Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetner Company vs.

NutraSweet (A)
Jon Bain-Chekal

Introduction: The worldwide aspartame market has enjoyed patent protected financial prosperity since the early 1980’s. In 1986 the world demand for aspartame was 5,730 tons annually with future projected world demand reaching 10,000 tons annually, a 75% increase over 1986 demand. The Monsanto Corporation, the current owner of the rights to manufacture aspartame, under the brand name NutraSweet (NS), reported 1986 sales of $711 million. The estimated ROA was approximately 8%.1 With this being such an attractive industry, companies like Holland Sweetener Company (HSC) needed to determine whether or not to compete in the aspartame business. This paper will first analyze NS’s case for accommodating or deterring entry before turning to a discussion as to which strategy NS will actually choose. Given the above analysis the paper will briefly address what Holland Sweetener Company’s entry strategy should be. There are several industry factors that will affect how this game is played. First, the two versions of aspartame, as produced by HSC and NS, are relatively identical goods. This leaves the consumer indifferent to product attributes and only concerned with price. It is also assumed that geography is not a real strategic factor since shipping costs are so low. The shipping costs for a pound of aspartame average 15-20 cents.2 Compared to the 1986 market price of $70 per pound shipping costs only account for 0.002% of the market price, hardly a significant factor of concern even given NS’s large volume. Lesson 1 of game theory suggests, “you must [first] understand the payoffs and objectives of the other parties you are interacting with.”3 Therefore the next two sections explore NS’s potential objectives regarding competitor entry strategy. Thinking Ahead Reasoning backwards: Reasons for Accommodation It may seem counter intuitive why a monopolist would even consider accommodating a potential entrant into the market. Each entrant reduces market share and most commonly profits. Yet there are several important factors why NurtraSweet should seriously consider accommodating the entry of HSC. This is not a one shot game. It is a complex multi-period game with an unknown amount of potential players. Let’s assume for a minute that NS is able to induce HSC to exit with a price war. This strategy would be appealing as long as HSC was the only player. Since it is not, the game would not end. As long as the market is sufficiently attractive to entry there will be new potential entrants waiting to follow in HSC’s footsteps. If this is in fact the case, it is better for NS to accommodate one or two small
1 2

ROA=income/assets; 142/1883=8% HBS case, Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetener Company Versus NutraSweet (A) 9-794-079, pg 3 3 Meaghan Busse, Lecture 9 & 10 Game Theory


to fringe vs. the consumer’s decision to buy is driven more by the downstream brand names like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi rather than product ingredients. I am assuming that the two versions of aspartame are identical products. it only affects the smaller markets of tabletop and food products. and HSC carries the cost burden of the price war. Considering that 80% of NS’s business is the diet soft drink market and many of these customers are committed to long-term contracts. other than through product attributes. fringe. 9-500-067 2 . Relegating new entrants to pick up the scraps at the low end may be a safe compromise to a price war. consumers are driven to purchase soft drink products as a statement of personality/identity or out of nostalgia rather than for product attributes like taste or sweetness. Giving up the less lucrative part of the market may have other benefits as well. While NS has established a great brand. In this game the price war does not affect the whole market. Consequently NS’s brand does not afford them any significant advantages. Introducing New Coke.e. Instead this argument manipulates the rules of the game via quantity. forgone profits in a price war) to deter Holland Sweetener only to have a second company challenge NS. If there is enough potential entrants. So HSC will enter. NS may consider utilizing its customer contractual relationships to segment the aspartame market. NS may be able to use HSC as a strategic compliment because HSC. As the Classic Coke debacle taught us. contracts. Holland Sweetener is only considering adding 500 annual tons to the market or approximately 7% (assuming they are able to produce at capacity). will find the fringe market appealing given its size and situation. as a new entrant. diet soft drinks. and size. NS may be able to capture the most lucrative and strategic customers for itself while leaving a small fringe market to HSC. but once it has entered it has an incentive to deter other small potential entrants. Currently NS has 20% more capacity than world demand.Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetner Company vs. NS scores high in market research tests on recognition.4 Consequently while NutraSweet is a well known brand it does not engender customer loyalty when faced with a comparable product. The other way to try and differentiate a product. especially in a price war game. NutraSweet (A) Jon Bain-Chekal entrants otherwise it will risk expending resources (i. the actual value of that brand is in question. this scenario could play out for years eventually depleting NutraSweet’s strength as well as eating up all future profits. but does that actually equate to high loyalty? For example aspartame’s largest market. There are several large food and chemical companies in the world that could relatively easily decide to move into the aspartame business consequently ensuring the plausibility of the above scenario. 4 HBS case. is with a strong brand. By letting in one or two low-end players the dynamics of the game change from dominant vs. As I mentioned in the introduction. fringe.

