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A review of 50 years of research since Knickerbocker (1973): competitive dynamics in international business

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Abstract

Competition has long been considered a central element of strategy for multinational enterprises in classical foreign direct investment theories. This review evaluates the large and diverse literature on competitive dynamics in international business since Knickerbocker’s (Oligopolistic reaction and the multi-national enterprise, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1973) seminal work on oligopolistic reaction. Specifically, we review the literature on follow-the-leader, awareness–motivation–capability, competitor analysis, and multimarket competition. Our review reveals that competitive interaction in the international context is a multi-arena, multi-player, and multi-level phenomenon. We also identify opportunities for future research, such as deepening the understanding of the micro-foundations of competitive dynamics, incorporating more country-level factors into the analysis of firm-level competitive interactions, broadening the consideration of international stakeholders, and giving greater emphasis to non-market strategies as competitive actions in the global environment. Our review contributes to the development of international business theory by improving our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the execution and consequences of multinational firms’ competitive strategies. Moreover, it enriches the competitive dynamics theory in strategic management by emphasizing the complexities that the international context introduces to competitive interactions among firms.

Plain language summary

In the fast-paced realm of global business, firms are always looking for methods to keep a competitive advantage. A crucial tactic for multinational enterprises (MNEs – companies that operate in more than one country) in sectors with limited competition, known as oligopolistic industries (markets dominated by a small number of large companies), is to closely watch and respond to their competitors' actions. This strategic conduct, termed "oligopolistic reaction," suggests that MNEs invest in foreign nations as a direct reaction to their competitors' actions. For example, a firm might enter a new market just because its competitor has, a strategy known as "follow the leader", or it might enter a competitor's home market in retaliation, an "exchange of threat" scenario. As sectors become more worldwide and interconnected, understanding these competitive dynamics is vital for businesses aiming to prosper internationally. This study delves into the competitive interactions among MNEs and between MNEs and domestic firms, particularly focusing on how they respond to each other's moves in foreign direct investments (FDIs – investments made by a company in one country into business interests located in another country), as well as pricing, promotions, new product launches, and other areas of competition. This study looks at several key ideas on this topic. First, it examines the follow-the-leader approach and considers the impact of multiple factors, including the size and experience of the firms involved, as well as the structure of the industry. Second, this study explores the awareness-motivation-capability framework, which explains how companies decide to react to their competitors' actions. A company's response depends on whether it notices the action, feels motivated to respond, and has the ability to do so. Third, this study examines competitor analysis, which looks at different factors that might increase tension between competing companies. For example, tension can arise from how much two companies overlap in the markets they serve and how similarly they use resources. Lastly, the research explores the concept of "multi-market contact", where firms compete across different international markets, which can lead to a reduction in direct competition as firms seek to avoid costly rivalries. The research is comprehensive, analyzing a significant number of articles published in various journals. It uses a systematic approach to review the literature on oligopolistic reaction and competitive dynamics, identifying gaps in our knowledge and proposing opportunities for future research. In summary, the research illuminates the complexity of competitive actions and reactions among companies in the global market. It emphasizes the importance of strategic moves in response to competitors' actions, and the role of follow-the-leader, awareness-motivation-capability, competitor analysis, and multi-market contact in shaping firms' international strategies. The review suggests that firms' competitive behaviors are influenced by a combination of their own characteristics and the broader industry, national, and international context. The potential impact of this research is significant, offering valuable insights for business leaders and policymakers. It helps companies better understand the competitive landscape and informs their international expansion strategies. For policymakers, the study underscores the importance of considering the competitive dynamics between MNEs when shaping regulations and policies that affect international trade and investment. Looking ahead, the research opens up new avenues for exploring how firms can navigate the challenges of global competition and leverage their international presence for long-term success.

This text was initially drafted using artificial intelligence, then reviewed by the author(s) to ensure accuracy.

