Business Level Strategies: What are they, How to use it?

By Julie Choo

Published: October 3, 2023

Last Update: October 4, 2023

In the dynamic world of business, success hinges on the ability to craft and implement effective strategies. One crucial aspect of this strategy is business level strategy, which defines how a company competes in a specific market or industry. In this blog post, we will delve into the 3 broad business level strategies, and their types including Cost Leadership Strategy, Focused Differentiation Strategy, and more, to understand how they can propel a company towards its goals.

The traditional approach to business strategy, comprising corporate, functional, and business-level strategies, has long been the standard. However, the advent of the digital age and the complexities it presents have rendered this old strategy framework somewhat inadequate. 

The new way of thinking, as exemplified by the “Strategy Journey” framework outlined in our analyzed text, offers a transformative perspective. While the traditional strategy levels are still relevant, the Strategy Journey introduces a dynamic layer that enhances their effectiveness. It provides the motivational context, explains the imperative of digital transformation, and addresses the intricacies of the modern business landscape. By adding the Strategy Journey on top of the three business strategy levels, companies gain a practical, formulaic, data-driven means to navigate the challenges of digital transformation. This integrated approach guides the development of a more effective future enterprise and equips businesses with the agility to adapt to rapidly changing digital dynamics. It ultimately offers a holistic and value-driven strategy that recognizes the new realities of the digital economy.

Three Levels of Business Strategy

In the complex realm of business management, strategy plays a pivotal role in shaping an organization’s path to success. There exist three distinct levels of business strategy, each with its unique focus and significance. Let’s delve into these levels and gain a comprehensive understanding.

Business Strategy Level Pyramid Graph | Infographic on the 3 business strategy levels

1. Corporate Level Strategy: Charting the Organizational Course

Corporate level strategy stands as the highest echelon, dictating the overall direction and scope of an entire organization. At this level, critical decisions revolve around diversification, expansion into new markets, mergers and acquisitions, and the management of the organizational portfolio. It addresses fundamental questions, such as which industries to enter or exit, how to allocate resources among different business units, and how to foster synergy among various facets of the organization. In essence, corporate level strategy sets the long-term vision and overarching objectives that guide the entire enterprise.

Benefits:

  • Portfolio Diversification: Corporate level strategies allow for diversification into different industries or markets, reducing risk.
  • Resource Allocation: These strategies determine how resources are allocated among various business units, optimizing resource utilization.
  • Synergy Creation: Corporate level strategies can foster synergy among business units, enabling them to work cohesively and share resources or knowledge.
  • Long-term Vision: They provide a long-term vision and direction for the entire organization.

Drawbacks:

  • Complexity: Managing a diversified portfolio can be complex and may require significant oversight.
  • Integration Challenges: Integrating diverse businesses may be challenging, leading to cultural clashes or operational difficulties.
  • Risk Exposure: Diversification carries the risk of exposure to different market forces, and some business units may underperform.
Corporate Buildings representing the corporate level strategy

2. Business Level Strategy: Competing in Defined Territories

The business strategies here shift the focus to the battleground of specific markets or industries. It outlines the approach a company adopts to secure a competitive edge within its chosen market segment. The strategies at this level are more precise and targeted, aiming to position the company advantageously relative to competitors. Three common archetypes of business level strategy include Cost Leadership (striving to become the lowest-cost producer), Differentiation (offering unique or high-quality products/services), and Focus (narrowing the scope to target a specific niche market). Business level strategies serve as the blueprint for how a company stands out in the marketplace.

Business Level Strategies Pros & Cons

Business level strategies are essential for companies to differentiate themselves from competitors and secure a competitive advantage. These strategies determine how a company positions itself in the market and how it delivers value to customers.

Benefits

  • Competitive Advantage: Business level strategies help create a competitive advantage within a specific market or industry.
  • Customer Focus: They enable organizations to tailor their products or services to meet the specific needs and preferences of target customers.
  • Brand Positioning: These strategies allow companies to establish a unique brand position, commanding premium prices or gaining market share.
  • Clarity: Business level strategies provide clear guidance on how to compete effectively in a chosen market segment.