Finally. NutraSweet is claiming that it has been able to cut its manufacturing costs by 70% over the previous decade. NS would want to adopt an accommodating strategy until the cost uncertainties could be resolved. Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetener Company Versus NutraSweet (A) 9-794-079 HBS Case. Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetener Company Versus NutraSweet (A) 9-794-079 7 Meaghan Busse. the often-overlooked non-market strategy issues must be factored into NS decision process. 5 6 HBS Case. Both of these product’s potential entry into the US market shortens NS’s window to regain profits after a price war. There is also great uncertainty as to the industry cost structure. NutraSweet (A) Jon Bain-Chekal NutraSweet is quickly nearing the end of its product life cycle. Hoechst’s Acesulfame-K is currently sold in Europe. If NS expects a series of entrants vying for the aspartame market. HSC claims that its patented natural catalyst process would be less costly and more flexible than NutraSweet’s6. Is the future too soon? Reasons to deter Theoretically a firm wants to deter entry if it believes that the NPV of future cash flows will exceed the present cost of deterring entry. which is heat stable and shelf stable or Pfizer’s new Alitame which is heat stable and 2. Allowing HSC to enter may provide sufficient evidence to prevent NS from violating anti-trust law. Even though Holland is considering entering the European and Canadian markets US trust law applies outside of the US if the companies are seen as harming US consumers. yet there are other important considerations that affect the revenue stream.Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetner Company vs. it may want to incur the cost of a price war with HSC to develop a reputation as a fierce competitor. This reputation will hopefully forestall the consideration of other entrants thereby allowing Monsanto to recoup lost profits after HSC exits. These weaknesses leave aspartame susceptible to product substitutes like Hoechst’s Acesulfame-K.000 times sweeter than sugar5. Pfizer applied for FDA approval in 1986 meaning that Alitame could be approved for use as early as 1995. As long as HSC’s pronouncement is sufficiently credible. The threat of antitrust laws is an important reason for NutraSweet to consider an accommodating strategy. Not entering into a price war and instead directing profits toward increased R&D would better serve NS.7 NS would consider this only to preempt a potential entrant from gaining bargaining power via the court system. There are two significant product weaknesses the company must contend with: NS has a relatively short shelf life in soft drinks and it is unstable when exposed to high temperatures. NS does not want to find itself in a protracted and costly legal battle. Lecture 6 Antitrust 3 . As mentioned above though entering into a price war to deter entry is not necessarily a profit maximizing decision.

would be able to split its contracts between the two manufacturers encouraging them to provide more favorable terms. In the previous section I argued that the players costs structures are uncertain. b) with a short life-cycle due to pending entry of new superior products. Finally the historical entry and exit trends of the market are worth considering. NY 2000. The key compelling factors driving NS decision are: a) a homogenous product. NutraSweet’s move Given the above analysis of NurtraSweets potential options and interests HSC can be relatively confident that NS will accommodate their entry. second edition. Figure 1 depicts a game tree in which NurtraSweet’s strategic choices are to charge monopoly pricing or to use a price limiting strategy to try and prevent HSC from even entering the market (for the purpose of this paper I am going adopt Besanko’s argument that price limiting as a strategy is flawed because it is not subgame perfect and therefore I will prune that option and 8 Besanko. Depending on the company’s tolerance for risk this may or may not be enough to convince them to enter into a price war. 4 . e) the looming threat of antitrust laws. NS runs the risk that HSC will grow and move up the learning curve. Here is how the game will most likely play out. Economics of Strategy. d) a brand with high recognition. but they do give NS the upper hand. missing out on any production or marketing learning opportunities in order to retain NS’s knowledge advantage when their prime market opens up in 1992. This could inadvertently increase HSC’s ability to threaten NS in 1992 in the US market after the expiration of the patent. NS may prefer to have HSC sitting on the sidelines for several years. thereby being able to shift more fixed costs across all sales.8 This trend reduces the threat of other potential players entering the game and raises the effectiveness of a price war. The fact that they have been in business for several years and have a culture focused on process improvements means NS is further down the learning curve in the production of aspartame.Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetner Company vs. pg 328. NS will have better economies of scale. c) an uncertain cost structure comparison. yet NS does have an advantage over HSC in size and experience. f) the first mover advantage. HSC will increase buyer power. NutraSweet (A) Jon Bain-Chekal If HSC is allowed to enter the European and Canadian market. therefore insufficient time to recoup profits lost in a price war. Relative to other industries the chemical and food processing industries have little entry. These two factors do not remove the uncertainty of the cost structures. John Wiley & Sons. the diet soft drink market which accounts for 80% of all sales. but low loyalty. The largest aspartame customer.

