The truism in marketing is that competitive advantage comes from differentiation; business legend Michael Porter wrote in 1985 that businesses achieve advantage either through cost or differentiation of offering. Given that lowest cost is a race to the bottom, many marketers choose to focus on differentiation of offering – the unique selling proposition. Why is it, then, that so many companies seem to offer the same thing?
For instance, if you’ve ever been in the market for CRM software, an awful lot of it looks like the market leader’s interface, Salesforce.com. The major competitors to Salesforce.com have very similar interfaces. Why?
Second, examine what many marketing speakers showcase in social media marketing strategy. Truisms such as the 80/20 rule and best time/day to post abound. Yet if everyone works off the same basic playbook, we achieve no competitive differentiation. Why do we use the same recipes in social media marketing?
Third, consider the keyboards we type on. In the English-speaking world, chances are the keyboard you’re typing on is a QWERTY layout, even on a mobile phone. QWERTY keyboard layouts were designed in 1874 to keep mechanical typewriter arms from colliding with each other in early models of typewriters. Why would we still use a layout designed to make typists type more slowly to avoid jams on devices that have no moving parts?
The common answer to all three of these examples is an economics and sociology concept called path dependency. Path dependence theory essentially says that events can occur in the evolution of any industry which create significant barriers to change, and set standards which are very difficult to deviate from, due to switching costs. In the examples above:
- Salesforce.com’s layout means that competitors must provide a similar interface to make switching easier; a brand new interface would require significant retraining costs of marketing and sales personnel, which would in turn decrease the incentive to change vendors.
- Social media marketing strategies haven’t changed significantly because the way consumers interact with social media hasn’t changed significantly. Arguably the only significant change in the last 15 years in social media marketing was the advent of the smartphone.
- QWERTY keyboards are inefficient, but other layout attempts ran into massive headwinds due to the retraining time. In one study, retraining took up to 100 hours to achieve typing speed parity.
Path dependency, then, effectively negates differentiation as a competitive advantage in cases where an incumbent creates massive barriers to change. Note that in all three cases the barriers to entry are human, not technological.
If we marketers want to preserve our competitive advantage, we must look for human factors, human behaviors that create path dependency. What could we add to our products and services that make switching costs higher? For some service businesses, the customer relationship is the switching cost. “Bob’s such a great guy that I’d never want to work with anyone else.” For other businesses, bundled options such as billing enhancements or ease of use provide path dependency.
If we marketers want to seize market share from our competitors, we must look at how to reduce path dependency. In much the same way as competing CRM vendors must mimic Salesforce.com’s interface, we must look at what users love about competitors that we can incorporate to make switching easier.
Like most forms of competitive advantage, we must use path dependency to our advantage in both defending our customer base and acquiring new customers, and we must beware of competitors doing the same to us. Now that we understand the concept, we know to look for it and plan around it.
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