Competition analysis that will help you stand out in the market – Porter’s 5 Forces model
Knowing your competition is the foundation of a successful business venture. Whether you’re starting a new company, launching a product in a new market, or have been in the business for years, you should always be up to date with what your competition is doing. This article will show you how to conduct such a step-by-step analysis and what lessons you can learn from it.
Customers are not interested in your services or products? Perhaps your competitors offer the same thing, only better and cheaper, or provide it faster.
Your income doesn’t balance your costs, and you can’t raise the prices? Presumably, for some reason, your competitors have negotiated better contracts and more attractive terms with their suppliers.
And so on, and so forth. We don’t live in void. We are always (indeed perpetually!) exposed to many different forces that decide about “to be or not to be” of our enterprises. As entrepreneurs and managers, we have a responsibility to seek knowledge about these forces and then develop strategies that minimize the risk of failure when the “balance of power” shifts.
And this is not an easy task. Business management is not an exact science, where it is enough to substitute the values into formulae to obtain the answers to our questions. We have to be flexible, determined, and… creative.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- What is Porter’s 5 Forces Model?
- Before you begin…
- When should you analyze Porter’s 5 forces and your competitors?
- How to perform Porter’s 5 forces analysis?
- Porter’s forces – proper analysis
- Strategies for dealing with competition – according to Porter
- How to stand out from the competition? Ideas and implementation
- That’s not all…
For instance, the logistics industry – current Mecca of innovation, where changes force the managers to constantly revise their assumptions, analyze a highly dynamic environment, interpret observed trends and experiment with new solutions. They can either ride the wave of change, or sink being crushed by water pressure or hit by the surfboards of the competition struggling to stay afloat.
I would definitely recommend the first option. In this article, I am going to give you something to get your surf on. Your surfboard is Porter’s 5 Forces Model.
Porter’s 5 forces model is a great tool for analyzing a company’s environment. Developed in the last century by Professor Michael Porter, head of the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School, it is a great starting point for analyzing a company’s environment. If used properly, it allows for a structured reflection on what differentiates a company from its competitors.
Porter’s model includes:
- suppliers’ bargaining power,
- buyers’ bargaining power,
- intra-industry competitiveness,
- threat of new competitors,
- threat of substitutes.
The power of this tool lies in its simplicity and versatility. Nevertheless, I can guarantee that the exercise we are going to make together will provide you with actionable answers and a thorough outline of a strategy to stand out from the competition.
For the purpose of this text, I assume you are familiar with the Lean Canvas and Business Model Canvas tools (you can read more about them here, here and here. You can also download them from our Library. All you have to do to get access is sign up for the newsletter).
Porter’s 5 Forces Model will support your work with these tools. It will help you better develop the content of columns such as “key partners”, “key activities” and “key resources”. This article will help you determine the key value you want to offer your customers.
The analysis of Porter’s 5 Forces will provide you with a ready-made resource for developing contingency plans. As you probably know, the power of Business Model Canvas is its flexibility, among other things. If the situation evolves and your position changes, your strategy should also be subject to modification.
It pays off to be prepared for this change well in advance. It is worth knowing the areas where the change may occur, and what it will entail.
You should analyze the attractiveness of a sector…
- when you are just launching your business (or introducing major changes to your current operations).
This is a classic situation where Porter’s 5 Forces Model should be applied.
Each model is designed to simplify reality to a certain extent. It is meant to structure your thought process and guide you to specific conclusions.
When starting your business, you probably suffer from some form of decision paralysis due to an overwhelming plethora of hypotheses and unproven information. It may be difficult to focus on the most important elements. Porter’s 5 Forces Model (and therefore this exercise) is designed to help you meet this challenge and guide you through the process of analyzing your competitive environment.
Taking logistics as an example – if warehouse processes automation has been your business so far, but you observe a growing demand for more comprehensive services (which include e.g. automation of notifications sent to package recipients) or a completely new technology – Porter’s 5 Forces Analysis is for you.
- When you perform a periodic strategy review
In all Project: People’s articles on the Model Business Canvas, we recommend updating your strategy as often as possible. In many cases, updating this canvas comes naturally as it is impelled by knowledge gained in the course of daily work.
