Sustainable Competitive Advantage
Resources are the assets, capabilities, processes, information, and knowledge that an organization controls. Firms use their resources to improve organizational effectiveness and efficiency. Resources are critical to organizational strategy because they can help companies create and sustain an advantage over competitors.3 Organizations can achieve a competitive advantage by using their resources to provide greater value for customers than competitors can. For example, iTunes and iPod created competitive advantage for Apple and value for its customers by combining elements of design, price, and capability in a unique way. But the most important advantage was being the first company to make it easy to legally download music to digital devices. (Prior to the iTunes store, the only means of acquiring digital music was illegal file swapping.) Apple negotiated agreements with virtually all of the major record labels to distribute their songs from a central online library, and iTunes quickly became the premier platform for music downloading. The easy-to-understand site came with free downloadable software customers could use to organize and manage their digital music library.4 The goal of most organizational strategies is to create and then sustain a competitive advantage. A competitive advantage becomes a sustainable competitive advantage when other companies cannot duplicate the value a firm is providing to customers. Sustainable competitive advantage is not the same as a long-lasting competitive advantage, though companies obviously want a competitive advantage to last a long time. Instead, a competitive advantage is sustained if competitors have tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the advantage and have, for the moment, stopped trying to duplicate it. It’s the corporate equivalent of your competitors saying, “We give up. You win. We can’t do what you do, and we’re not even going to try to do it any more.” As Exhibit 5.1 shows, four conditions must be met if a firm’s resources are to be used to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage. The resources must be valuable, rare, imperfectly imitable, and nonsubstitutable. Valuable resources allow companies to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Unfortunately, changes in customer demand and preferences, competitors’ actions, and technology can make once-valuable resources much less valuable.5 For sustained competitive advantage, valuable resources must also be rare resources. Think about it: How can a company sustain a competitive advantage if all of its competitors have similar resources and capabilities? Consequently, rare resources, resources that are not controlled or possessed by many competing firms, are necessary to sustain a competitive advantage. When Apple introduced the iPod, no other portable music players on the market used existing hard-drive technology in their design. The iPod gained an immediate advantage over competitors because it was able to satisfy the desire of consumers to carry large numbers of songs in a portable device, something the newer MP3 systems and older individual CD players could not do. One of Apple’s truly rare resources is its ability to reconfigure existing technology into a package that is easy to use, elegantly designed, and therefore highly desired by customers. As the example shows, valuable and rare resources can create temporary competitive advantage. For sustained competitive advantage, however, other firms must be unable to imitate or find substitutes for those valuable, rare resources. Imperfectly imitable resources are those resources that are impossible or extremely costly or difficult to duplicate. For example, despite numerous attempts by competitors to imitate it, iTunes has retained its competitive lock on the music download business. In addition to its customer friendly software and its extensive media library, Apple has developed a closed system for its iTunes and iPod. iPod owners...
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