Résumé

La concurrence a longtemps été considérée comme un élément central de la stratégie des entreprises multinationales dans les théories classiques de l'investissement direct à l'étranger. Cette recherche évalue la littérature riche et variée de la dynamique concurrentielle dans les affaires internationales depuis l’ouvrage précurseur de Knickerbocker (1973) sur la réaction oligopolistique. Plus précisément, nous passons en revue les littératures de la suivre-le-leader, de la conscience-motivation-capacité, de l'analyse concurrentielle et de la concurrence multi-marchés. Notre examen révèle que l'interaction concurrentielle dans le contexte international est un phénomène multi-arènes, multi-acteurs et multi-niveaux. Nous identifions également des opportunités pour de futures recherches, telles que l'approfondissement de la compréhension des micro-fondations de la dynamique concurrentielle, l'intégration de davantage de facteurs à l’échelle nationale dans l'analyse des interactions concurrentielles au niveau de l'entreprise, l'élargissement de la prise en compte des parties prenantes internationales et l'octroi d'une plus grande importance aux stratégies non marchandes en tant qu'actions concurrentielles dans l'environnement mondial. Notre revue contribue au développement de la théorie des affaires internationales en améliorant notre compréhension des mécanismes qui sous-tendent l'exécution et les conséquences des stratégies concurrentielles des entreprises multinationales. En outre, elle enrichit la théorie de la dynamique concurrentielle dans le domaine du management stratégique en mettant l'accent sur les complexités que le contexte international introduit dans les interactions concurrentielles entre les entreprises.

Resumen

La competencia se ha considerado por mucho tiempo como un elemento central de las empresas multinacionales en las teorías clásicas de inversión extranjero directa. Esta revisión evalúa la amplia y diversa literatura sobre las dinámicas competitivas en negocios internacionales desde el trabajo seminal sobre la reacción oligopólica planteada por Knickerbocker (1973). Especialmente, revisamos la literatura sobre seguir-al-líder, conciencia-motivación-capacidad, análisis de competidores, y la competencia multimercado. Nuestra revisión demuestra que la interacción competitiva en el contexto internacional es un fenómeno de múltiples escenarios, múltiples jugadores y múltiples niveles. También identificamos oportunidades para investigaciones futuras, como la profundización del entendimiento sobre los micro-fundamentos de las dinámicas competitivas, incorporar factores a nivel país en el análisis de las interacciones de las competitivas a nivel empresa, una más amplia consideración de grupos de interés internacionales, y dar un mayor énfasis a las estrategias de no mercado como acciones competitivas en el entorno internacional. Nuestra revisión contribuye al desarrollo de teoría de negocios internacionales al mejorar nuestro entendimiento de los mecanismos subyacentes a la ejecución y las consecuencias de las estrategias competitivas de las empresas multinacionales. Además, enriquece la teoría de dinámicas competitivas en gestión estratégica al enfatizar las complejidades que introduce el contexto internacional a las interacciones competitivas entra las empresas.

Resumo

Concorrência tem sido considerada há muito tempo um elemento central da estratégia de empresas multinacionais em teorias clássicas sobre investimento direto estrangeiro. Esta revisão avalia a ampla e variada literatura sobre a dinâmica competitiva em negócios internacionais desde o trabalho seminal de Knickerbocker (1973) sobre a reação oligopolista. Especificamente, revisamos a literatura sobre seguir o líder, conscientização-motivação- capacidade, análise de concorrência e competição multimercado. Nossa revisão revela que a interação competitiva no contexto internacional é um fenômeno multilocal, multiator e multinível. Igualmente identificamos oportunidades para pesquisas futuras, como aprofundar o entendimento de microfundamentos da dinâmica competitiva, incorporar mais fatores de nível nacional na análise de interações competitivas em nível de empresa, ampliar o reconhecimento de stakeholders internacionais e dar maior ênfase a estratégias não mercado como ações competitivas no ambiente global. Nossa revisão contribui para o desenvolvimento da teoria em negócios internacionais, melhorando nosso entendimento de mecanismos de execução subjacentes e consequências de estratégias competitivas de empresas multinacionais. Além disso, ela enriquece a teoria da dinâmica competitiva em gestão estratégica ao enfatizar as complexidades que o contexto internacional introduz nas interações competitivas entre empresas.