However, once in a while it is worth ” to stand aside” and make a thorough analysis of the competitive environment. At this point, Porter’s 5 Forces model will be exactly what you need.
This material is more than just an article. It is a holistic exercise. If you treat it as such, you will derive real value from your time spent on reading it. So…
- Carve out time to do this exercise. Don’t let anyone disturb you. Get rid of distractions.
- Download the Porter’s 5 Forces Analysis worksheet from our Lean Library (you’ll get access to it after joining our newsletter). While reading the text, mark all the elements on the sheet (according to your best knowledge or based on your assumptions if it is something you can’t verify).
If there is anything you don’t know – check it.
- Perhaps some of the questions seem trivial to you, and the answers that come to your mind are obvious. Don’t leave it at that. Think of it as a thought experiment and always ask yourself: “Is it really like I think it is? Is there anything that can be done to make it different?”. The goal of this exercise is to generate the ideas that are likely to work for you. Jot them all down – there will be time for evaluation later.
- After completing this exercise, get some rest. Return to the completed worksheet and your notes the next day. Review your notes and make any necessary corrections.
- Transfer your ideas, insights, observations, and plans onto your Business Model Canvas.
Determine the maturity of your sector
Just as you match your attire to the weather, the first step in working on your strategy should be determining the maturity of the sector you operate in. In a sense, sector maturity is like “a season”- each is characterized by certain phenomena with varying degrees of severity, and the actions you should take to minimize their unpleasant consequences (it’s raining and you don’t want to get wet – wear a jacket or take an umbrella; the sun is shining – put on sunglasses and a hat, apply sunscreen; there is a raging storm or hail the size of chicken eggs – don’t leave the house).
Sometimes just knowing what phase your sector is in can be helpful – especially since it’s not always obvious. Therefore, I would recommend that you read the summary description of each of the main stages and see which illustrates your situation best.
The development stages of a sector are determined by technology, social trends, geo-political situation and… many other factors. By reflecting on this, you will come closer to understanding the phenomena affecting your business. It will also help develop a plan to harness the forces that make your business profitable.
A stage characterized by uncertainty and risk. The decisive factors that shape the future of entities operating in the startup phase are technology and innovation (also in terms of business models, i.e. ways of monetizing the business). What we observe here is a very clear experience curve.
This phase continues until the sector either advances to the next stage (of growth or maturity) or… until the investment fund is consumed.
A sector is in the startup phase if:
- there is a low cost of entry, although the capital required to finance operations is unlimited (it is related to the lack of a single, specific vision – the multitude of possible routes of development);
- few competitors are operating in the sector, although it is possible to observe cases of cooperation or deliberate market sharing between competitors – the aim is to minimize the risks associated with market uncertainty;
- prices fluctuate considerably and frequently (the market equilibrium is not yet established, demand and supply are not precisely identified and it is impossible to define the trends);
- the business is unprofitable or on the brink of profitability.
Let us take courier drones as an example. Anna Wanat of lo4.pl aptly asks: is it “still science fiction or already reality?” This question perfectly captures the spirit of many sectors at the startup stage. As Anna writes in her article: “Amazon was the first to announce a plan to use drones, but was forestalled in late September 2020 by DHL when it introduced the drones into its courier service within the frame of a pilot project to transport medicines and other essential goods at certain hours of the day and on weekends to the island of Juist in the North Sea.”
Although still not mature enough and too expensive, this technology is considered an obvious trend by many experts. It forces many logistics companies to invest with no real chance of a return anytime soon.
Once a product has been approved by the market and managed to overcome the initial difficulties typical of innovative projects, it enters the growth phase. And virtually everything develops at this stage: from demand (which most often results from increased awareness of the need that the product satisfies), and increased technological maturity that translates into the value delivered to customers, through profitability, to the number of potential competitors. The trends, however, are still uncertain. Prices and customer behavior are subject to fluctuations that are difficult to predict.
A sector is in a growth phase if:
- the demand is growing rapidly,
- profitability is increasing significantly (in most cases through cost reductions),
- the number of competitors is increasing,
- the price of a product/service is decreasing.
