The GAFAMs - Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. (Part 2)

As we described in a previous blog here , although the GAFAMs and KHOLs target entirely different sectors, they both have become the dominant players in their industries. Nonetheless, it is undisputable that the financial performance of the GAFAMs cannot act as a benchmark for the KHOLs: in 2019, the market capitalization of Facebook alone amounted to the total sum of all the KHOL players combined. Although on a smaller scale the GAFAMs, the financial performance of the KHOLs clearly sets them apart from the remaining players in the luxury industry.

This blog will place now its primary focus on the strategic perspective, exploring the companies’ market positioning, geographic coverage and approach to innovation.

Strong brand ecosystems strengthen both market positioning

Brand positioning can be considered as one of the key starting points when it comes to gaining a competitive advantage and establishing brand awareness among potential customers (Bahcecik et al., 2019). While for tech companies, like the GAFAMs, ‘brand positioning’ encompasses pondering how to occupy space inside a target consumer’s mind, the luxury sector interprets the same term in a more artistic sense: rather than focusing on the position a brand occupies in terms of its market share, revenue or size, it is their conviction that ‘brand positioning’ refers to the unique space a brand carves out in the mind of the consumer (Launchmetrics, 2019).

   Consistent with this mindset, the French conglomerates encompassed by the KHOL acronym have positioned themselves in a distinctive part of society, having now become synonymous with the term luxury. Even though these top brands are all primarily associated with the luxury industry, they each follow unique brand strategies and brand positionings within this market landscape. By targeting different demographics and personas through their diverse range of products, L’Oréal, for example, has made the universalization of beauty their ultimate goal. They own a range of 500 different brands ranging from cosmetics to hair and body products, all at different price points to attract consumers with different income levels. Kering, on the other hand, manages three divisions, namely Luxury, Sport & Lifestyle and Kering Eyewear, with each brand completely controlling over product design, brand image and sourcing strategy. The corporate conglomerate facilitates rapid innovation, reducing time to market for promising design concepts (Martinroll, 2014).

   Similarly to the KHOL’s in the luxury industry sector, the GAFAM’s are equally indispensable to their respective market landscape – namely the technology industry. Their omnipresence in people’s everyday life has made society heavily, if not completely, reliant on them. In fact, the GAFAM players have even managed to make their brands part of people’s everyday vocabulary - “checking for an item online” is synonymous with “checking Amazon”, “searching something on the internet” with “googling it”.

   Unlike the KHOL’s, the GAFAMs continues to grow, innovate and stifle competition through incremental additions within existing value trajectories, as well as, simultaneously, the drive to explore new innovation funnels to further expand their business portfolio. For them, the challenge that remains is the integration of the acquired companies and market innovations into the overarching parent brand (Vivaldi, 2018). Different to the KHOLs, the GAFAMs tend to derive synergies and potential economies of scale and scope by managing newly acquired entities as central as possible and only as decentral as necessary. The acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram through Facebook stands exemplary for this: Here, Facebook risked alienating not only its own but also WhatsApp’s and Instagram’s fan base by altering the identity that had made them so successful in the past. By sharing data across the platforms and facilitating cross-enterprise targeting options for its business and advertising partners, Facebook successfully integrated these brands into its portfolio (Vivaldi, 2018).

   Diversification to satisfy a broad range of customer needs is thus something that the KHOL and the GAFAM have in common in order to occupy a distinctive position in their customers’ mind. With its diverse portfolio of products (Search, Maps, Chrome etc.), Google helps people learn more about the world around them and enables them to find any information they need (Schmidt, 2019). Correspondingly, LVMH’s houses operate in different sectors of the luxury industry to create and market high-end products that embody the savoir-faire, heritage and engagement with modernity through selected channels to the final customer to become “the place” for consumers to go to in the search of ultimate luxury.

China: between opportunities and risks for GAFA and KHOL

   It is precisely this strategy which provided the KHOLs competitive advantage in many different countries – especially among the Asian population who, at least in the luxury industry, regard Westernization as a status symbol.  

90%

This may also account for the fact that the KHOLs does not appear to face a great degree of local competition in the Asian market: the brands were so successful with relying on their tradition, prestige and brand power that, since 1992 (Chadha, 2006), they have experienced an impressive growth rate, with the Asian market representing 90% of the total annual growth rate of the luxury sector in 2019 (Lacombled, 2020).

