Strategic Balance

A recent brand positioning facilitation at a client by ALCG colleague Angelo Lyall on points of parity and differentiation reminded me of a key strategy concept: strategic balance (Deephouse, 1999).  This concept is particularly important for firms wishing to pursue a differentiation, or value (benefit) advantage, strategy.

 In his facilitation, Angelo pointed out that while differentiation in positioning a brand is good and usually beneficial, it is also important not to overlook points of parity where you can least match competitive offerings. This is important because failure to identify and communicate points of parity can lead consumers to prefer or choose a rival brand over yours.

 This thinking can be extended from brand positioning to the more general arena of competitive strategy, particularly where a differentiation strategy is being pursued. Firms pursuing a differentiation strategy are staking out a high-quality position in the value/cost space. Doing this successfully requires balancing two opposing forces.

 The first force arises out of the need for a firm to be different from rivals. This, after all, is the essence of differentiation. Firms which successfully differentiate themselves from rivals enjoy reduced rivalry, softer price competition, reduced threat from competitive entry, and increased performance.

 Opposing this first force is the need for a firm to retain some similarity to rivals. If a firm creates extreme differentiation, with little or no similarity to rivals, there is the risk that it can be perceived as a misfit firm within its industry. This perception can erode consumer confidence in the firm’s offerings, causing consumers to prefer rival brands. It may also cause the firm to experience difficulty in acquiring needed resources such as labour and capital, as well as hindering the formation of strategic alliances and partnerships. In short, extreme differentiation in which there are few points of parity with rivals may create the perception of an illegitimate market player.

 In addition, similarities (or points of parity) between rivals provide the context where valuable differences become apparent. Put another way, if nothing is the same, it’s hard for consumers to tell what is really distinctive and different about a firm’s product and service offerings.

 The lesson: avoid extreme differentiation where all points of parity with competitors are sacrificed. Points of parity highlight where a firm at least matches the competition and they accentuate differentiation all the more as distinct differences are highlighted.

 Recommended actions:

  • If your firm is pursuing a differentiation strategy, assess the degree to which parity with rivals is preserved. If your differentiation is extreme, with little or no parity with rivals, you incur the risk of being perceived as a misfit firm.
  • The trick when differentiating is to not merely be different; it is to create meaningful differences that are valuable for customers. Review the degree to which your differentiation is creating more benefit for customers. If you are not creating more benefit for customers than rivals, you need to adjust your differentiation to avoid price competition.

Stewart Anderson
Partner at ALCG

Marketing with Limited Resources and Information

It’s important for companies that are beginning or expanding their marketing efforts, not to wait until they’ve amassed a holistic, all encompassing group of research data and information, before they begin.  This approach is all too tempting, and all too paralyzing for small and medium-sized organizations that may not have sophisticated software and systems to capture customer and market data. 

Certainly, more information availability is better, but usually it isn’t all needed at once.  To get your marketing campaigns up and running faster, identify the steps that need to be taken, and the market or customer information essential to achieving each of those specific steps.  Then, isolate the information needed for just the first step.  By using this approach, your company can begin to move forward and save a lot of time that it might have spent stalled, trying to amass a huge inventory of upfront information. 

Recommended Actions
With your team, perform the activity discussed in this short article.
1. List the steps that need to be taken in order to launch your marketing campaign.

2. Attribute essential information that must be gathered for each step, to the step that requires it.

3. Assign resources to gather the information needed for the first step (keep a macro-view, in case later steps require time-based trend information to be gathered).

For information about effective methods for gaining market intelligence with limited resources and time, contact Anderson Lyall Consulting Group (information below). 


Angelo Lyall
Partner at ALCG

Network Goods and Network Effects

Network Goods and Network Effects

Consumers often place a higher value on a product or service if other consumers use it. When this occurs, the product/service exhibits network effects or network externalities. A network good is a good (product or service) that has a higher value the more customers that use it. One person with a cell phone has limited value; however, if thousands have people have cell phones the more valuable the cell phone network is to each user because more people can be reached. When a network effect is present, the value of a product or service increases as more people use it.

In some networks, consumers are physically linked; examples are cell phone and email networks. In these cases, the network effect arises because consumers can readily communicate with other users in the network. These networks are called actual networks. The more users in an actual network, the greater the opportunities for communication, and the more valuable the network becomes.

