Lego profits have more than doubled in the last five years. The company has sold non-core businesses and doubled down on the core building block products. They are the undisputed king of building toys. A recent New York Times article describes the lay of the land brick by brick. Lego has focused on more wholesome building themes (Star Wars, etc.) while rivals have sought space where they don’t have to directly compete. For example, Mattel’s MEGA unit has a series of much more realistic building sets (Sponge Bob, Terminator, and Star Trek). Similarly, McFarlane toys has a very successful series of “Walk Dead” building sets that deviate from the image Lego prefers to maintain. In addition to competitors seeking to differentiate, many complementors have emerged such as Pley which offers Lego set rentals (the “Netlix” of the Lego world) or numerous used Lego trading businesses (here is one in Madison). Interestingly, research suggests that these Lego sets may actually reduce creativity — especially compared to the older version that involved a simple bucket of bricks rather than a kit to build a specific thing. Of course, their move into Lego films brings in an interesting discussion of diversification.
The $104B merger between AB InBev and SABMiller makes a great holiday addition to your classroom. While it is largely a corporate strategy question, I used this discussion to kick off my course and I plan to come back to it as we hit various topics. Here is a packet of news articles that I used as the basis of the case. I also had students complete a brief online poll in advance of the class. This allowed me to start by summarizing their positions and to call on people who I knew had relatively unusual opinions. I used the case to show them how to draw a decision tree (click the image to enlarge) reflecting the uncertainty associated with the acquisition. Of course, it also frames topics throughout the course. Here are a few examples:
Internal capabilities. AB InBev’s capability to conduct acquisitions and to cut costs.
External analysis. Market structure for beer in different countries (namely Africa and China which drive this deal). Also, we compared the market structure for micro- and macro-brews. Of course, these mega-brews act to control distribution channels so barriers to entry are a key part of the game.
Competitive dynamics. Of course this is a game among the rivals but it also includes adjacent industries (like spirits).
Corporate. What are the logics for value creation? For example, to what extent does scale lower manufacturing costs as opposed to purchasing power or other mechanisms. At what point is a larger scale no longer an advantage?
Strategic factor markets: The M&A context makes it clear that most of the synergies go to the target (especially at the 50% bid premium).
Global. As indicated above, this is mostly about entry into new markets (China and Africa, among others).
Sometimes students struggle with how a firm can have valuable, rare, inimitable resources and still not have an advantage. This is central to the resource-based view and the VRIO framework. This clip from “Triumph of the Nerds” shows how PARC Xerox developed the GUI interface, object-oriented programming, and local area networks. Then it shows how they failed to exploit any of these innovations. In particular, it shows how Steve Jobs toured PARC and lifted the GUI to create the Macintosh computer. Here is a nice discussion of what the Xerox engineers thought of Steve Jobs’ visit. This can lead to a nice discussion of intellectual property, complementary assets, internal and external analysis. It is useful to show the first half (first 4.5 minutes) and ask students to speculate on why we don’t all have Xerox computers. Then the second half explains how Apple exploited the innovations.
Sometimes the value of a capability is that it deters rivals’ actions without having to be deployed at all. As you will see, the video below demonstrates this principle nicely. In the context of industry analysis, this might be the credible threat of retaliation on new entrants. If it deters entrants, the threat may not have to be used frequently (though credible commitment to deter may be essential to demonstrate).
