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Based on a study of 150 strategic moves spanning more than a hundred years and thirty industries, Kim & Mauborgne argue that companies can succeed not by battling competitors, but rather by creating ″blue oceans″ of uncontested market space.
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How to recreate the structure of your industry.

Blue Ocean Strategy is a book published in 2005 and written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Professors at INSEAD and Co-Directors of the INSEAD Blue Ocean Strategy Institute.

Based on a study of 150 strategic moves spanning more than a hundred years and thirty industries, Kim & Mauborgne argue that companies can succeed not by battling competitors, but rather by creating ″blue oceans″ of uncontested market space.

They assert that these strategic moves create a leap in value for the company, its buyers, and its employees, while unlocking new demand and making the competition irrelevant. The book presents analytical frameworks and tools to foster an organization’s ability to systematically create and capture blue oceans.

The metaphor of red and blue oceans describes the market universe.

Red oceans represent all the industries in existence today – the known market space. In the red oceans, industry boundaries are defined and accepted, and the competitive rules of the game are known. Here companies try to outperform their rivals to grab a greater share of product or service demand. As the market space gets crowded, prospects for profits and growth are reduced. Products become commodities or niche, and cutthroat competition turns the ocean bloody; hence, the term red oceans.

Blue oceans, in contrast, denote all the industries not in existence today – the unknown market space, untainted by competition. In blue oceans, demand is created rather than fought over. There is ample opportunity for growth that is both profitable and rapid. In blue oceans, competition is irrelevant because the rules of the game are waiting to be set. Blue ocean is an analogy to describe the wider, deeper potential of market space that is not yet explored.

The cornerstone of Blue Ocean Strategy is ‘Value Innovation’, a concept originally outlined in Kim & Mauborgne’s 1997 article « Value Innovation – The Strategic Logic of High Growth » (Harvard Business Review 75, January–February 103-112). Value innovation is the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost, creating value for both the buyer, the company, and its employees, thereby opening up new and uncontested market space. The aim of value innovation, as articulated in the article, is not to compete, but to make the competition irrelevant by changing the playing field of strategy.

The strategic move must raise and create value for the market, while simultaneously reducing or eliminating features or services that are less valued by the current or future market. The Four Actions Framework is used to help create value innovation and break the value-cost trade-off. Value innovation challenges Michael Porter’s idea that successful businesses are either low-cost providers or niche-players. Instead, blue ocean strategy proposes finding value that crosses conventional market segmentation and offering value and lower cost. Educator Charles W. L. Hill proposed a similar idea in 1988 and claimed that Porter’s model was flawed because differentiation can be a means for firms to achieve low cost. He proposed that a combination of differentiation and low cost might be necessary for firms to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.

Many others have proposed similar strategies. For example, Swedish educators Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström in their 1999 book Funky Business follow a similar line of reasoning. For example, « competing factors » in Blue Ocean Strategy are similar to the definition of « finite and infinite dimensions » in Funky Business. Just as Blue Ocean Strategy claims that a Red Ocean Strategy does not guarantee success, Funky Business explained that « Competitive Strategy is the route to nowhere ». Funky Business argues that firms need to create « Sensational Strategies ».

Just like Blue Ocean Strategy, a Sensational Strategy is about « playing a different game » according to Ridderstråle and Nordström. Ridderstråle and Nordström also claim that the aim of companies is to create temporary monopolies. Kim and Mauborgne explain that the aim of companies is to create blue oceans, that will eventually turn red. This is the same idea expressed in the form of an analogy. Ridderstråle and Nordström also claimed in 1999 that « in the slow-growth 1990s overcapacity is the norm in most businesses ». Kim and Mauborgne claim that blue ocean strategy makes sense in a world where supply exceeds demand.

Blue Ocean vs. Red Ocean

Kim and Mauborgne argue that while traditional competition-based strategies (red ocean strategies) are necessary, they are not sufficient to sustain high performance. Companies need to go beyond competing. To seize new profit and growth opportunities they also need to create blue oceans. The authors argue that competition based strategies assume that an industry’s structural conditions are given and that firms are forced to compete within them, an assumption based on what academics call the structuralist view, or environmental determinism. To sustain themselves in the marketplace, practitioners of red ocean strategy focus on building advantages over the competition, usually by assessing what competitors do and striving to do it better. Here, grabbing a bigger share of the market is seen as a zero-sum game in which one company’s gain is achieved at another company’s loss. Hence, competition, the supply side of the equation, becomes the defining variable of strategy. Here, cost and value are seen as trade-offs and a firm chooses a distinctive cost or differentiation position. Because the total profit level of the industry is also determined by structural factors, firms principally seek to capture and redistribute wealth instead of creating wealth. They focus on dividing up the red ocean, where growth is increasingly limited.

Blue ocean strategy, on the other hand, is based on the view that market boundaries and industry structure are not given and can be reconstructed by the actions and beliefs of industry players. This is what the authors call the reconstructionist view. Assuming that structure and market boundaries exist only in managers’ minds, practitioners who hold this view do not let existing market structures limit their thinking. To them, extra demand is out there, largely untapped. The crux of the problem is how to create it. This, in turn, requires a shift of attention from supply to demand, from a focus on competing to a focus on value innovation – that is, the creation of innovative value to unlock new demand. This is achieved via the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low-cost. As market structure is changed by breaking the value/cost tradeoff, so are the rules of the game. Competition in the old game is therefore rendered irrelevant. By expanding the demand side of the economy, new wealth is created. Such a strategy therefore allows firms to largely play a non–zero-sum game, with high payoff possibilities.

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Peter Keates is an entrepreneur, author and speaker on the topic of Business Model Innovation. President at Placesquare, a company providing information & resources on several niche markets. Founder & CEO Onopia a leading consulting boutique in Business Model Innovation. He is certified in General Management & Strategy from ESCP-Europe, and certified facilitator in LEGO© SERIOUS PLAY© method by Rasmussen and Ecole Centrale Paris .
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