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The Limitations Of Blue Oceans Strategies And An Unexpected Alternative

Mar 6, 2008
The vast red and blue oceans of the marketing world tsunamied into our awareness and vocabulary a few years ago, when two INSEAD professors, W.Chan Kim and Rene Mauborgne, claimed that competition can be rendered irrelevant.

Their book, Blue Ocean Strategy, heralded the news to marketing managers and CEOs all over the world: after years and years of surviving in red bloody oceans, swarming with murderous competitors, finally there's a better alternative!

In red oceans, executives captivated in a conception-cage of competitive strategy business thinking, have been rivaling head to head with their competition over the same consumer segments doing exactly the same things, only better and cheaper in order to offer customers a better cost/value tradeoff in order to convince them to stick around with their wallets open. In the process, these executives wore out their own companies and their profits were ground to dust. Now, the Blue Ocean enunciation, based on long years of research, claimed that both serenity and profitability can be amply found in Value Innovation, which creates, via a new business model and new products, a "Virgin territory devoid of me-too brand propositions and cutthroat pricing" (BusinessWeek).

Let us consider an example of a company which supposedly followed Kim and Mauborgne's Blue Ocean strategy:

Casella Wines, an Australian winery, decided to "de-complex" wine for the sake of intimidated unpretentious adults. It decided to create new wine drinking rules, and to make a fun wine, sweet and fruity, to suit any taste. The chosen brand name was Yellow Tail; the label was highly recognizable, the selection targeted the mainstream (Chardonnay and Red Shiraz), and the price just above budget: $6.99.

The result? The brand quickly became the number one imported wine into the USA, without a promotional campaign or consumer advertising. In just two years it emerged as the fastest-growing brand in the histories of both the Australian and US wine industries. Casella Wines even grew the overall market. Genuinely Impressive.

The big "Blue Ocean" promise took over the business world, but also aroused a great wave of criticism, partially justified; with the strongest claim being that the text carries no novelty beyond Ted Levitt's old differentiation directive, remolded with the trendy belief in the importance of innovation.

Personally, I think differently. First, Kim and Mauborgne talked about differentiation and innovation on the levels of strategy and business model, while most traditional occupation with differentiation and innovation has been focused on the level of products or brands. But more importantly, the Blue Ocean thinkers honed a major observation regarding the nature of business competition.

In sports competitions, competitors are compelled to completely defined rules while striving to achieve a superior result. In the business world, competitors also strive to achieve a better result of the same type: a larger share of the consumer's wallet. However, the competition does not restrict participants to any specific actions. The contrary is true.

And yet, it is in this aspect exactly that Kim and Mauborgne are wrong and misleading, upon claiming that competition can be rendered irrelevant. Even in the case of Yellow Tail, which obviously turned many non-wine-consumers to active buyers, clearly when consumers are buying Yellow Tail they are buying other types of alcohol that they would have purchased in its absence. The prospect of raising demand infinitely simply does not exist. This is where the Blue Ocean Strategy finds its limitation. Since you always take sales away from someone (whether a direct or an indirect competitor), and being that you will always be surrounded by businesses striving to increase sales, once your Blue Ocean Strategy works, sooner or later someone will copy or even improve your already successful model.

One must credit the writers that they are not blind to this fact. In an interview with W. Chan Kim posted on Business Innovation Insider on October 2005, he said very openly: "After a while the first copycats will arise, competing on the very same value points as you. That's completely normal; however it forces the entrepreneur to find a new strategy every several years."

In other words, the most brilliant BOS will grant you with no more than a limited, relatively peaceful, period of time. Does this mellow promise of the BOS express maximal possible achievement? Naturally, you can guess that my answer is no. Introducing the Unfair Advantage. An UA is a situation in which you become unique and adored by your customers, while competitors do not imitated you.

Beyond the not so simple challenge of creating a differentiated value innovation, the critical question is: what can be done which is immune from imitations? Apparently the principle is simple as it is unexpected: when your innovation and differentiation are improving on benefits considered central to customers in your industry, fully expected from a product or service such as yours (I call it On-Core Differentiation), then sooner or later imitations will mushroom, no matter how big your innovation. Why? Exactly because the benefit is considered relevant by your consumer. On the other hand, when your innovation and differentiation offer further benefits which are not considered relevant in your category (I call it Off-Core Differentiation), there is a good chance of avoiding imitations, even after years of success.

This kind of differentiation, when it manages to excite consumers, is that which creates the Unfair Advantage. Why will you not be imitated? Because what you offer is perceived by your competitors as weird, irrelevant, or overly-unique, such which is pointless to imitate. This is the big secret. This is your competitor's trap.

There are two main types of Off Core Differentiation: Imported Benefits, and Peculiar Particularity. In many cases a combination of the two is being used.

The first type happens when you import a benefit which is important to consumers in other product categories, but are not considered relevant in yours. Umpqua Bank turned its branches into a unique combination of packaged goods stores, and community clubs, in order to provide consumers with benefits of a pleasant buying experience as well as a social neighborhood hangout, to which they go on a regular basis for various activities and social gatherings. Umpqua is today the largest independent bank in the Pacific Northwest, and it grew in 15 years from four to 120 branches, which is an imaginary growth rate in the banking industry. And the best part is that no one even tried to imitate them.

The other type is a unique style which is not typical to the category. Take Toblerone, the Swiss chocolate brand. It has been producing its triangular alp-summit look alike chocolate bars since 1908. No one has imitated them. The Body Shop chain has grown to 2,000 shops in 50 states, to become the second largest cosmetics chain in the world. It is an active crusader fighting for environment protection, underprivileged rights, human rights and animal rights, worldwide. It fine tunes its acquisition policy, employee volunteering requirements, marketing communication budgets etc, for serving these purposes. Again, no one has imitated them.

So now you know and the choice is yours: a Blue Ocean Strategy, or an Unfair Advantage.
About the Author
Dr. Dan Herman, a globally renowned strategy consultant, an author and a lecturer, is the author of "Outsmart the MBA Clones: The Alternative Guide to Competitive Strategy, Marketing, and Branding"
( http://www.outsmart-mba-clones.com ).
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