   Nevertheless, this trend appears to have stagnated recently, potentially in light of several scandals in the luxury industry. In 2018, for example, both Balenciaga and D&G had to face accuse of racial discrimination against the Chinese (Togoh, 2020) – a scandal which caused both brands significant reductions in their revenues. The KHOLs thus have to be very attentive in both their marketing and operations in the future to avoid losing one of their key costumer groups and the associated revenue stream of more than $75 billion (D'arpizio, 2017).

   Unlike for the KHOLs, the Asian market represents a tough test adaptation for the GAFAMs who are encountering significant challenges in terms of local competition. The GAFAMs were forced to compete with many local tech enterprises, the so-called BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi) - a range of companies well-established in their home market, the East and Far East, but only weakly so in the Western market. In this context, BATX had a significant competitive advantage, first and foremost, since the Chinese government banned both Facebook and Google entirely from the biggest market in Asia, i.e. China, in 2009 and 2012 respectively. Consequently, local players have been thriving and capturing market share practically undisturbed – the gung ho of Tencent, for example, recently achieved a similar market capitalization number as Facebook, with around $491bln. Whilst not completely off-limits in China, also Apple and Amazon are encountering several governmentally imposed limitations and problems in their operations (Karpal, 2019). The ability to integrate different related services, while guaranteeing access using a common interface - the examples being those of Wechat Pay or HEMA Xiansheng – provide a further advantage that local competitors like the BATX have over the GAFAMs. Furthermore, local players have been increasingly focused on their expansion into attractive neighboring emerging markets, such as Malaysia and India. Companies founded in Asia may further attempt to expand in the West, potentially even posing a threat to the GAFAMs in their home market in the future. The successes of the apps ByteDance owned by TikTok as a bridgehead to Western consumers stands exemplary for this.

   What both the GAFAMs and the KHOLs share, however, is the competition from new local players and the changing business landscape these last years: the ‘streetwear phenomenon’ and popularity of vintage clothing, for example, has been capturing the attention of people from all over the world. The US and Asia, and within Asia particularly Korea, China and Japan, are leading when it comes to streetwear product purchasing (Menke, 2019). Examples of recent success stories include Off-white and Amiri, as well as Japanese and Chinese start-ups, strongly influencing fashion consumption patterns amongst teenagers. A fashion genre that once represented a niche market, is now posing a threat to the iconic brands - unless these are willing to adapt to changing fashion consumption patterns and use this trend to their advantage to increase market share in Asia.

   Overall, it appears that at least in Asia the KHOLs have some degree of advantage over the GAFAMs – they are largely unrestricted by the Asian government, enjoy a high degree of popularity amongst Asian consumers and are currently responding well to changes in the fashion industry through their M&A strategy, adding smaller, ‘younger’ brands to their portfolio to cover both the Millennials and different niche segments.

Innovation to sustain the dream around their brands

  Their international expansion strategy apart, what both the KHOLs and the GAFAMs share is their strong innovative potential. In the business context, innovations are crucial for economic success and long-term viability of a company, allowing companies to respond to technological or general market challenges, while potentially creating a competitive edge over other market players.

  As previously discussed, the KHOLs and GAFAMs, however, are fundamentally different, in terms of their industries, their business models and their target market, forcing them to follow a very different innovation strategy – something that is true, both when comparing the KHOLs to the GAFAMs as an entity, and when comparing the different enterprises within the KHOLs and GAFAMs respectively.

  The GAFAMs see themselves capable to innovate because of their economic model – a model built on the use of their customers' data (Citéco, 2018). Their access to so-called Big Data from their users provides them with the opportunity to use this first-hand knowledge and tailor inventions exactly to their costumers’ needs: They know what their consumers want, sometimes before their consumers themselves know it. This ultimately allows them to bring a great number of disruptive innovations to market. Furthermore, their great financial success means that all associated innovations are backed by significant investments in R&D (Gaudiaut, 2019)(Gadoury, 2020), with associated spending of the 5 companies exceeding 70 billion Euros in 2019 alone.

