I was in a business meeting recently where we somehow got on the topic of Southwest Airlines. I was explaining how Southwest had been so much more profitable than most other airlines for decades because of its unique business model, which in part included the avoidance of the hub and spoke model used by most of its competition.
Someone in the meeting objected to the praise of Southwest. He countered that the traveling world needs a hub and spoke business model. Since the hub and spoke model is necessary, it is not proper to praise a company which avoids this necessity.
In my mind, my reaction was “Necessary for whom?” Is it necessary for some business travelers? Yes. Is it necessary for Southwest? Absolutely not.
Two of the key aspects of strategy are determining WHERE to compete and HOW to compete. Answer these concerns properly and success is more likely. Answer them wrong and success is nearly impossible.
One method businesses use to determine where and how to compete is by looking for necessity of demand. After all, if something is viewed as a necessity and demanded by a large sector of society, it must be a good place to be, right?
Just look at the illegal drug business. The junkies feel that getting their next fix of the drug is the most necessary thing they must do. And the suppliers of those illegal drugs make a lot of money off that perceived necessity.
The problem is that there is not a strong correlation between necessity of demand and profitability. It worked in the illegal drug business. It didn’t work so well for those satisfying the necessity of hub and spoke in the airline business.
Southwest chose its “where to compete” principally in the lower price, non-business portion of the airlines industry. Southwest chose its “how to compete” by doing a number of things differently, including the elimination of the hub and spoke model. These were very profitable choices for Southwest.
In fact, it was a more profitable choice than going after the demands of the business traveler, even though the demand for business travel is higher (and presumably more necessary) than for non-business travel.
Just because something out there in the marketplace is a necessity does not mean that you have an obligation to provide it. Like Southwest, it may be better to avoid it.
The Southwest example illustrates a common situation in business. This is the principle that the highest profits are often found by avoiding the highest demand. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but there is logic behind this point of view.
Why High Demand Items Are Often Not Very Profitable to Supply
There are many factors which tend to lower the profitability of serving many high-demand segments. The first is that high demand segments tend to attract a lot of competition. Businesses like to flock to where the big sales potential lies. But when too many companies are fighting for those sales, the profitability of those sales plummet. Price wars suck the desirability out of those sales. You may be able to get a much higher return going after smaller, less competitive markets.
A second problem is that high demand necessities tend to attract a lot of government regulation. Food and health care are high demand necessities. Many governments get involved in significant regulation how those necessities are supplied. This often takes a lot of the profitability out of the system.
Just look at the results when communism gets involved in the necessity of supplying food. They impose all sorts of regulations and price controls. They often insert themselves into owing a lot of the food businesses. The net result is that businesses pull away and consumers are stuck with shortages and long lines.
A third problem is that high demand needs pull in the masses. And the masses do not always have a lot of discretionary income. They cannot afford to pay as much for their demands as other, smaller segments. You cannot charge more than they are able or willing to pay, no matter how much it costs you to serve them. Just look at the automobile industry. Those selling cars to the masses tend not to do as well as those selling cars in luxury or high performance segments. Customers in the luxury and high performance segments are willing and able to pay a lot more for their cars, making them more profitable, even if the segments are smaller than the mass segment. That's the reason why Tesla decided to start by targeting the high performance end of the electric car business.
When you try to appeal to the masses, you often end up with “average” offerings. Unfortunately, there will always be competitors who specialize in targeting the smaller niches. The specialists will offer items that are cheaper, or of higher quality, or of higher prestige, or of higher functionality. These more profitable niches will eat away at your mass market, leaving you with some of the less profitable middle ground. This is what Southwest did when it specialized in the profitable low price, non-business segment (and firms like Virgin Airlines and Net Jets at the high end), leaving the other airlines fighting over the unprofitable middle.
Fourth, high demand areas are often in fairly mature businesses. Mature and aging businesses, by their very nature, tend not to be as profitable as businesses in their younger, faster growing stage. Look at Procter & Gamble. They completely divested out of the food business (an extremely high demand business). Why? Because it did not have high prospects for future growth and profitability. It was too mature.
Instead, P&G has been pouring money into beauty care. You can say that food is a necessity and beauty care is a more discretionary luxury (less necessary). Yet, beauty care is where P&G have better prospects for growth and profitability. P&G is doing a great job of choosing where and how to compete, even if it means walking away from a lot of high demand products.
As a business, you have choices. Strategy is about helping you make better choices. Those choices need to consider more than just the size or necessity of demand. They also need to look at the profitability within that demand. Smaller segments can often be better strategic choices.
In most businesses, there is no law that says that you have to target unprofitable segments. Even if you think that a particular function is necessary to make the world work, that doesn’t mean you have to serve it. It’s okay to walk away from some businesses and leave it to someone else.
Others may have business models better suited to those situations. Keep in mind that when P&G has been divesting all of its non-desired businesses, it has been finding buyers for those businesses. Many of those buyers are companies who do things differently from P&G and are better suited for wringing value out of mature, slow growth businesses.
Is There a Moral Obligation?
There may indeed be some moral issues here. Is it right to only serve the profitable rich and ignore the masses? Can we ignore the poor because they are unprofitable? Businesses work within a society and they have some obligations to that society. But they also have obligations to shareholders, debt holders and employees.
If businesses choose to or are forced to take on bad business models, this is bad for everyone. If they cannot make an adequate return, employees lose their jobs, and equity/debt holders don’t get a return. More importantly, the companies don’t make any profits which can be used for charity or for taxes to governments to help solve these issues.
Strong, healthy businesses are in a better position to provide jobs and provide funding for social issues. Then the question turns from business models to social accountability.
Strategy is ultimately about making choices, such as where and how to compete. These few strategic choices can have a bigger impact on business success than almost any other thing you do. Choosing what not to do is usually more important than choosing what you do. And some of the things you should not be doing are perhaps serving large “high necessity” demands. It’s okay to walk away from them and go in a direction better suited to who you are.
When you look at large, mass oriented businesses, there are usually only a small handful of winners (often only one or two). The rest struggle to stay alive. If you are not the winner in that mass space, it is usually better to walk away and switch to leading in a smaller segment. And that’s okay.