Why can price promotions become dangerous?

Price promotions is a tool that marketers use across many product and service categories. However, many of us know stories where price promotions have triggered very negative business results reflected in severe not only margin but also share losses.

After a business review where results indicated that 50% of the brand portfolio sells had come from price promotions, I realized a strong need to investigate this topic in more details.

The overall conclusion to which leads academic literature on this topic can be expressed by the words of Ehrenberg, Hammond and Goodhardt (1994): “price promotions don’t affect a brand’s subsequent sales or brand loyalty”.

Definitely, successful price promotion do lead to sales increases during the promotional period, mainly driven by:

1. Brand switchers who take an advantage of the price cut.

2. Consumers stockpiling behavior in response to the reduced price.

3. Newly attracted consumers (i.e. real market expansion) (Dawes, 2004).

The research results show that among these three factors, brand switchers are the key driver of price promotions success (Dawes, 2004). This is driven by the fact that brand switchers are mainly represented by light buyers and each brand has a lot of light buyers who buy a brand only infrequently (Dawes, 2004; Scriven, Ehrenberg, 2002). This is also linked with the fact why after a price promotion there is quite often no huge negative after-effect (Ehrenberg, 2000).

Also, according to Dawes (2004): “the brand is also bought during the promotion by consumers who would have otherwise bought it at regular price”. This linked with the results of the research done by Ehrenberg, Hammond and Goodhardt (1994) who conclude that “almost 70 percent of the buyers during the average sales-peak had bought the brand already in the previous half-year, some 80 percent in the previous year, and nearly all, 93 percent, in the previous 2.5 years”.

Another type of brand switchers can be those who are usually price sensitive and always tend to buy at the lowest price option – “many will switch straight back once our price returns to its normal level and will also switch if a competing brand offers a price cut” (Dawes, 2004). However, even in this case consumer don’t change the repertoire of their brands – they “respond if the bargain is for a familiar brand, i.e., one already in their usage portfolio, but very rarely, if ever, if it is for a previously untried brand” (Ehrenberg, Hammond and Goodhardt, 1994).

Considering the stockpiling effect, it is important to highlight that this will affect a brand as much as other brands who can come up with price promotion – “more significantly forward buying will include loyal customers who would have bought our brand at full price” (Dawes, 2004).

It’s also important to mention that consumers who try a brand in response to price promotion are not especially likely to become regular buyers of the brand (Dawes, 2004). Ehrenberg, Hammond and Goodhardt (1994) underline in their work that “buying a habitual brand once again does not normally increase the likelihood of buying that brand in the future – there is no “learning” in what is generally regarded as a “zero-order” stochastic process… Occasionally consumers do try something new, because of variety-seeking or competitive activity, or both. Sometimes they then develop a new repeat-buying habit. But this usually happens only as an exception and sporadically for different consumers”.

At the same time, price promotions can lead to various negative effects for a brand. Thus, Dawes (2004) mentions that frequent price promotions lower consumer’s reference prices for the brand, so that consumers experience a tendency to buy the brand when it’s promoted. In that case consumers no longer perceive the regular price as “the fair” one.

Moreover, price promotions damage brand perception in terms of the product quality –  this is the reason why luxury brands never sell their products on promo (Dawes, 2004).

To sum up, price promotions don’t represent a strong brand building potential as: 1) their gains are very short term and last only during the promotion period; 2) sales peaks can be followed by strong deeps; 3) they don’t drive trial and loyalty; 4) they can significantly decline “the fair” price point;  5) they can hinder a brand’s quality image.

Price_promo

Sources: Ehrenberg, A.S.C., Hammond, K., Goodhardt, G.J. (1994). The After-effects Of Price-related Consumer Promotions. Journal of Advertising Research, 34(4), pp. 11-21; Scriven, J., Ehrenberg, A. (2002). Is Coke Always Less Price-Sensitive Than Pepsi? Marketing Research, 14(4), pp. 40-42; Dawes, J. (2004). Assessing The Impact Of A Very Successful Price Promotion On Brand, Category And Competitor Sales. The Journal of Product and Brand Management, 13 (4/5), pp. 303-314

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