摘要

在经典的外国直接投资理论中, 竞争长期以来一直被认为是跨国企业战略的核心要素。这篇综述评估了自 Knickerbocker(1973)关于寡头垄断反应的开创性研究以来关于国际商业竞争动态的大量且多样化的文献。具体来说, 我们回顾了有关追随领导者、察觉 – 动机 – 能力、竞争对手分析以及多市场竞争的文献。我们的综述表明, 国际情境下的竞争互动是一种多领域、多参与者、以及多层次的现象。我们还确定了未来研究的机会, 例如加深对竞争动态微观基础的理解, 将更多国家层面的因素纳入企业层面竞争互动的分析中, 扩大了对国际利益相关者的考量, 以及更加重视作为全球环境中的竞争行为的非市场战略。我们的综述通过改进我们对跨国公司竞争战略的执行和后果机制的理解, 对国际商务理论的发展做出了贡献。此外, 它通过强调国际情境给企业间竞争互动所带来的复杂性, 丰富了战略管理中的竞争动态理论。

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Notes

  1. Take geographic markets as examples. In some manufacturing industries, it may be valid to examine national markets, as competition is largely generated from within the country. For example, Yu and colleagues (2009) explored multimarket competition across national markets in the global automobile industry. In other manufacturing contexts, examining subnational markets (province, state, and the like) may be valid when market segmentation and local institutional barriers lead to localized competition within smaller geographic areas. For example, Yao and Li (2016) studied multimarket competition among manufacturing MNEs across provincial markets within China before 1995, because China consisted of multiple localized provincial markets rather than as a unified nationwide market in the early period of economic transition. In summary, “no one definition of boundaries will be best for all studies, so each study is faced with having to make a defensible compromise” (Barnett, 1993: 258).

  2. We also include a table (Online Appendix 1) to compare the various competitive dynamics frames: awareness–motivation–capability, competitor analysis (market commonality/resource similarity and strategic group), and multimarket competition.

  3. Despite the temporal differences, the origin of competitive dynamics seems to have relatively limited connections to oligopolistic reaction. As noted by one of the co-authors (also a co-founder of competitive dynamics), competitive dynamics originated from phenomena and the co-founder’s personal experiences. The co-founder, who was an athlete, noticed differences between his observations on competition in sports and those of Porter.

    The motivation of our review is to join the two relatively independently developed perspectives. We thank the Editor and anonymous reviewers for the important insight about the temporal difference between oligopolistic reaction and competitive dynamics.

  4. For example, Wang et al. (2014) explore Chinese domestic firms’ competitive responses to foreign entries in manufacturing industries, which include many competitive sectors. Two types of MNEs are differentiated, MNEs from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and MNEs from other countries. Wang and colleagues (2014) find that Chinese firms are more likely to have competitive responses to foreign entries from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan than MNEs from other countries, because Chinese firms are likely to have high levels of market commonality and resource similarity with MNEs from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and competitors sharing markets and resources are prone to compete aggressively (Chen, 1996). Differently, Yu and Ito (1988) test the oligopolistic reaction theory in two industries: the textile and tile industries. They find the patterns of oligopolistic reaction in the tile industry, because it is an oligopolistic industry in which MNEs are few enough to observe and identify rivals’ actions (Caves, 1982). But similar patterns are not observed in the textile industry due to the textile industry’s less oligopolistic and more competitive structure.