Virtual networks, in contrast, are those where consumers are not physically linked. In a virtual network, the network effect arises from the use of complementary goods or services. A computer operating system, such as Microsoft Windows, is an example of a virtual network. As the number of users of Microsoft’s Windows operating system increases, the demand for complementary goods, such as Windows-compatible software, increases. The increased supply and availability of Windows-compatible software, in turn, increases the value of the network. In a virtual network, users need never communicate with each other; as long as the collective buying power of the network encourages the supply of complementary products, each individual consumer benefits from being part of the network.

First movers benefit greatly from network effects. The firm that first establishes a large installed base of customers has a decided advantage in the market. Marginal customers, those consumers not already on the network, will observe the size of the network and tend to gravitate towards it. Thus, strategically, exploiting network effects offers a prime opportunity for first movers to develop a relative advantage in the marketplace, provided the first mover can develop a large installed base.

The converse of this is also true: that network effects can be a powerful barrier to entry for rival firms wishing to challenge the network incumbent. Ownership of a network good can be incredibly valuable because entry against an established incumbent is difficult. When a network effect is present, a large market share creates an advantage much like an economy of scale – entrants have a difficult time overcoming the value created by the large number of users in the network.

Networks, by their very nature, tend to create switching costs which serve to lock-in customers. Switching costs are the costs consumers experience by changing brands. If, for example, consumers have opted to run Microsoft Windows and use Windows-compatible software, there will be significant costs, in terms of time and money, to switch to a competitive operating system and compatible software.

Firms can intensify customer lock-in by basing a network good on proprietary formats or standards which are incompatible with rival products and services, thereby increasing switching costs. Customer lock-in can also be increased by upgrading, at relatively modest cost, inframarginal customers (those customers already on the network) to enhanced capabilities or features offered in the network good.

An important strategic question for providers of network goods is the extent to which complementarities can be exploited. Complementarities, or synergies, can be exploited in several ways.

The first is to ensure that the elements of value which make up the network good in question are coherent – that each of the value elements fits with the others and thus reinforces and multiplies the total effect. Thus, the value elements making up a network good must be wisely chosen and designed so that the level of coherence is high.

The second way to exploit complementarities is through the provision of complementary third-party goods and services. Integrating complementary third-party goods and services into a network good can significantly increase the total value being offered. At the same time, if the supply of these third-party goods and services are secured under and exclusive agreement, a significant barrier to imitation and entry can be erected.

The promise of profits from network goods often leads to intense competitive rivalry which can become a war of attrition. Where competing network goods are vying for customers, such as happened in the VHS versus Beta video wars, potential customers often look to market share as the key indicator of who is likely to win. Because the firm with the larger market share is perceived as the one more likely to win the competitive battle, the firm with the larger share possesses a relative advantage in the marketplace. In this case, a large market share may be a self-fulfilling prophecy of success.

Recommendations for Action
Does your firm produce and supply a network good? If so, assess the degree to which your firm is fully aware of, and exploiting, the network effects associated with your product. In particular, review the following:

• The growth rate of your network. Is your network growing in size due to new customer acquisition, or is it shrinking due to customer attrition? Networks that scale up too slowly can fail to achieve the critical mass necessary to exploit network effects. Remember that, over time, positive network effects can create a bandwagon effect (positive feedback loop) as the network becomes more valuable and more people join.

• Customer lock-in. Is there opportunity to intensify customer lock-in, perhaps through bundling of products and services or offering product/service upgrades?

• Complementarities. Are you fully exploiting synergies that can multiply the network effect? Complementarities can be exploited through value coherence and integration with third-party products and services.

• Beware of negative network effects. If too many people use a good or service, negative network effects, such as congestion, can occur. Negative network effects lower the efficiency of the network and are a turn-off for customers.

Stewart Anderson
Partner at ALCG

Using Social Media and Websites to Communicate your Brand – Tough Mudder LLC Case Study

When it comes to marketing your brand, social media and other interactive media can represent an effective means of reaching and engaging with target consumers.  On the internet, brand is not only communicated in content that flows form firms to consumers, but also from consumers to one another.  Since this conversation is much less linear, and less controlled by the firm, the objective is to manage digital conversations.  The goals of interactive media content management are to guide conversations towards topics that will offer your firm valuable feedback, and to create engagement with consumers.  Visit the links provided in this case study, as you read each paragraph.

Tough Mudder LLC is a good example of an interactive approach to marketing a brand.  If you don’t already know about them, Tough Mudder  offers obstacle courses for adults, that test their mental and physical toughness.  

Tough Mudder uses positive imagery and content in a variety of interactive platforms, to build awareness, and promote their events as being positive growth experiences for individuals and groups (both personal and business).

