Why marketers play with price


When advertising agencies brainstorm client solutions, pricing rarely comes up, because “price” is perceived as both dangerous and boring. Dangerous because get it wrong, and sales will plummet. Boring because, hey, who cares about pennies when we could be discussing brand positioning?

So when a friend recently asked us whether an airline-related client should adjust price, we dug into the research — and realized, yes, this lever is critical. Here are two frameworks for price strategy: One based on logic, the second tied to emotion.

Economic logic: The price elasticity of demand

The “price elasticity of demand” is a classic model that rekindles visions of boring Econ 101 classes, but it is fascinating when put in human terms. Think of this fancy phrase as how elastic, or stretchable, demand will be if you change the price. If you lower your price, will demand “stretch” up much higher, with many more people clamoring for your service? Or is demand inelastic or “unstretchable,” with shifts in price barely moving sales?

This elasticity concept is important for marketing, because it tells you whether you can justify a high price. Consider our friend’s question:

“I’m working for a travel-related service, and they charge about $80 for a unique [service offering X]. The client wants to know, should they lower the price by a few dollars to spur more sales?”

At first, the puzzle seems unanswerable. But the theory of price elasticity of demand has an answer: Demand will respond most to price changes if the product and service has (a) readily available substitutes or (b) if it is a big chunk of the buyer’s income. Demand fluctuates least if your offering is (a) unique and (b) a small part of the buyer’s income.

Consider milk and houses. Milk is an example of a product with many brand substitutes — if one brand charges $2.10 a gallon and the other brand in the store cooler costs only $1.90, consumers will readily shift from Acme Farm Milk to purchase the cheaper Beta Farm Milk. Same product perceptions; lots of substitutes; thus a price shift makes a change in demand for a given brand. 

Houses are an example of something that’s a big chunk of your income. If you are moving to a new city and find one home priced at $500,000 and another similar house for $490,000, you’ll go for the lower price — even though the difference is only 2%. Same product perceptions; high share of your income; thus a price change also makes a quick shift in demand.

But let’s think now of this unique travel service. It’s only $80 and the service is unique. Should the marketer drop the price to say, $75? Nope. A small change in price would do zilch to stimulate demand. There are no substitutes, and it’s a small part of a frequent traveler’s annual budget. To back up our recommendation, we researched how airlines charge for other up-selling services and found that, indeed, travelers pay $38.1 billion annually in surcharge fees to U.S. carriers for things as odd as more legroom, booking by phone, changing flights, or bringing extra bags. Apparently, in the crush to get on a plane, people will pay something for almost anything that makes the trip easier.

Behavioral emotion: Playing with price framing

That’s the logical way to look at price changes. But, as our election debates show this year, consumers are often illogical and emotional, too. In 1980, Richard Thaler wrote the landmark paper on behavioral economics outlining how consumers often use a “mental accounting model” to decide if prices are good or bad. Thaler’s central argument was that shifting a price point is not the only way to stimulate demand; instead “framing” the perception of price could be more effective.

Consider, which offer is more appealing?

1. A dress that costs $60.

2. A dress that costs $70 marked down from $140 (50% off sale).

Thaler noted, in several studies, that choices such as No. 2 above are often preferred by consumers, when in reality, the second dress is just more expensive. His explanation: People are inherently bad at judging value, so use “reference points” see if they are getting a benefit or loss. Because in option 2, the dress is positioned as being far below the “real” price of $140, it feels like a better deal. This illogical-but-compelling mental accounting is why most retail stores offer goods “on sale,” or why candy at movie theaters that costs $5.00 comes in oddly shaped boxes. We feel great when we get something that looks larger than usual, or is bundled with other things, or is “marked down” in price, when the reality is each of these experiences is a bit of manipulation from a marketer creating an artificial reference point.

So there you have it: With logic, moving a price point makes sense if there are few substitutes or the total cost is a low overall risk to the buyer. With emotion, you can keep prices as is, and even increase them, by positioning the cost against a “reference point” that makes the buyer feel better about her or his mental accounting.

We all want to win. Prices are numbers that, if used carefully, can make every buyer feel a winner. Sorry if this sounds manipulative, but we have to run — there’s a great sale at the hardware store we want to hit on the way home.



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