  5. Specifically, for the research on oligopolistic reaction, we used the following search terms: “oligopolistic reaction,” “oligopoly,” “oligopolistic,” “follow the leader,” “exchange of threat,” and “tit for tat.” For the literature on competitive dynamics, we used these terms: “competitive dynamics,” “competitive interaction,” “competitor analysis,” “competitive action,” “competitive response,” “competitive foothold,” “rivalry,” “interfirm rivalry,” and “competitive rivalry” (Chen et al., 2021). We also included other competitive dynamics-related search terms such as “multimarket competition,” “multimarket contact,” “multipoint competition,” “mutual forbearance,” “dynamic competition,” “strategic competition,” and “coopetition.” Because these search terms yielded a large number of articles, we narrowed the search by the second set of terms with an international focus, including “international,” “multinational,” “foreign direct investment,” “FDI,” “MNC,” and “MNE.” These two sets of search terms produced a manageable list of conceptual and empirical articles on competitive dynamics and oligopolistic reaction in IB.

  6. In the online appendix (Online Appendix 3), we also consider other, non-competition-related theoretical perspectives that are often leveraged to explain competitive actions and outcomes.

  7. Scholars use different operationalizations to capture follow-the-leader. The early studies of Knickerbocker (1973) and Flowers (1976) employ an indicator of FDI entry concentration to evaluate the tendency of FDI clustering in a host country within a period of time. A high value of FDI entry concentration implies the presence of follow-the-leader. However, this indicator alone does not necessarily reveal that MNEs “follow” leaders to enter other countries. Many MNEs may act independently to enter host countries for access to abundant resources in the location (Hennart & Park, 1994; Yu & Ito, 1988). Therefore later studies take a more direct approach to examine follow-the-leader, by testing the effect of prior FDI entries by industry competitors in the host country on a focal MNE’s likelihood to enter the country and, importantly, controlling other location and governance explanations of FDI (e.g., Hennart & Park, 1994; Li & Guisinger, 1992; Terpstra & Yu, 1988; Yu & Ito, 1988). Most studies find support for the follow-the-leader hypothesis.

  8. Prior studies also consider other firm contingencies such as firm identity and experience. For example, Ito and Rose (2002) find that, within the same global tire industry, firm identities matter in the follow-the-leader pattern. The presence of Goodyear in the host country is more likely to increase the likelihood that rivals invest in the same country than the presence of Bridgestone, Continental, and Pirelli. This is because, in the tire industry, Goodyear has a salient identity as the first mover with extensive early overseas investments. Wang et al. (2022) reveal that firms with greater international experience are less likely to be influenced by prior entries in internationalization, because international experience provides the strengths that can decrease the need to match the immediate investment moves of rivals (Knickerbocker, 1973).

  9. Hansen and Hoenen (2016) summarize that the de-emphasis of the oligopolistic reaction perspective in the contemporary IB literature is largely attributed to the transaction-cost economics and the resource-based view, which have won prominence within the IB field. The IO-based oligopolistic reaction insight was subject to critiques, especially from transaction-cost economics. The transaction-cost perspective was explicitly motivated by “the unease with the equation of large firms with welfare-reducing oligopolies (Hansen & Hoenen, 2016: 371).” Later the extension of the resource-based view to understanding FDI switched the focus of the IB literature from the economics perspective to strategic management approaches. The increasing attention to firm-level heterogeneities in resources further downplayed the importance of the industry-level oligopolistic reaction theory in explaining FDI.

  10. For example, research finds that foreign investments from Japan appear not to display the follow-the-leader pattern or even present an opposite pattern (Delios et al., 2008; Hennart & Park, 1994; Rose & Ito, 2008). Likewise, Machokoto, Chipeta, & Ibeji (2021) find variations in the use and effectiveness of follow-the-leader across different institutional environments and economic conditions.

  11. It is important to note that these factors may not influence the individual components of awareness–motivation–capability in the same direction. For example, having a high percentage of ownership in the subsidiary (e.g., a wholly owned subsidiary) increases the MNE’s awareness and motivation to respond to a rival's attack, due to the subsidiary’s importance and frequent communication with headquarters. A high percentage of ownership, however, may not necessarily enhance an MNE’s capability to respond in a foreign market. High foreign ownership may allow the subsidiary to leverage resources from headquarters, but may also indicate liability of foreignness, which decreases the subsidiary’s capability to compete. We thank an anonymous reviewer for this critical insight.