Here is a simple exercise to demonstrate competitive advantage on the first day of class. Hold up a crisp $20 bill and ask “Who wants this?” When people look puzzled, ask, “I mean, who really wants this?” and then “Does anyone want this?” Continue this way (repeating this in different ways) until someone actually gets up, walks over, and takes the $20 from your hand. Then the discussion focuses on why this particular person got the money. How did their motivation differ? Did they have different information or perception of the opportunity? Did they have a positional advantage based on where they were sitting? Other personal attributes (e.g., entrepreneurial)? The main question, then, is why do some people/firms perform better than others? This simple exercise gets at the nexus of perceived opportunity, position, resources, and other factors that operate both at the individual and firm level. Note that instructors should tell the class not to share this with other students. However, if you do have a student who has heard about the exercise (and grabs the money), asymmetric information about an opportunity is certainly one aspect of the discussion. The following “vine” might also help drive home the point about money and resources…
Economic bubbles reflect irrational escalation but there is always an element of underlying rationality. This classic exercise, the Dollar Auction, is an ideal vehicle to emphasize how this can come about — even with actors who intend to be rational. With much fanfare, the instructor auctions off a dollar bill (a very crisp one to reflect a “rare” asset). The bill goes to the winner; however, the second-highest bidder also loses the amount that they bid. The game begins with one player bidding five cents (the min), hoping to make a ninety-five-cent profit. However, a ten cent bid would still yield a ninety-cent profit (if bidding stopped there). If the first bidder bids ninety five cents, and the second bidder bids one dollar (for no net gain or loss), the first bidder stands to lose ninety five cents unless she bids $1.05. In this way, bidding continues well beyond a dollar, usually until one player issues a preemptively high bid to signal intent to outbid at any cost. Only the auctioneer gets to profit in the end. While the incentive structure is idiosyncratic, one might debrief with a discussion of why they didn’t anticipate this problem when they started bidding? This fits broadly in discussions where escalation is a risk (decisions under uncertainty, M&A, technology investments, etc.). You may find that some students have seen this exercise previously. However, it only takes two uninformed bidders to create a bubble. Of course, the following classic bubble video is a good fit in the debrief (came out right before the real estate bubble)…
This is another in a series of reminders that individuals respond to perceptions even if they are inaccurate. The short video of the invisible rope prank might be followed by a discussion of how firms can influence the perceptions of their rivals, complementors, and/or customers. This is especially an issue in contexts where there is a great deal of uncertainty (entrepreneurship, technology, etc.). An earlier post presents a driving prank with a similar theme.
This clip shows a cheetah catching a gazelle. Then a hyena tries to steal dinner from the cheetah. While they are busy fighting, the gazelle, who was playing dead, gets up and runs away. In this way, a cunning weaker firm might avoid being noticed by more resource rich firms until the moment when it has more resources of its own. A basic principle of competitive dynamics under bounded rationality is to fly under the radar so as to avoid retaliation from stronger incumbents.
Will Samsung Pay win a standards war over Apple and Google? Apple Pay and Google Pay may have gotten lots of buzz but adoption of contactless payment has been slow. The near field communications (NFC) technologies that they rely on require that merchants invest in new technology at the point of sale. Samsung has acquired LoopPay and its technology to allow phones to communicate with any magnetic strip reader. The new service is expected to launch in the 2nd half of 2015. Even if NFC is ultimately a superior technology, the ease of adoption may allow Samsung to dominate as users seek a solution that they can use with most merchants. Meanwhile, Google plans to include it’s Pay app on all Android devices which could increase its penetration. Though it is important to note that this might create a conflict with its key Android partner Samsung. This should engender a nice discussion of strategy in “winner take all” standards wars. In class, one might assign groups to debate why Google, Apple, Samsung, or other will win this market.
In teaching industry analysis, I always make a point of discussing network effects as a potential barrier to entry (see Peter Klein’s comment to this post on the term “network externalities”). Usually, I use an example like the iPhone FaceTime application which increases in value depending on the number of family and friends who have iPhones. This, in turn makes it hard for rivals to enter because of the need for a large installed base. Google+ is another example in it’s failure to make much of a dent in Facebook’s market. Now, a new app gives discount points to students for locking their phones based on the number of other locked phones in the same vicinity. As such, when the whole class locks down using the PocketPoints app, they all get discount points. This pushes everyone to adopt the same app to get the most points and makes it hard for a competitor to enter. This might also be a nice way to turn the class into a lab to study game theory, or incentives. It does all this and keeps people off their phones in class! The following video describes the app.
OPEC might seem like a tired example of collusion since the alliance has been stable for many years. However, it is certainly produced a gush of news lately as oil prices have slipped by 60% in just a few months. This article offers a nice summary of why each member of the OPEC cartel has failed to bolster the prices (e.g., cut production). This underscores the different strategic objectives that each has an how difficult it may be to maintain cooperation. Some of the reasons reflect divergent goals among partners (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia). Others reflect internal turmoil (Venezuela). Then there are strategic objectives such as the Saudi’s seeking to thrash the economics of newer, more costly, sources like fracking (which has made the US the top oil producing nation). While this sudden drop in in prices has hurt many oil producing nations (see chart) it has also lubricated many troubled economies in other parts of the world.
