What Is Competitive Advantage?

Competitive advantage refers to factors that allow a company to produce goods or services better or more cheaply than its rivals. These factors allow the productive entity to generate more sales or superior margins compared to its market rivals.

Competitive advantages are attributed to a variety of factors including cost structure, branding, the quality of product offerings, the distribution network, intellectual property, and customer service.

Key Takeaways

  • Competitive advantage is what makes an entity's products or services more desirable to customers than that of any other rival.
  • Competitive advantages can be broken down into comparative advantages and differential advantages.
  • Comparative advantage is a company's ability to produce something more efficiently than a rival, which leads to greater profit margins.
  • A differential advantage is when a company's products are seen as both unique and of higher quality, relative to those of a competitor.
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Competitive Advantage

Understanding Competitive Advantage

Competitive advantages generate greater value for a firm and its shareholders because of certain strengths or conditions. The more sustainable the competitive advantage, the more difficult it is for competitors to neutralize the advantage. The two main types of competitive advantages are comparative advantage and differential advantage.

The term "competitive advantage" traditionally refers to the business world, but can also be applied to a country, organization, or even a person who is competing for something.

Comparative Advantage

A firm's ability to produce a good or service more efficiently than its competitors, which leads to greater profit margins, creates a comparative advantage. Rational consumers will choose the cheaper of any two perfect substitutes offered. For example, a car owner will buy gasoline from a gas station that is 5 cents cheaper than other stations in the area. For imperfect substitutes, like Pepsi versus Coke, higher margins for the lowest-cost producers can eventually bring superior returns.

Economies of scale, efficient internal systems, and geographic location can also create a comparative advantage. Comparative advantage does not imply a better product or service, though. It only shows the firm can offer a product or service of the same value at a lower price.

For example, a firm that manufactures a product in China may have lower labor costs than a company that manufactures in the U.S., so it can offer an equal product at a lower price. In the context of international trade economics, opportunity cost determines comparative advantages. 

Amazon (AMZN) is an example of a company focused on building and maintaining a comparative advantage. The e-commerce platform has a level of scale and efficiency that is difficult for retail competitors to replicate, allowing it to rise to prominence largely through price competition.

Differential Advantage

A differential advantage is when a firm's products or services differ from its competitors' offerings and are seen as superior. Advanced technology, patent-protected products or processes, superior personnel, and strong brand identity are all drivers of differential advantage. These factors support wide margins and large market shares.

Apple is famous for creating innovative products, such as the iPhone, and supporting its market leadership with savvy marketing campaigns to build an elite brand. Major drug companies can also market branded drugs at high price points because they are protected by patents.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if a company has a competitive advantage?

If a business is able to increase its market share through increased efficiency or productivity, it would have a competitive advantage over its competitors.

How can over increase their competitive advantage?

To find a lasting competitive advantage, look for something that your competitors cannot easily replicate or imitate. Esteemed investor Warren Buffet identifies "moats" that businesses can figuratively dig around themselves to entrench competitive advantages. Buffett's moat refers to a defensive barrier, but instead of protecting a castle, it helps prevent a company's profits from being eroded by competitors. This can include strengthening one's brand, raising barriers to new entrants (such as through regulations), and the defense of intellectual property.

Why do larger companies tend to have competitive advantages?

Competitive advantages that accrue from economies of scale typically refer to supply-side advantages, such as the purchasing power of a large restaurant or retail chain. But advantages of scale also exist on the demand side, too; they are commonly referred to as network effects. They are at work when a service becomes more valuable to all of its users as the service adds more users. The result can often be a winner-take-all dynamic in the industry.

How is competitive advantage different from comparative advantage?

Comparative advantage mostly refers to international trade. It posits that a country should focus on what it can produce and export relatively the cheapest - thus, if one country has a competitive advantage in producing both products A & B, it should only produce product A if it can do it better than B and import B from some other country.