Example? InPost parcel lockers. A service that has revolutionized the online shopping experience for customers. A service that has already earned our trust, which results in an exponential increase in demand with simultaneous price fluctuations. Another argument for mentioning parcel lockers at this point in the lifecycle of the sector is the emergence of other competitive projects by Poczta Polska, Allegro or Alibaba.
The sector has already completed a phase of rapid growth. The development is steady, the prices and trends have stabilized – the sector is in its maturity phase. This is usually the moment when the last “big market players” enter the game – they already have evidence that market demand will guarantee the success of their venture. They know that if they “sleep through” this moment, it will be too late. This is a lesson we can learn from Kodak which persistently ignored the progressing maturity of the digital camera segment.
In mature sectors, marketing and advertising play a very important role. The basic need that provoked the market to create a given sector recedes into the background. The target audience expands and the offer is segmented: manufacturers customize the same/similar product to different audiences.
A sector is in the maturity phase if:
- demand for the product/service is decreasing;
- the competitive struggle is getting tougher while the differences between the offers of particular companies are narrowing;
- the importance of advertising/branding increases – the demand is generated by marketing, not by a need for the product;
- profitability is decreasing.
As they say, there is time for everything. Technology is changing and so is the situation in the world and the habits of society. As a rule, this is a response to the birth of a new segment – just as the emergence of cell phones, and later smartphones, drove the segment of landline phones into “decline”. Before that, landline phones put an end to telegram-related segments. And so on, and so forth. All of this is reflected in the market.
A sector is in shakeout phase if:
- there is a noticeable stagnation and a definite decline in demand for the product/service;
- more companies withdraw from the sector due to difficulties in maintaining profitability at the appropriate level;
- market trends are not optimistic;
- opportunities for product/service development are limited by external factors;
- the market share of individual companies does not change.
A sector in the shakeout phase can move into a startup or growth phase if any of the negative market trends are reversed (such a phenomenon is occurring in the music industry, where vinyl records or cassettes are now experiencing a real revival).
It’s time to start the actual analysis. You have already determined the maturity of your sector so you are aware of the general rules and norms in your environment.
The next step is to reflect on the specific forces that are pushing your business in all different directions.
None of those forces are “good” or “bad”. They are like gravity – without it, life on Earth would not be possible, but if you decide to walk out the window on the 50th floor, gravity will be “responsible” for your deadly plummet.
Hence, the key to success is the awareness of such forces and the direction they are pushing you in. Furthermore, you need to figure out how to take advantage of them or minimize their undesirable effects. Continuing with the aforementioned example – if you have to jump from the top of a 50-story building (for whatever reason), just knowing how gravity works should prompt you to make use of a parachute. It will minimize the risk of an undesirable outcome (a puddle of blood on the asphalt), but the goal (the jump) will be achieved.
Keep reading to find out how to get yourself a parachute. Let’s roll!
The word “competition” often causes an accelerated heartbeat and excessive sweating. No wonder – after all, it’s the competitors who keep you up at night, steal your customers, force you to lower the prices, or push you to increase the value of the products and services you offer.
However, keep in mind that competition is not entirely negative. At first glance, it may seem that being the only company in the market is a perfect situation. But is it?
As you know from the above description of the industry life cycle, competition is at its lowest level during the most difficult and least profitable phases (start-up and decline). At these stages of development, running a successful business requires a bold and unconventional strategy.
Of course, this does not mean that in other stages of development all sectors “burst at the seams” with companies offering similar services or products. As a rule of thumb, the harder it is to start, the easier it is to stay. This is what the first of Porter’s forces refers to.
The barriers to entry can have different shapes and forms. The most commonly identified include:
- Economies of scale – if in the case of your services and products the economy of scale is significant, the risk of new entries is low – this means that a new venture has to operate under unfavorable conditions for a long time.
- Capital intensity – some businesses can be set up almost for free (e.g. they don’t need specialized equipment), while other businesses require enormous financial outlays. The greater the initial capital, the greater the barrier to entry.
- Know-how – every business requires certain qualifications, specialized knowledge, and experience. The question is: how much time and energy is needed to acquire the know-how that would enable a potential competitor to launch a venture that could undermine your position?
- Customer switching costs – new competitors should not scare you as long as they are unlikely to take over your customers. For example, it takes a few minutes and one signature to change your mobile network provider (the switching cost is close to nil), but changing your electricity provider is nearly impossible in some locations (the switching cost is extremely high).