YouTube – Geographically-Segmented Awareness

Tough Mudder is targeted primarily to active, young and middle-aged adults.  Acknowledging this, and that their events are geographically constrained, Tough Mudder displays promotional videos for major locations where their events are held.  By showing participants going through the viewers’  local course, and by branding the content as empowering, Tough Mudder appeals to target segments clearly and directly.  Additionally, participants can add upload their own experiences to youtube via their own accounts.  This has spawned a movement of training and tips videos, to help future participants prepare for the course.  The flooding of videos form both Tough Mudder directly, and via participants and active people, has created a massive volume of video and text content.

Twitter – Association, Retention & Consistency
Tough Mudder posts motivational content, and photos of people wearing merchandise or being active.  The strategy is to communicate with people who are already aware of the brand, and to support those people in their active lifestyles.  This can lead to long-term benefits of customer loyalty, including repeat business and referral.


Mixing the Strategies of Youtube and Twitter
Tough Mudder’s Facebook accounts allow people to become aware of the brand as a whole by joining the corporate page, or joining pages that pertain to specific geographies.  On these pages, viewers can find photos, links to videos, and an interactive atmosphere where experiences and ideas are shared.  This helps to promote the community, and the idea that participation is not just about going to an event, but that participating in Tough Mudder events symbolizes a lifestyle choice, and a personal affiliation with fitness as well as the brand.

Website – Building “Mudder Nation” through Awareness and Interest allowing Evaluation, and Encouraging Adoption
Tough Mudder’s website serves many functions (as most websites do).  One place that’s worth noting is the page titled “Mudder Nation”.  By navigating to this part of the website, the user accesses information about overcoming obstacles and views stories and questions from past participants.  This offers a glimpse of the community that participation grants them access to, and serves to address concerns and alleviate any fears or perceptions of risk or insecurity, helping the user feel more inclined to participate.  The sign up option is available and prevalent on this page.

Third Party Content

The idea of “Mudder Nation” has inspired strong beliefs in the events and the positive growth associated with them.  As a consequence, many third party articles have popped up form various sources, such as the one linked above.  

All of this activity surrounding this brand, creates a very strong, meaningful and unique message, that reaches, attracts, and keeps customers involved well past the conclusion of their first events.  In the absence of this approach, Tough Mudder would be events that some people participated in and quickly forgot about.  But since Tough Mudder has used interactive new media to create a more strong and meaningful message, they have succeeded in “keeping the conversation going” between events, and into the futures of their participants, giving them a sense of achievement and purpose that they will come back for again and again.  Not to mention, this firm’s brand communication is almost exclusively done vie new media, with no tv commercial placements.

Recommended Actions:
1. Select a large firm with which you are familiar (e.g. Nike, Adidas, Starbucks).  Visit their corporate and social media websites.
– What brand image and associations do they create?
– What objectives are they accomplishing with each of these sites?
– How do the sites work together to move the audience through the phases of awareness, interest, evaluation,
preference, and adoption?
– How do they support their existing customer base with their online presence?

2. Visit your own website and social media sites.
– What is your firm doing right in its interactive media communications?
– What could it improve?

Angelo Lyall
Partner at ALCG

Coherent Strategies

Coherent Strategies Anderson Lyall Consulting Group

Effective business strategies are coherent strategies. A coherent strategy is one where the elements of the strategy fit together and reinforce each other. A coherent strategy produces more value, with each element of the strategy producing more because of the presence of the other elements.

Incoherent strategies, on the other hand, produce less value and are less effective. Strategic incoherence results when a firm brings together disparate elements that contradict each other and which fail to reinforce each other as a result. For example, a firm that chooses a strategy which offers an upmarket high quality product at down-market lower prices will generally fail: higher quality usually entails higher expenditures, which in turn requires higher prices. Such a strategy is a recipe for poor performance.

Research in Motion (RIM), the makers of the Blackberry digital communication devices, is an example of a firm that suffered from an incoherent strategy. RIM’s strength was the security and reliability of its operating network for business users. RIM’s foray into developing products that directly competed with mass-market offerings from Apple and Microsoft did not fit well with its core strength and created strategic incoherence.  Only recently has the company managed to reinvent itself by redefining its business and creating a more coherent business strategy.

Reinforcement in a strategy often comes about when complementarities are identified and exploited. For example, Toyota’s manufacturing strategy (the Toyota Production System) exploits complementarities that exist between smaller batch sizes, lower inventories, lower setup times, worker training, etc. These complementarities reinforce each other and work together as a system to create greater value, superior productivity, and lower costs.

Toyota is an example of a firm that has created a relative advantage over rivals by exploiting complementarities. Because this relative advantage derives its power from multiple sources which fit together as a coherent system, it is very hard for rivals to imitate Toyota’s relative advantage in the marketplace.