Drawbacks:

  • Market Volatility: Relying heavily on a single business level strategy can make an organization vulnerable to market fluctuations.
  • Imitation Risk: Competitors may imitate successful business level strategies, diminishing their uniqueness over time.
  • Resource Intensity: Pursuing differentiation or other business level strategies may require significant investments in research, development, and marketing.
Business Level strategies at a smaller scale

3. Functional Level Strategy: Orchestrating Departmental Success

At the functional level, strategies are formulated to optimize the performance of specific departments or functions within an organization. These departments, such as marketing, finance, operations, and human resources, each have their unique role to play. Functional level strategies align harmoniously with and bolster the broader corporate and business level strategies. They are the building blocks that translate high-level goals into actionable plans. For instance, a marketing department may craft a functional strategy that emphasizes digital marketing to bolster a differentiation business level strategy.

Functional level Strategies Pros & Cons

Benefits:

  • Specialization: Functional strategies allow departments to specialize and excel in their respective areas, leading to greater expertise.
  • Efficiency: These strategies optimize departmental processes and workflows, improving efficiency and productivity.
  • Clear Objectives: Functional level strategies help define clear objectives and performance metrics for each department.
  • Alignment: These strategies align with and support the broader corporate and business level strategies, ensuring coherence in the organization’s actions.

Drawbacks:

  • Silos: Focusing solely on functional strategies can create silos within the organization, hindering cross-functional collaboration.
  • Narrow Focus: These strategies may lead to a narrow perspective, with departments primarily concerned about their own goals rather than the organization’s overall success.
  • Potential Conflicts: Conflicts may arise between departments if their strategies diverge or compete for resources.
Business level strategies with 5 different levels showing the differences between cost leadership, differentiation, integrated cost leadership / differentiation, focused cost leadership and focused differentiation

Business Strategy Types

Michael Porter, a renowned strategy expert, outlined three generic business-level strategies that organizations can adopt to gain a competitive advantage in their respective industries. These strategies are:

Cost Leadership Strategy

Cost leadership strategy is a strategic approach that revolves around becoming a cost leader within a specific market. Organizations that successfully implement this strategy focus relentlessly on achieving low production costs, enabling them to offer their products or services at competitive, often lower, prices. By consistently delivering value at a lower cost than their competitors, cost leaders can attract a wide target market and gain a substantial market share. Despite offering products or services at a lower price point, they can still achieve profitability, which sets them apart from others in their industry.

Cost Leadership Example

Walmart is a prime illustration of a company employing a Cost Leadership strategy. The retail giant is known for its relentless focus on cost efficiency, which allows it to provide a wide range of products at lower prices than many competitors. Walmart achieves cost leadership through various means, including efficient supply chain management, inventory control, and economies of scale. By offering everyday low prices, Walmart has attracted a vast customer base and maintained a dominant position in the retail industry.

Cost leadership example image with funds diversified along various areas of the the company and supply chain

Corporate Level Strategy

While business level strategies focus on how a company competes in a specific market, Corporate Level Strategy looks at the broader picture of a company’s overall direction and portfolio of businesses. Corporate level strategies involve decisions about diversification, expansion, mergers, and acquisitions.

Corporate Level Strategy Example

Companies like Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company) have employed a corporate level strategy by diversifying their portfolio to include various businesses like search, advertising, and autonomous vehicles.

Corporate level strategy shows diversification of investment. Planet dots representing the diversification of different areas of investment

Differentiation Strategy

Focused Differentiation is a strategy where a company concentrates on a specific market segment or niche and tailors its products or services to meet the unique needs of that segment. By doing so, the company aims to stand out by offering distinct features or attributes that other competitors do not provide.

