What Pricing Is Right?

Back in June the MIT Sloan Management Review had an article in pricing strategies. The bulk of the article discusses research on practices of companies that have sales forces that goes out to solicit business and has some degree of control over the pricing.

However, the research found some basic elements of price setting that are common regardless of industry and geography. (my emphasis)

1. Cost-based pricing. Here, pricing decisions are influenced primarily by accounting data, with the objective of getting a certain return on investment or a certain markup on costs. Typical examples of cost-based pricing approaches are cost-plus pricing, target return pricing, markup pricing or break-even pricing. The main weakness of cost-based pricing is that aspects related to demand (willingness to pay, price elasticity) and competition (competitive price levels) are ignored. The main advantage of this approach is that the data you need to set prices are usually easy to find.

To a certain extent, this is the pricing strategy used by many non-profit organizations–and their critics. I say it is used by critics of non-profits because one of the common refrains one hears is that if non-profits can’t make enough to support themselves, they should be left to fail rather than supported by government funding.

Non profits use this approach to determine what level of revenue they need to cover their costs in the context whatever other funding sources (donations/sponsors) exist. But as the authors say, it can ignore the level of demand that may exist potentially increasing the revenue stream if the price were set higher (or perhaps ignoring the lack of demand and setting the price too high.)

2. Competition-based pricing. This approach uses data on competitive price levels or on anticipated or observed actions of actual or potential competitors as a primary source to determine appropriate price levels. The main advantage of this approach is that the competitive situation is taken into account, and the main disadvantage is that aspects related to the demand function are again ignored. In addition, a strong competitive focus in setting prices can exacerbate the risk of a price war.

I am not aware of too many price wars among arts organizations, but it can be a mistake to taking your pricing cues from competitors. For one thing, just because you perceive your product to be of equal value to your competitor’s doesn’t mean your customers necessarily do.

3. Customer value-based pricing. This approach, which is also often called “value-based pricing,” uses data on the perceived customer value of the product as the main factor for determining the final selling price. Instead of asking, “How can we realize higher prices despite intense competition?” customer value-based pricing asks, “How can we create additional customer value and increase customer willingness to pay, despite intense competition?” The subjective and quantified value of a purchase offering to actual and potential customers is the primary driver in setting prices. Customer value-based pricing approaches are driven by a deep understanding of customer needs, of customer perceptions of value, of price elasticity and of customers’ willingness to pay.

The advantage of customer value-driven pricing approaches is their direct link to the needs of the one constituency paying for the respective goods or services: the customer. The big disadvantage of such approaches is that data on customer preferences, willingness to pay, price elasticity and size of different market segments are usually hard to find and interpret. Furthermore, customer value-based pricing approaches may lead to relatively high prices, especially for unique products. Though that may seem optimal in the short run, these pricing approaches may spur market entry by new entrants or create a risk-free zone for competitors offering comparable products at slightly lower prices. Finally, it is important to note that it is an error to assume that customers will immediately recognize and pay for a truly innovative and superior product. Marketers must educate customers and communicate superior value to customers before linking price to value. Customers must first recognize value in order to be willing to pay for value rather than base their purchase decision solely on price.

Despite these shortcomings, many pricing scholars consider customer value-based pricing to often be the most preferable way to set new product prices or to adjust prices for existing products

Now I don’t have any real evidence that non-profit arts organizations use customer values as the basis of their pricing decisions, but damned if the language the authors use doesn’t match the language being used in discussions of arts management issues: increasing value and customer willingness to pay for it; the necessity of understanding needs of customers/community; high prices for unique products (unique at least from the NP org point of view); audiences not recognizing truly innovative and superior product; need to educate customers/community about the superior value of the artistic product.

Factor in movies/internet/video games as competitors offering what is perceived to be comparable product with lower monetary/social/time, etc. costs and it sounds like they are describing a the situation facing the non-profit arts and culture industries.

Except that these factors are rarely connected with discussions of pricing for non profit arts organizations. While creating the perception of value in audiences does often enter the discussion, I don’t know that it is necessarily accompanied with a “deep understanding of the customer needs, of customer perceptions of value, of price elasticity and of customers’ willingness to pay,” but rather with hopes and assumptions. How many pricing decisions arts and cultural organizations make every year are based on this understanding?

This may be due to lack of will as much as lack of funds to conduct the research necessary to achieve the deep understanding. Since customer value-based pricing seems to be recognized as the best approach, perhaps research into the intrinsic value of the arts should include a greater focus on pricing to see how value and pricing are connected.

Though I am not sure if the knowledge will be of practical use to a significant number of organizations. The authors point out the information is difficult to gather and interpret. I imagine the results will probably be specific to an organization or geographic region.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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