Monday, July 2, 2012

Scale Advantage and The Great Coke Scandal

Profits are good. And our profitability bias - that preference to own, to cover, to work for, to partner with companies that turn a profit - is a pretty good filter to apply when evaluating a business for whatever reason. But the best companies sometimes forego profit in the short-term, investing capital more heavily than perhaps is absolutely required or plowing back what might have been profit to increase their expenses in certain areas that provide advantages over the competition. 

It's not as if they don't recognize that everyone prefers they were profitable. It's that they understand that delaying the gratification of immediate profits, when those dollars are spent wisely on honing the defenses of the business, can lead to much greater profits down the road. And, more importantly, it can lead to profits that are protected against the encroachment of bigger-smarter-richer competitors that want nothing more than to steal away its customers.

Profits can be very nice, but they do not necessarily make for the best businesses.  The best businesses couple profitability with sustainable competitive advantages that protect future profits. And when a dilemma requires companies to sacrifice either profits or competitive advantages, the best ones watch out for their long-term interests. They sacrifice profits and keep investing in their defenses.

Of the major categories of competitive advantage - strong brand, legal protection, captive demand, and scale - the one with the longest lasting benefits is scale. This is where the size and efficiency of your operations allow you to produce an offering for less than your competitors, so much so that no rational actor would dare attack your position. 

When combined with other forms of competitive advantage, scale makes for the deepest defenses of all.

The Curious Case of the Coca-Cola Secretary

In late-2006 a secretary at Coca-Cola headquarters conjured up a lurid plot. Working with two ex-convicts, she contacted arch-rival Pepsi and offered Coke's most sensitive trade secrets in exchange for large sums of cash. The cabal believed Pepsi would be eager to steal a glance of secret Coke recipes, that such information would somehow help the competitor in its never ending battle with Coca-Cola to win the cola wars. 

Pepsi wasn't so keen on the scam. In fact they called up the FBI immediately and were glad participants in an exciting sting to catch the crew in the act and send them away on federal charges. Besides questions of basic human decency, why would the Pepsi executives not be eager for the patented trade information offered up by the secretary?

At best, the secret Coke recipe is one part honest-to-god competitive advantage based on a particular mixture of ingredients to produce a specific taste. And it's nine parts marketing ploy, a wink at its audience to suggest Coke is so delicious that the company must keep the secret recipe behind locked doors (lest a competitor produce a beverage with the same flavors and thereby steal away all its customers, of course). The public loves the mystery that comes of a secret formula!

Coca-Cola's competitive advantages are far less grounded in the legal protection of patents and formulas defended as trade secrets than they are a potent combination of brand and economies of scale. The company has spent billions over the years on savvy marketing, creating a Pavlovian tie between the sound of fizz escaping from an opened bottle and a person salivating in anticipation of her refreshing drink. But more importantly, they have made the product omnipresent. You are probably never more than a few steps away from the opportunity to buy a cheap Coke the moment the urge hits you, whether that urge is induced from a commercial or your own thirst. 

This is an example of scale applied to distribution. Its products are everywhere, and making that happen is a far more impressive business feat than inventing a tasty carbonated beverage in the basement of an apothecary's shop. 

Coca-Cola has the benefit of scale in production costs, advertising, and distribution. They can produce a mind-bending amount of product for mere pennies per unit, with all the fixed costs being spread across  enormous production volumes. They can then buy national and international ads, reaching consumers all over the globe, inculcating them on the idea that Coke is it. And their distributors move tons upon tons of cases each day, spreading the cost of stocking shelves over all those bottles.

The benefit of investing to create all this scale means Coke can charge a pittance for each bottle of product, a dollar or two that most consumers will never miss, while still turning a very tidy profit. What would it take for a competitor to make a reasonable return at a comparable price point? Richard Branson tried in the mid-1990's with Virgin Cola, even pricing below both Coke and Pepsi in hopes of stealing only a sliver of their customers. The cola incumbents ramped up their advertising budgets in every market they thought Branson might have a reasonable chance of establishing a toe hold, and they leaned hard on their customers to keep shelf space off-limits to the upstart. Branson couldn't even get most grocery stores in his native UK to give his drinks a shot. When you can't gain entry through basic distribution channels, you must know your future is grim. Price doesn't even matter.    

Any other competitor would run into the same challenges trying to surmount the advantages provided by Coke's scale. As a last resort of scale, Coke could always fall back to its balance sheet - it has plenty of cash - and fight a price war to makes its products much cheaper than any alternative, gladly exchanging short-term profits to ensure it maintained long-term advantages. The profits will come back if the defenses remain strong.

And so we get a good chuckle out of the misguided secretary, hoping to make a buck selling Coca-Cola's most valuable secrets. In reality, Coke's competitive advantages are hidden in plain sight.  A big piece resides with its brand...but the bulk sits with its scale, the end-product of years of foregoing billions in additional profits in return for high volume production capabilities, wide reaching advertising, and a scaled distribution infrastructure.


  1. Interesting piece. Is branding part of scale? At the end you throw advertising in with scale- while obviously that is part of branding as well. Ultimately, I think you're too dismissive of branding. I like how Warren Buffett puts it

    1. I don't dismiss brand. It's powerful and important as a competitive advantage. But if I had to reduce each of the umbrella categories of competitive advantage down to its essence and decide which is greatest, I would go with scale. Why? The basic reason of being able to win price battles while maintaining profitability. However, that's merely an intellectual exercise. In reality, the competitive advantages tend to come in combinations that reinforce each other. Coke is not as strong as it is because of scale advantages in isolation or brand in isolation. It's as strong as it is because of the ways scale + brand + legal protection + etc. catalyzes each other in a gestalt sort of way to make the whole better than the sum of its parts.