Differentiation Strategy Example

Apple Inc. is a standout example of a company following a Differentiation strategy. Apple’s products, such as the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, are known for their distinctive design, high-quality materials, and user-friendly interfaces. Apple’s emphasis on innovation, sleek aesthetics, and seamless integration across its ecosystem sets it apart from competitors. This differentiation strategy has not only cultivated a fiercely loyal customer base but has also allowed Apple to command premium prices and maintain impressive profit margins.

Focus Strategy

The focus strategy involves concentrating on a specific market segment or niche and tailoring products or services to meet the unique needs and preferences of that segment. By focusing efforts and resources on a well-defined target audience, organizations can become experts in serving that niche effectively. This strategy can take two forms:

Checklist of focused Business strategy
  • Cost Focus: A cost-focused strategy aims to be the lowest-cost producer within a specific niche market. It involves offering products or services at lower prices than niche competitors while still meeting the niche’s requirements.
  • Differentiation Focus: A differentiation-focused strategy involves delivering a highly differentiated product or service to a niche market, often at premium prices. This approach is about catering to the unique desires of the niche audience.

Focus Strategy Example

Ferrari is a classic illustration of a company pursuing a Focus strategy. Ferrari concentrates on producing high-performance sports cars for a niche market of enthusiasts who are passionate about luxury and speed. By focusing on this exclusive segment, Ferrari can maintain its reputation for excellence, charge premium prices for its vehicles, and establish itself as a leader in the luxury sports car market. This focus on a specific niche has allowed Ferrari to maintain its exclusivity and desirability among its target customers.

Team members choosing the right business level strategy based on the most suitable situation

Choosing and Implementing the Right Business-Level Strategy

By following these steps and integrating the focused cost leadership strategy into your business model, you can position your organization for success in a specific market niche while leveraging your core competencies to drive cost-efficient operations.

  1. Assess Your Core Competencies: Begin by identifying your organization’s unique strengths and capabilities that can serve as the foundation for your business-level strategy.
  2. Analyze Market Dynamics: Examine the industry and market conditions to determine where a focused cost leadership strategy can provide a competitive advantage.
  3. Evaluate Corporate Strategy: Ensure that your business-level strategy aligns with your overarching corporate strategy, considering the long-term goals and direction of the organization.
  4. Define Your Target Market: Clearly define the specific niche or segment within the broader market where you intend to apply the focused cost leadership strategy.
  5. Craft a Business Model: Develop a business model that outlines how you will achieve cost leadership while delivering value to your target market.
  6. Cost Optimization: Implement measures to optimize costs across your operations, from production to distribution, in alignment with the focused cost leadership strategy.
  7. Invest in Technology and Efficiency: Leverage technology and efficient processes to drive down costs and enhance competitiveness.
  8. Price Positioning: Determine your pricing strategy, ensuring that it aligns with the cost leadership approach while remaining attractive to your target customers.
  9. Continuous Improvement: Establish a culture of continuous improvement, regularly reviewing and refining your cost-saving measures.
  10. Monitor and Adapt: Continuously monitor market dynamics, customer preferences, and competitive forces, and be prepared to adapt your focused cost leadership strategy as needed to maintain your competitive edge.

In Conclusion

the exploration of business level strategies, including real-world examples, has shed light on the pivotal role these strategies play in shaping organizational success. Whether it’s Cost Leadership, Differentiation, or Focus, an effective business level strategy can steer a company toward achieving its strategic objectives.

By examining examples like Walmart’s cost leadership approach and Apple’s differentiation strategy, we’ve seen how these strategies can lead to competitive advantages, increased customer satisfaction, and sustained profitability. These strategies not only define how companies compete in specific markets but also serve as blueprints for delivering unique value to their target audiences.

Julie Choo

About the author

Julie Choo is lead author of THE STRATEGY JOURNEY book and the founder of STRATABILITY ACADEMY. She speaks regularly at numerous tech, careers and entrepreneur events globally. Julie continues to consult at large Fortune 500 companies, Global Banks and tech start-ups. As a lover of all things strategic, she is a keen Formula One fan who named her dog, Kimi (after Raikkonnen), and follows football - favourite club changes based on where she calls home.

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