Dave Kryscynski has provided an excellent series of online videos to supplement your course or to help move portions of it online. These are very well produced and may allow you to spend class time on more experiential activities found elsewhere on this site. Below is the video on Porter’s generic strategies but I have provided links to all of the available videos below and listed others that you can gain access to through Wiley.
Every wonder why hospital receiving blanket always look the same (pink & blue stripes)? Medline’s “Kuddle-up” line has a near complete market share of the hospital receiving blanket business. The company started in 1910 making butcher’s aprons for the Chicago meatpacking industry. They entered the receiving blanket business in 1950’s and now sell more than 1.5M blankets/year. A recent article in Quartz notes: “The Kuddle-Up blanket was entwined with the institutionalization of childbirth. Just as we began to standardize the process of birth, we began to standardize the post-partum experience, too, such that the newborn photo in the Kuddle-Up blanket is, at this point, an instant signifier. Thousands of new parents, and even grandparents, were themselves swaddled in such a blanket when they were born; that same pattern spans generations.” In a strategy course, one might ask how could a company gain and sustain such an advantage virtually unchallenged for over 60 years? Was there a substantial cost advantage? If so, what are the limits to scale advantages? Why isn’t there a stronger market for a differentiated product? That certainly is the case in related baby care product markets. Will this post make potential entrants aware and help to erode the advantage?
Few things are more dramatic than a good hostile takeover attempt. Dollar General has been trying all summer to break up the planned nuptials between Family Dollar and Dollar Tree. They have offered $600 million more for Family Dollar than the preferred suitor. Two things may be preventing Family Dollar from switching partners: 1) concerns that a Dollar General deal would be thwarted by anti-trust regulators, and 2) the Family Dollar CEO would lose his job if Dollar General takes over. Of course, they say the second issue is not on their minds. This makes a great “ripped from the headlines” case (here is a small packet of news articles). There are many directions that the discussion can go which, I think, makes for a nice introductory case to frame the rest of the semester. Here are a few:
What is an industry? The anti-trust argument assumes that the industry is defined as small discount stores (in other words, Wal-Mart is not really a player).
Corporate governance: How much should it matter what the Family Dollar CEO’s preferences are?
Cost advantages: Do any of the players have a cost advantage? At what point do the advantages of scale diminish?
Industry structure: What, if anything, makes this an attractive industry?
Competitive dynamics: What will be the next competitive move? What has driven the past moves?
M&A Synergies: The news packet includes an estimate of the synergies and suggests that Dollar General could create more value. Do you buy this analysis?
Sometimes no matter how strong your resources are, you still can’t win. In those cases, it’s critical to avoid conflict so you can fight another day. This classic video depicts a battleship demanding that a rival change course to avoid collision. This might be useful for competitive dynamics (game theory), entrepreneurship (failure to pivot) or strategy process (cognition & stubbornness) where it may be critical to know when to change course. Guoli Chen, Crossland, & Luo’s recent SMJ article on CEO overconfidence is a nice academic complement to this. Of course there is a large literature on escalation of commitment that is also relevant.
Samsung’s profits are down by a whopping 25% and they put the blame firmly on Chinese competitors entering with cheaper smartphones (see this NYT article). Companies like Xiaomi and Huawei have increased market share in China over the last year as they sell good products at break-even prices. Now, they have turned their sights on western markets that eat into Samsung’s bread and butter. Pressure on Samsung to respond with lower prices? Perhaps but Apple continues to compete effectively at the high end. It’s proprietary operating system keeps rivals from fully imitating many of the most important product attributes. For now, Samsung is signalling that it will accelerate efforts to differentiate their products — an innovation war more than a price war. The real winner may be Google which gains as Android dominates growth in this market. As you can see, this “live” case allows one to explore the complexities of how different strategies play out in the market. It also pushes us to explore how a sequence of strategies might unfold leading to a longer term competitive advantage. This case might go nicely with the HBS case on Samsung’s dual (cost/differentiation) advantage in memory chips and the threat of Chinese rivals. Of course, in the race for new features, one wonders what they will think of next…