  12. Take the varying control over subsidiaries as another example. Conventional competitive dynamics research does not pay adequate attention to parent firms’ different control over subsidiaries and thus has not distinguished between modes by which market entry can be made. The IB literature, however, has highlighted multiple entry modes (Hashai & Adler, 2021). Wholly owned subsidiaries are advantageous in competitive interactions because this entry mode helps parent firms coordinate competitive actions among subsidiaries more easily than joint ventures (Yu & Cannella, 2013). Yet wholly owned subsidiaries may also have disadvantages in competitive dynamics. Due to liabilities of foreignness, wholly owned subsidiaries often have limited knowledge of the local market and institutions, inhibiting their competitive capabilities. Given the competing arguments, more research is warranted about how entry modes affect firms’ execution of competitive actions and reactions.

  13. We present Online Appendix 6 with more individual factors that may influence competitive interactions in IB.

  14. We thank an anonymous reviewer for discussing the difference between state and market capitalism.

  15. For example, a triad notion from The Art of War is “besiege Wei State to rescue Zhao State.” This notion suggests that the focal state can surround Wei State’s base when Wei is attacking Zhao State, to force Wei State to retreat from Zhao State to its base. This idea suggests that firm A could attack firm B’s home country when B is attacking firm C’s home country; because of the attack, firm B will have to shift its attention and resources back to its home country to respond to firm A’s attack. As a result, the competitive pressure from firm B on firm C will be mitigated. Notably, these tactics are present in both the East and West as a form of generic gamesmanship (MacMillan et al., 2003).

  16. One may note that nowadays direct cutthroat competition in the Chinese market is prevalent. The misalignment between traditional Asian philosophy and the current phenomenon can be explained by the difference between formal and informal institutions. If we consider the latter, Western culture is more likely to accept direct confrontation, while Eastern culture typically prefers indirect approaches. Regarding formal institutions, recently the Chinese government, in particular the Xi administration, has increased its emphasis on aggressiveness and direct competition against Western rivals. So there may be a misalignment between formal and informal institutions. This inspires intriguing research questions: When institutions misalign with one another, which one is more influential in influencing competitive dynamics in the host country? And how do formal and informal institutions interactively influence competitive dynamics? We call for future research to address these questions.

  17. Appendix 6 summarizes more country factors that affect competitive interactions in IB.

  18. For example, in 2020, Abbott Laboratories, an American multinational healthcare company, spent approximately $3 million lobbying the federal government to approve its at-home COVID-19 rapid antigen test. Abbott’s BinaxNOW became the first at-home COVID-19 test to receive emergency use authorization in the U.S., on December 16, 2020. Roche Holdings, a leading healthcare company based in Switzerland, tripled its lobby expenditures in 2021 in order to compete with Abbott and gain approval for its rapid antigen test in the U.S. market. Indeed, high awareness of Abbott’s non-market strategies, greater motivation to compete against Abbott, and superior capabilities and financial resources resulted in the likelihood that Roche tripled spending on lobbying governments.

  19. For example, media attention of a rival firm’s corporate social-responsibility actions may increase the awareness of the competitive threat; a large performance gap between a focal firm and a rival may enhance the motivation of the MNE to conduct this non-market strategy; an MNE’s previous experience with corporate social responsibility may increase its capability to engage in similar non-market actions in response to competitors’ moves.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge insightful comments from Chawit Rochanakit. This research was supported in part by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (HKUST# 16506622).

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Yao, F.K., Chen, MJ., Li, J. et al. A review of 50 years of research since Knickerbocker (1973): competitive dynamics in international business. J Int Bus Stud 55, 522–550 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41267-024-00707-5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41267-024-00707-5

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