The Importance of Competitive Advantage

Becky Morehouse

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Recently, at Stamats 2020: The Higher Ed Conference in Savannah, Georgia we had the opportunity to examine the qualities and characteristics of institutions that will thrive—not merely survive—in the years ahead.

Of the dozen or so qualities we discussed, one—developing one or more sources of competitive advantage—seemed to capture the most attention.

More than a simple distinctive competency, a competitive advantage is an offer that is of clear interest to your most important target audiences. This interest is demonstrated by their willingness to pay tuition rather than rely on discounts.

Importantly, this advantage is also something your competitors won’t, or can’t, replicate.

If you think about it for a second, you will realize that any discussion of competitive advantage is predicated on a shift from institutional centricity (it’s all about us) to audience centricity (the audience has a voice) not only for marketing, but for product development.

The notion comes from the work of Michael Porter[1] which emphasizes establishing and maintaining a favorable or superior market position; a position that will help guarantee the flow of sufficient resources to your institution.

Why it matters

A clear competitive advantage:

  • Helps your organization increase certainty
  • Allows you to focus resources (time, talent, and treasure) for maximum ROI
  • Adds constancy and predictability to your revenue streams
  • Helps you achieve organizational momentum
  • Reduces unnecessary marketing, recruiting, and fundraising expenditures
    • Helps you become a magnet for talent, brand alliances, and issue-focused investors (donors, foundations)
  • Helps you more accurately measure progress

Developing your own source of competitive advantage

Competitive advantage requires that you have:

  • A clear sense of your own core competencies
  • A clear sense of your true competitors and their core competencies
  • A clear sense of who your paying customers are
  • A clear sense of what these customers value

Questions about audience interests should be answered with solid primary research and in combination with a comprehensive review of secondary research, particularly information surrounding academic degree trends, employment and job figures, and competitor offerings.

It requires strategic focus. You must have, as an organization, the ability to reduce the resources you spend on those actions which do not clearly enhance your emerging competitive advantage. In other words, eliminate or curtail those activities which consume valuable resources that would be better served supporting your competitive advantage.

A sustainable source of competitive advantage also requires strategic messaging. Ideally, you will build your brand and marketing messages around it. Limit those that distract from that primary message.

As you might suspect, the constant theme of this discussion is focus. Focus on your primary competitors. Focus on your audience needs. Focus your resources. And finally, focus your messaging.

Developing one or more sources of competitive advantage is not overly complex, but it will require research, making some tough decisions, and perseverance. The result, though, is the difference between offering something that simply generates more noise in the marketplace, and something that generates interest and action.


[1]His groundbreaking work is Competitive AdvantageCreating and Sustaining Superior Performance.

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