Nevertheless, every company forming part of GAFAM appears to follow a distinct innovation strategy: Google, for example, is betting on a vertical integration strategy focused on 'devices' and the improvement of connected assistants. They are developing their portfolio by acquiring companies like YouTube in 2009 and delivering new products focused on the improvement of voice recognition technologies. Apple, on the other hand, builds on incremental innovation by adding new features to existing products. Facebook is investing in Customer Experience (UX) (Gadoury, 2020), introducing new features to make their services more efficient and universally accessible, with AI programs being developed to make the platform more attractive. (Le Monde, 2019) In 2020, the company aims to launch ‘Facebook Horizon’ – a entirely new platform which allows members to interact in a virtual world through a virtual reality headset. (Gadoury, 2020) Amazon, in turn, is a complete ecosystem around Tech and Data - the firm is in the process of making any transaction feasible on its website, with offerings ranging from the purchase of groceries (Amazon fresh) over medicines to the streaming movie platform Amazon Prime Video. Just like Facebook, they are heavily investing in AI, deep learning (DL) and the health sector. An example is the recent innovation called ‘Amazon Transcribe Medical’, a DL platform that converts medical speech into text. Finally, Microsoft leverages product innovation with new hardware and software products by trying to put technology at the service of the good (AI for Good program).

  Despite their incredible innovative success in the past, one may wonder what the future holds for the Luxury and Tech giants. (Andjelic, 2015)

   Nevertheless, it is necessary to mention that, as far as the KHOL’s are concerned, it took a long time for the ‘Maison's’ to realize that developing their products and investing in better located sales outlets was no longer sufficient. With the fashion industry, and the population purchasing fashion itself, changing at a rapid rate, they realized that rather than improving the old, they had to create the new: by reinventing themselves entirely. Rather than relying purely on heritage and tradition, acquiring new, niche and ‘hip’ brands to their company portfolio seemed the way forward to capture new customer groups, in addition to maintaining their old ones (Danziger, 2019) – an important step, considering that the Millennials alone are expected to represent between 32% and 50% of the market by 2025. Also the Generation Z has become of increasing interest for the KHOL’s - not necessarily as a stream of revenue, but rather as a source of ideas for possible innovations, considering that this population group is characterized by their different mindset and way of thinking (Reuteurs, 2019). One example is Generation Z’s strong response to social networks as a marketing channel – a fact that many luxury companies increasingly exploit to strengthen their brand image and foster customer loyalty: Louis Vuitton, for example, now frequently shares photos and videos of its fashion shows, collections, look books and editorials.

32% to 50%

Expected representation of the millenials in the market by 2025 

 In addition to investments in digital marketing, the brands innovate by offering different experiences, in particular regarding collaboration between brands (Louis Vuitton & Supreme; Louis Vuitton & J.Koons; Gucci & Gucci Ghost), luxury casualwear and influencers. Stores are also used as Hub for innovation – they are used as laboratories where customers can experiment and experience their products on a multi-sensual level. The "New Sephora experience" is a perfect example of how the brand’s digital promotion strategies are combined with the customer experience in store: the entity belonging to the LVMH group now offers a new concept of "connected shops" - 804m2 of space, with virtual look-books and product testing.

   Essentially, both luxury and tech brands use innovations to improve and strengthen the relationships with their consumers, but also as a mean to adjust to change and be increasingly flexible in today’s rapidly evolving world. This is why they reinvent themselves by broadening the assortment they offer (Fenty Beauty by Rihanna owned by LVMH or Amazon fresh, the grocery division of Amazon), so that consumers understand that even if these brands have been present for more than a century, they still are relevant as ever (Gaudiaut, 2019).
After our analysis of both the economic and the strategic standpoint, what ultimately remains to be addressed is the question – ‘Do the KHOLs have the potential to become the new GAFAMs?’

    Considering all fore-mentioned points, it is undisputable that both the KHOLs and the GAFAMs remain the unbeaten leaders of their own industry. We could say that the KHOLs are the GAFAMs of their respective market landscape. These companies both built powerful and influent brand ecosystems on their own sectors. They try to diversify their brand portfolio while strengthen each brand identity. Today, KHOLs and GAFAMs face common challenges: thriving on the Asian market but also remaining innovative to sustain customer dream. Nevertheless, when looking into the future and investigating the development potential of both the KHOLs and the GAFAMs, it appears that more than the GAFAMs on the KHOLs, the KHOLs are dependent on the GAFAMs to ensure their future success in an increasingly digitalized society. The KHOLs, while valued for their heritage, prestige and tradition, find themselves in an old-school industry which now has to become forward moving. The GAFAMs are part of an already forward moving, where they might have the power to increase the pace, but do not have to change direction entirely.

Authors : Charles Missiaen, Anastasia KaranfilovicMarie Dutailly

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