- Product differentiation among competitors – if there are strong brands that have been trusted by customers for years, winning a market share in the sector is (at least seemingly) more difficult.
- Legal barriers – depending on the venture, you need to factor in various legal requirements, regulations, necessary permits, and licenses. The more paperwork – the more time, energy and money it takes to meet all the requirements, which means a higher barrier to entry.
Now take a moment to analyze these forces in the context of the sector you want to work in. Make a list of the most important and potentially problematic requirements and conditions you need to meet in order to start your business.
Let’s go back to the example of parcel lockers. This product definitely benefits from the economy of scale – i.e. there must be a lot of machines and many users. This entails huge financial outlays (e.g. production of the units, technological infrastructure maintenance, and lease of land). Where large-scale rental is involved, there are a lot of legal issues to attend to. InPost’s initial situation was not particularly optimistic. On the other hand, in their case, the risk taken has paid off.
To sum up, the intensity of competitive struggle is low if:
- there are few competing companies in the market,
- competitive companies are of different sizes and have different market shares,
- the fixed costs in the given sector are low,
- the barrier to entry is low,
- products are diversified,
- brand loyalty is important.
The intensity of competitive struggle is high if:
- There are many competing companies in the sector,
- Competitive companies are of similar size,
- Competitors have an equal market share,
- Products are not diversified,
- Customer switching costs are low,
- No brand loyalty,
- The barriers to exit are high.
Reflect on the following questions (note your answers in the sheet):
- Is it easy to start a business in your sector?
- Do you need a lot of money to start a business?
- What are the rules and regulations that govern business in your sector?
- Are there barriers to entry that may eventually be your advantage over new companies that will be looking to enter this sector?
Having read this chapter, keep in mind that:
- The lack of competition or few competitors may indicate that…
- the sector is in a difficult phase of the life cycle – in this situation, consider if it is a good time to start/continue your business. Depending on your situation, it may be more profitable to modify your product and/or service.
- The barriers to entry into the sector are high – which is positive if you are already a participant of this market (it minimizes the risk of fierce competition), or negative if you are just thinking about starting a business (huge investment).
This point can be boiled down to the principle that the easier you are to replace, the harder your job gets.
There are commodities that mankind has and will always need, e.g. basic food products such as bread. You must admit, however, that this is a product that can be easily replaced by a competitive product.
Personally, I don’t always buy bread. I sometimes prefer rolls. I might just as well get some flour and yeast for home-made bread. I also experiment with similar products such as pita, vegetable bread… and so on. If you want me to buy your bread every day, you have a hard nut to crack.
In most cases, offering bread will not be enough to convince potential customers to buy from your bakery. You need to look for additional value such as location, price, home delivery, special products e.g. diet bread.
The good news is that this “extra value,” if met with a positive market response, can make you unique. In special cases, it may even lead to the emergence of a new segment.
In the case of courier companies, this added value (which is slowly becoming a standard, but it’s a typical feature of the so-called Blue Ocean, which you’ll read about at the end of this text) can be e.g. delivery time notifications, carrying bulky or heavy objects in, etc.
The next set of questions is as follows:
- Is it easy to find an alternative to your product or service?
- If it is easy – what can you do to change this? Is there a way to modify the service or product? What can you do to stand out in the market?
- Can the service be outsourced? If so – is it going to be easy?
- Can you automate production? If so – is it going to be easy?
The threat of substitutes is high if:
- the substitute is cheaper than the main product,
- the quality of the substitute is higher than or equal to the main product,
- the cost of switching to the substitute product is low.
The threat of substitutes is low if:
- the costs associated with switching products are high,
- the substitute is more expensive than the main product,
- the substitute is of poorer quality,
- the cost of producing the substitute is higher,
- no substitutes are available.
After reading this article, think about…
- How to minimize the risk of your customers seeking substitutes for your products or services?
- What can you offer (at low cost) to provide your customers with additional value?
- What can you do to increase the cost of switching from your product/service? What “exit barrier” should you set?
