wide Market Orientation photo by Paul Spud Taylor
Strategic Fit photo by Eastern Illinois University
Employee Engagement photo by Turn-Key
Technology photo by T-mooh_
Production System photo by C.I.I.

Table of Contents
Externally-Focused Strategies
1. Localization in Global Markets
2. Strategic Alliance or Acquisition
3. Competitive Actions
4. Customer Clusters

Internally-Focused Leadership Role
5. Company-Wide Market Orientation
6. Strategic Fit between Marketing and Manufacturing
7. Implementation of Strategy

Human Resources
8. Human Capital
9. Employee Engagement

Technology Development
10. Technological Change
11. Business Analytics

Logistics and Operations
12. Production System
13. Business Processes

Government Programs
14. National Export Promotion