Good strategic coherence begins with product definition. By defining its offering precisely, a firm can identify synergies and complementarities that exist between products and services, and these can be exploited through a coherent strategy. Such an approach also allows a firm to identify how best to structure its organization, which areas of the business will generate the highest returns, and which areas should be de-emphasized, sold off, or closed down.

Recommended Actions

  • Evaluate the coherence and fit of the elements making up your firm’s business strategy. Do the elements of the strategy fit and reinforce each other, or are they disparate with little fit and reinforcement? If the latter, consider revising or updating the strategy to obtain better fit and coherence among the elements which make it up.
  • Are there opportunities for your firm to exploit complementarities which can create a relative advantage over rivals? Consider where the sources of your relative advantage might lie and whether these can be extended and deepened. Instead of trying to be the absolute best in your industry, consider how your firm might be able to create a relative advantage that is valuable to customers because it addresses a particular problem customer need or challenge that is either unmet or underserved

Stewart Anderson
Partner at ALCG

Revenue-Generating Communication


In order for your firm’s communication tools to be effective in generating revenue, they must be intentionally designed around objectives that align with the stages of buyer readiness.  Here is a guide to help you make strategic decisions about your firm’s communication efforts.

Stage 1:  Awareness
Awareness must be generated about the brand and products before we can expect consumers to consider us as a buying option.  To succeed in the objective of creating awareness, we should communicate an effective snapshot of the product and its benefits, rather than introduce large volumes of heavy, comparative or statistical content.

Lesson: Focus on generating basic awareness about your offering and its benefits.  From there, you will be able to guide your audience to more in-depth forms of communication. 

Stages 2 and 3: Understanding & Favourable Judgment
This is achieved by using promotions whose objectives are to generate interest and evaluation.  These can be gained by introducing more rich and informative content than the previous stage, and by making intelligent use of frames of reference.  This can be done through website, collateral materials, and a variety of other ways.  In these stages, we also influence the associations that we want our audience to make with our brand. For example, Nike uses prominent athletes to communicate their brand and create an association with those figures and their performance. Another example is Tough Mudder LLC., who generates an association between the completion of their events and a commitment to ongoing active, healthy lifestyle, which they support with their “Mudder Nation” community of past event participants, to encourage them in their active lives moving forward.

Lesson: After your audience has become aware of your basic offering and benefits, your promotions should focus on guiding the consumer to learn more, view favourable comparative information, and make positive associations that resonate with their own beliefs, lifestyles, etc.

Stage 4: Procurement
To encourage the adoption of products, communication tools include personal selling, and sales promotions.  These efforts represent significant costs, due to their personalized nature.  The key is to engage with consumers who are already aware of your brand and products or services, and have some understanding and favourable opinions about your offering.  By doing this, we can target these high-cost communication activities at individuals with the highest probability of buying and thus generating a return on our investment.  Without having first successfully generated awareness, understanding and favourable judgment of your offering, sales activities have limited effectiveness and run higher costs.

Lesson: After the objectives of awareness, understanding, and favourable judgment have been accomplished, sales-based communications that represent higher cost to your firm can now be utilized in a targeted and qualified manner.  This gives us the highest change of generataing a positive return on investment for our higher-cost communication activities.

Stage 5: Loyalty/Ongoing Procurement
Communications that encourage brand loyalty are important because loyal customers can represent a very high return on investment over their lifetime.  To communicate with existing customers, interactive media and internal policies can offer effective solutions.  Interactive media, such as facebook, twitter, newsletters, blogs, etc. are an effective way of continuing the conversation with consumers after they’ve purchased form your business.  In addition, policies that govern when and how your firm contacts customers, can have a positive impact on encouraging repeat purchases.

Lesson:  Using interactive media as well as sound internal policies for communicating with existing customers will help turn buyers into loyal, repeat buyers.  Loyal customers can represent a very high return on investment over the long term, and add to the sustainability of a business.


Internet-based media (new media), is an effective way for businesses to achieve the objectives of each stage at a relatively low cost.  New Media has initial creation and setup fees, but is relatively inexpensive after that.  It is important not to discount new media as applying only to Stage 5 of buyer readiness.

Recommended Actions:
1) List your current communication tools.  Evaluate each of their objectives and how they align with the stages of buyer readiness.
2) How well are your current communications balanced among the stages?  What could be done to improve this?
3) How do your current communications work together, to move potential buyers through the stages from awareness through to procurement and loyalty?  What could be done to improve this?

Angelo Lyall
Partner at ALCG