Let me say it again – no company operates in the void. The point is, no matter what you do in business, you need the right semi-products and equipment to provide your services or produce your goods. Perhaps you outsource some part of your production process to a third-party contractor. It is difficult to think of an organization that does everything on its own (referring to the bread metaphor: from sowing the seed, through harvesting and grinding the grain, to baking and distribution).
Therefore, when analyzing your company’s environment, it is crucial to consider the strength of your suppliers and subcontractors. Exactly as in the case of the previous force (the threat of new substitutes), but in the opposite direction. Luckily for you, there are many suppliers and subcontractors available.
This guarantees a consistently high quality of service. The fear of losing you to the competition will push them to make sure you are satisfied with cooperation. In such a situation, the bargaining power of suppliers is low. Their influence on the way your business operates is insignificant.
On the other hand, if you rely on a single supplier, or if switching supplier is for some reason costly and energy-intensive, their bargaining power is high. This means that a price increase by a supplier is likely to increase your production cost. This in turn may force you to raise your prices, which might decrease your competitiveness. Your business can suffer a great deal if a supplier decides to terminate your contract or change the conditions.
In other words: the fewer suppliers, the worse for you.
Questions you need to answer:
- How many suppliers are there in the market? The fewer, the worse for you.
- Are there many suppliers who control prices in the sector? If there are many, your position is weak.
- How many suppliers have lower prices compared to others?
- Is it easy to switch suppliers without incurring high costs? As a general rule, the easier it is, the safer you can feel.
The bargaining power of a supplier is high if:
- there is only one or very few suppliers of a particular product,
- there are no substitutes for the product,
- the product is extremely important to the customers and they cannot do without it,
- supplier switching costs are very high,
- supplier decides to start the production of finished goods,
- purchases made by a buyer are only a small part of a supplier’s income,
- the buyer is not price-sensitive and does not bargain.
The bargaining power of suppliers is low if:
- supplier switching costs are low,
- the buyer is price sensitive and seeks cheaper solutions,
- purchases are made in large quantities/values and represent a significant portion of the supplier’s income,
- substitutes are available in the market.
- What can you do to become resistant to the whims of your suppliers and partners, and their attempts to renegotiate the terms of your cooperation? Develop contingency plans in case of problems with cooperation.
- Think about what you can do to avoid having to raise your prices. You can revisit the solutions in the section about the “entry barriers” and apply them to cooperation with suppliers.
Customers are the main source of income for any company. The greater their power, the higher their expectations regarding product quality, prices and customer service. What exactly drives their bargaining power?
- The number of customers – how many buyers are there in the sector?
- Are buyers in a position to dictate the terms?
- How powerful are the buyers in this market?
Running a bakery that serves 1,000 customers a day, you can afford to lose 10 if you don’t bake the kind of bread they want.
Just make sure those 10 customers don’t form some kind of committee and convince the remaining 990 people that since you don’t make the kind of bread they want, there is no point in buying from you.
The situation is similar if your company relies on one or two customers. If losing a customer can affect your liquidity, the impact on your business is significant. For fear of losing customers, you will be willing to make far-reaching compromises, which might turn out bad for your business.
The bargaining power of buyers is strong if:
- a number of buyers is small (but purchase volume/ value is high),
- every customer’s purchase accounts for a significant portion of the supplier’s revenue,
- buyers can easily switch to competitors’ products,
- the product is not vital to the buyers and they can do without it,
- there are many substitutes for the main product.
Buyers’ bargaining power is low if:
- switching cost is high – a buyer prefers to stay with a current supplier rather than incur a loss,
- buyers purchase small volumes,
- substitutes are not available,
- buyers don’t have sufficient knowledge of the product.
- What can you do to diversify your revenue streams and widen the portfolio of customers?
- What can you do to become independent of your customers’ strong leverage (if they have one)? For example: develop an adequate financial buffer to withstand the loss of a customer in case this relationship is no longer profitable for you; attach customers more firmly (increase your leverage).
In his model, Michael Porter distinguished 3 categories of competitive strategies. In most cases, however, it is not enough to use just one – you will probably be forced to create a strategy that combines all three approaches. Remember to tailor your ideas to the current phase of the sector.
It’s a strategy that is most likely to succeed in phases from “growth” onwards. It assumes a stable market (or striving for stability, and with identifiable trends).
