Companies set the prices of their products in order to achieve specific objectives. Consider the following examples:
In 2014 Nike initiated a new pricing strategy. The company determined from a market analysis that its customers appreciated the value that the brand provided, which meant that it could charge a higher price for its products. Nike began to raise its prices 4–5 percent a year. Footwear News reported on the impact of their strategy:
“The ability to raise prices is a key long-term advantage in the branded apparel and footwear industry—we are particularly encouraged that Nike is able to drive pricing while most U.S. apparel names are calling for elevated promotional [and] markdown levels in the near-term,” said UBS analyst Michael Binetti. Binetti said Nike’s new strategy is an emerging competitive advantage.
Nike’s understanding of customer value enabled it to raise prices and achieve company growth objectives, increasing U.S. athletic footwear sales by $168 million in one year.
In 2015 the U.S. airline industry lost $12 billion in value in one day because of concerns about potential price wars. When Southwest Airlines announced that it was increasing its capacity by 1 percent, the CEO of American Airlines—the world’s largest airline—responded that American would not lose customers to price competition and would match lower fares. Forbes magazine reported on the consequences:
This induced panic among investors, as they feared that this would trigger a price war among the airlines. The investors believe that competing on prices would undermine the airline’s ability to charge profitable fares, pull down their profits, and push them back into the shackles of heavy losses. Thus, the worried investors sold off stocks of major airlines, wiping out nearly $12 billion of market value of the airline industry in a single trading day.
Common Pricing Objectives
Not surprising, product pricing has a big effect on company objectives. (You’ll recall that objectives are essentially a company’s business goals.) Pricing can be used strategically to adjust performance to meet revenue or profit objectives, as in the Nike example above. Or, as the airline-industry example shows, pricing can also have unintended or adverse effects on a company’s objectives. Product pricing will impact each of the objectives below:
- Profit objective: For example, “Increase net profit in 2016 by 5 percent”
- Competitive objective: For example, “Capture 30 percent market share in the product category”
- Customer objective: For example, “Increase customer retention”
Of course, over the long run, no company can really say, “We don’t care about profits. We are pricing to beat competitors.” Nor can the company focus only on profits and ignore how it delivers customer value. For this reason, marketers talk about a company’s “orientation” in pricing. Orientation describes the relative importance of one factor compared to the others. All companies must consider customer value in pricing, but some have an orientation toward profit. We would call this profit-oriented pricing.
Profit-oriented pricing places an emphasis on the finances of the product and business. A business’s profit is the money left after all costs are covered. In other words, profit = revenue – costs. In profit-oriented pricing, the price per product is set higher than the total cost of producing and selling each product to ensure that the company makes a profit on each sale.
The benefit of profit-oriented pricing is obvious: the company is guaranteed a profit on every sale. There are real risks to this strategy, though. If a competitor has lower costs, then it can easily undercut the pricing and steal market share. Even if a competitor does not have lower costs, it might choose a more aggressive pricing strategy to gain momentum in the market.
Also, customers don’t really care about the company’s costs. Price is a component of the value equation, but if the product fails to deliver value, it will be difficult to generate sales.
Finally, profit-oriented pricing is often a difficult strategy for marketers to succeed with, because it limits flexibility. If the price is too high, then the marketer has to adjust other aspects of the marketing mix to create more value. If the marketer invests in the other three Ps—by, say, making improvements to the product, increasing promotion, or adding distribution channels—that investment will probably require additional budget, which will further raise the price.
It’s fairly standard for retailers to use some profit-oriented pricing—applying a standard mark-up over wholesale prices for products, for instance—but that’s rarely their only strategy. Successful retailers will also adjust pricing for some or all products in order to increase the value they provide to customers.
Sometimes prices are set almost completely according to competitor prices. A company simply copies the competitor’s pricing strategy or seeks to use price as one of the features that differentiates the product. That could mean either pricing the product higher than competitive products, to indicate that the firm believes it to provide greater value, or lower than competitive products in order to be a low-price solution.
This is a fairly simple way to price, especially with products whose pricing information is easily collected and compared. Like profit-oriented pricing, it carries some risks, though. Competitor-oriented pricing doesn’t fully take into account the value of the product to the customer vis-à-vis the value of competitive products. As a result, the product might be priced too low for the value it provides, or too high.
As the airline example illustrates, competitor-oriented pricing can contribute to a difficult market dynamic. If players in a market compete exclusively on price, they will erode their profits and, over time, limit their ability to add value to products.
Customer-oriented pricing is also referred to as value-oriented pricing. Given the centrality of the customer in a marketing orientation (and this marketing course!), it will come as no surprise that customer-oriented pricing is the recommended pricing approach because its focus is on providing value to the customer. Customer-oriented pricing looks at the full price-value equation (Figure 1, above; discussed earlier in the module in “Demonstrating Customer Value”) and establishes the price that balances the value. The company seeks to charge the highest price that supports the value received by the customer.
Customer-oriented pricing requires an analysis of the customer and the market. The company must understand the buyer persona, the value that the buyer is seeking, and the degree to which the product meets the customer need. The market analysis shows competitive pricing but also pricing for substitutes.
In an attempt to bring the customer voice into pricing decisions, many companies conduct primary market research with target customers. Crafting questions to get at the value perceptions of the customer is difficult, though, so marketers often turn to something called the Van Westerndorp price-sensitivity meter. This method uses the following four questions to understand customer perceptions of pricing:
- At what price would you consider the product to be so expensive that you would not consider buying it? (Too expensive)
- At what price would you consider the product to be priced so low that you would feel the quality couldn’t be very good? (Too cheap)
- At what price would you consider the product starting to get expensive, such that it’s not out of the question, but you would have to give some thought to buying it? (Expensive/High Side)
- At what price would you consider the product to be a bargain—a great buy for the money? (Cheap/Good Value)
Each of these questions asks about the customer’s perspective on the product value, with price as one component of the value equation.
The responses of many potential buyers can be plotted on a graph (see Figure 2, below). Each line shows the different customer responses to each of the questions at different price points. For example, 100 percent of those interviewed think the product is too cheap at $0, and 40 percent think that it’s still too cheap at a price of $500. The graph shows an acceptable price range in which the customers’ responses cross one another. They become torn between whether the prices are cheap or expensive but are not clearly landing on one side or the other. The results of this graph suggest a price band between $500 and $1,200.
For the purposes of this course, we won’t be getting into a full analysis of these data or the price-sensitivity meter; the important point is that marketers need to balance the customer’s perception of the value provided with the customer’s perception of the right price (“perceived costs” in Figure 1, above) in the value equation.