NS should not waste resources trying to deter it. Because the European and Canadian markets are at a monopoly quantity. it is a plausible scenario which will help predict NutraSweet’s strategy and subsequent moves. NutraSweet (A) Jon Bain-Chekal continue with the example). Even if there is only one entrant to this market. For this case I reasoned that the price accommodation would take the form of a Stackelberg game where the dominant firm derives quantity based on the residual demand curve. In the above example HSC would earn $20 million in sales or only 3% of NS’s worldwide sales. NY 2000. Economics of Strategy. John Wiley & Sons. I am assuming that actual demand is 10% higher (i. The subgame perfect Nash equilibrium is depicted by the bolded lines. If HSC’s improved production process has a MES at or near 500 tons per year HSC can stay small. it is within reason to assume for the purposes of this example that the Stackelberg price will be $60 and the Cournot duopoly price will be $50 per pound. HSC puppy dog ploy: Knowing what NurtraSweet will do. If HSC enters NutraSweet will price accommodate because $60 million is optimal over $33 million estimated in the price war. HSC will have to grow or it will go out of business. While the actual payoffs may vary. Given these facts. If in fact the MES is closer to NS’s 2000 tons. Table 1 summarizes useful sales and pricing information for this situation. pg 341. At least not as large a threat to profitability as a price war would be. NutraSweet should accommodate entry because of growing demand and the looming threat of technologically superior substitutes for aspartame.Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetner Company vs. It will then depend on the true cost structures of the firms and the relevant minimum efficient scales (MES). given the introduction of new and superior products. HSC should focus on signaling to NS that it is not a large threat to profitability. Using the fold-back method we start from the end of the tree and work backwards. second edition. making $0 by not entering.e. it will increase from 550 tons per year to 605 tons per year). In this case HSC will clearly choose to enter because it will make $20 million vs. HSC should use NS’s large size to its advantage.9 Knowing that the current monopoly pricing is $70 per pound. 5 . So let the games begin! 9 Besanko. entry is too attractive to potential entrants.

Economics of NS: 33million NS: 60 million HSC: Profit Under Different20 million HSC: Competitive Conditions Table 1 Price and 33million Market Structure NS % of Price NS Annual Market Profit (millions) Monopoly 100% $70 $85 Cournot Duopoly—price 50% $50 $33 war scenario Stackelberg—dominant 75% $60 $60 fringe accommodating scenerio It is assumed that the current sales in Europe and Canada do not reflect market demand due to the current market structure being a monopoly which lowers the quantity below the socially optimal demanded. second edition.e. Therefore a conservative estimate of a 10% increase in total sales in Europe and Canada is assumed (i. John Wiley & Sons. demand will increase from 550 to 605 annual tons of aspartame). NutraSweet (A) Jon Bain-Chekal Figure 1 Game Tree Form for HSC Entry INCUMBENT: NutraSweet Pmonopoly Plimit ENTRANT: HSC IN INCUMBENT: NutraSweet OUT NS: 85 million HSC: 0 Pwar Paccomodate Please note that the conceptual theory of this argument was adapted from Besanko et.Bitter Competition: The Holland Sweetner Company vs. HSC Annual Profit (millions) $0 $33 $20 6 . NY. 2000.

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