Yesterday, I read an interview with Sanjay Ramakrishnan, Senior Director & Head – Business development & Marketing, Flipkart Ads in Advertising Age India (read it here). It set me thinking, why is Flipkart into advertisements? Is it competing with Amazon or with Google, Facebook, and Apple as well?
Though I am tempted to label this development as the advertising market becoming a contestable market, I will refrain from doing so. Let me first explain what is a contestable market (in simple terms, of course, let me try; and in the context of platform business models), and then proceed to analyze if the success of Flipkart Ads is a source of worry for other platforms whose principal business model is based on advertising revenue.
The theory of contestable markets originated from the works of Baumol as early as 1982 in this seminal paper (available through JSTOR here). He (and his co-authors in subsequent papers) defined a contestable market as one with absolutely free entry and costless exit. Which implies that such a market would be vulnerable for a hit-and-run entry, i.e., by any competitor with no need for any specific assets, process capabilities, or differentiation.
A key characteristic of these markets is that the new entrant takes the prices prevailing in the market (of the incumbents) as given, and enters with the same price. In a perfect competition, any new entrant will increase the supply in the market, and should lead to a reduction in prices. Even when the market shares of incumbents and new entrants change, the industry price levels should ideally fall with increase in supply. In contrast, in a contestable market, the new entrant could enter the market with the same price as the incumbents. The justification for this assertion could be based on two arguments, that the new entrant enters the market at such a small scale compared to the incumbents that there is no visible change in the total market supply to warrant a price correction. The second argument is founded on the thesis that the incumbents cannot retaliate with sufficient speed to counter the threat posed by the new entrant, due to their systems and processes that bind them to a particular cost structure and a positioning in the market. In such a case, the new entrant could enter the market with a prior contract, preferably a long-term contract, at least as long-term as it takes for the incumbent to respond. In perfect competition or monopolistic competition, incumbent firms will adopt limit pricing strategies (if profitable for them) to keep new entrants at bay, i.e., as the incumbents sense the threat of new entry, they would reduce the prices to a level where it would be profitable for the incumbents and not for the new entrant. Take for example, when cola firms entered the bottled water market in India, the incumbent, Bisleri International embarked on a strategy of keeping market prices so low that it took a long time for Coca Cola Company, and Pepsico to break even.
The second aspect of contestable markets is the absence of any sunk costs whatsoever for both the incumbent and the new entrant. If any upfront fixed costs were to be incurred by a competitor either prior to entry (including in studying the feasibility of making money in that market) or at entry (like setting up manufacturing and distribution capabilities), the costs of entry will prevent this market from becoming contestable. Let me provide an example. In today’s world, setting up an online store entails no sunk costs for any retailer. The domain registration and hosting, website design, payment gateways, and fulfillment are all functions that are unbundled and offered as independent services (as SaaS) by different vendors, which makes all of them variable costs, rather than fixed costs. Such costs are neither fixed nor specific – one could use the payment gateway for any other online transaction, should this venture fail. Such markets with no sunk costs result in no barriers to entry and exit and therefore, are contestable. Contrast this with our previous example of Coca Cola Company and Pepsico entering the Indian bottled water market – this is a market that requires significant bottling and distribution capabilities. Though the cola firms enter this market with significant synergies from their core business, there were certain unique capabilities that the bottled water market required – sourcing of good quality water and plastic bottles, bottling lines that were specific to water, unique branding, and wider distribution networks.
The third characteristic of contestable markets is that the products are absolutely non-differentiable. That means, the new entrants can enter the market and imitate the products/ services offered by the incumbents at the same costs or even lower, and therefore maintain the same price levels. It is also possible that the new entrants enter with lower prices, and offer the same ‘standard’ products or provide additional features at the same or lower prices. Such standardization is highly visible in the context of platform services, like a C2C marketplace. In the absence of any product differentiation between competitors (any new feature is imitable quickly and is almost costless to do so), Quickr.com and OLX.in entered the market and took market share from incumbents like Sulekha.com or asklaila.com.
In summary, a market can be (or become) contestable when either of these conditions are met – no changes in prices (no limit pricing by incumbents), no fixed sunk costs, and no differentiation in products and services offered.
Is digital advertising becoming a contestable market?
For digital advertising market to become (and be) a contestable market, it has to allow for costless entry and exit, no sunk costs, and no differentiation. In the case of Flipkart Ads, I would argue that it would have cost Flipkart next to nothing to build the platform. The ecommerce store was in any case dealing with sellers, and all that they had to do was to extend the relationship to brands. And remember, in the Indian market, a lot of the brands had their own ecommerce retail operations and some of them were already on Flipkart as sellers. For instance, when I searched for the Prestige brand of pressure cookers on Flipkart, I found about 40-odd sellers including TTK Prestige, the brand owner.
And when Flipkart entered the digital advertising space, did Google and Facebook respond with limit pricing? I am not sure they did. A Feb 2015 LiveMint article that announced Flipkart and SnapDeal’s entry into online advertising space gave Google ad revenues as US$55bn compared to Amazon’s US$1bn (read it here). Given these sizes, it is unlikely Google and Facebook would have felt the need to respond to their entry by lowering prices.
Developing the advertising platform would possibly not involve any sunk costs for Flipkart. There is sufficient traction in terms of relationships with sellers and brands, the technology platform costs next to nothing to build, transaction costs are variable (including cloud storage and payment gateways), and even brand building is costless (as they are extending the same brand – Flipkart Ads).
It is the third condition of contestable markets that protects the online advertising market from becoming a contestable market, i.e., lack of differentiation. In the case of online advertising market, differentiation is created and sustained by superior targeting of advertisements to the right users. Measuring and monitoring engagement of the audience is the key in data collection; deep understanding of the consumer behavior and decision-making process is critical in analyzing this large volume of data; and close relationships with a wide variety of advertisers is imperative to ensure narrowcasting of advertisements to specific audience profiles. Here is where the product differentiation kicks in – the kind of browsing habit data that Google has access to is very different from the ‘buying intent’ that Flipkart can derive out of its customers’ behaviors. And especially in the context of mobile apps, the Flipkart app has access to other information like the person’s location, WiFi/ data connection information, and even his contacts; all of which could be useful to provide targeted narrowcasting (or even unicasting) of advertisements. Such shrinking of segments and the ability to serve what the marketers call ‘the segment of one’ customer can differentiate the new entrant, Flipkart’s services from the incumbent ‘Google’ and ‘Facebook’.
So, what are the implications for entrepreneurs?
First, evaluate if your market is indeed contestable, or is likely to become contestable. If there is a likelihood of your primary market being or becoming contestable, consider one of the following options:
- Change your business/ business model (pivoting is a fancy word these days in the startup ecosystem)
- Erect barriers to entry and exit – use regulation if you must (see how Airport Taxis in Bangalore are competing with OLA and Uber)
- Differentiate – even if it is not the most significant of your product offerings, focus on those value creation opportunities that involve sunk costs
- Wait for a new entrant and bleed him to death with limit pricing (you better have easier access to capital than the new entrant)!
- Wind up, sell out, and take your family (if you have one) on a holiday to Seychelles! And don’t forget to thank me!