The key to success in differentiating yourself from the competition is building brand awareness. Since it is impossible to present this concept in a few paragraphs, I encourage you to dig deeper into the issues related to branding.
In short, it’s about creating a relationship between a company and its customers. This relationship may be based on shared values, the mission you communicate, or obvious associations with your brand that present a certain value for your customers and allow them to build their own value with your products and/or services (a mechanism that all exclusive brands rely on).
Of course, you don’t want to neglect the quality of your products. For example, in its early days, Xiaomi claimed that their only investment in marketing was the investment in the actual product. In a sense, the lack of marketing was a differentiator that allowed them to capture a sizable portion of the market in a clever way.
When it comes to logistics companies, it’s quite easy to differentiate yourself from the competition. If you were given a choice, would you use the services of DHL/DPD or a public postal company? I thought so. The quality of service (timeliness, care for parcels) and crisp marketing allow courier companies to win with their state-owned competitors in the run-up.
The premise of this strategy can be boiled down to a simple principle: cut costs. This can be achieved by:
- negotiating contracts with suppliers,
- reducing costs that are not necessary at this point / do not fit the strategy,
- automation of repetitive activities (e.g. Adidas is opening factories with robots as the predominating workforce which brings them significant savings),
- minimizing (costly) errors (by introducing standards, implementing quality systems and technological infrastructure that ensure continuous monitoring of the services quality).
Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne transformed the Focus Strategy into the Blue Ocean Strategy. In short, it is about finding or creating a market niche that, on one hand, benefits from product awareness (without the need to create demand through large marketing expenditures) and, on the other hand, is such a unique proposition that it can’t be directly compared with competitive offers.
The Blue Ocean Strategy can be implemented by:
- changing the existing market boundaries (e.g. adapting the offer to a previously neglected customer segment that was not directly related to a given service/product),
- looking for opportunities beyond the existing market demand,
- non-standard solutions to organizational problems,
- incorporating added value to the product/service.
Common examples of the Blue Ocean Strategy include:
- Cirque du Soleil that, unlike the competition, decided to address its offer to adults (ready to pay much more for their own entertainment),
- With iTunes, Apple practically redefined the rules in the music industry,
- Canon and their personal scanner.
The focus strategy is particularly applicable when:
- you are operating in a market segment in growth, maturity or decline phase,
- the threat of new competitors is big,
- the threat of substitutes is big.
Bravo! If you’ve reached this point, you deserve sincere congratulations. You deserve a round of applause, if you’ve taken notes.
At this point you should:
- be aware of the phase your sector is in,
- understand general rules in your sector,
- know the forces that affect your company (and their importance in the context of your sector cycle),
- have ideas on how to take advantage of these forces and know what to do to mitigate the risks associated with the negative effects of these forces.
What’s next? Stop reading, look at your notes and take 5 minutes to generate more ideas. Learn from other industries, don’t limit yourself, don’t put value on the ideas you come up with.
Done? Congratulations again! I hope you are brimming with enthusiasm and optimism at this point. Now, it’s time to… get some distance. Do this exercise again tomorrow. Look at your ideas with a critical eye. Reflect on what would need to happen for those ideas to bring the intended effect.
You will probably cross some ideas out, but… you might also generate some new concepts – more refined, better suited to your business model.
Did it work? Great!
Now go back to your Business Model Canvas, map out your ideas and… start implementing them one by one..
I keep my fingers crossed!
Before you go, I would like to thank you for the time we spent together.
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- M.E. Porter, Strategia konkurencji. Metody analizy sektorów i konkurentów, PWE, Warszawa 1992
- M. Romanowska, Planowanie strategiczne w przedsiębiorstwie, PWE, Warszawa 2015
- D. Faulkner, C. Bowman, Strategie konkurencji, Felberg SJA, Warszawa 1999
- K. Obłój, Strategia organizacji, PWE Warszawa 2001
- Cygler J. (2008). Kooperacja przedsiębiorstw a cykl życia sektora., Studia i Prace Kolegium Zarządzania i Finansów. Zeszyt Naukowy 90, Szkoła Główna Handlowa w Warszawie,
- W. Chan Kim, Blue Ocean Strategy, R. Mauborgne, Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2005, ISBN 1-59139-619-0, OCLC 56421900 (ang.).
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