Pricing Strategy Defined in Three Questions


Tim J. Smith, PhD
Founder and CEO, Wiglaf Pricing

Published March 1, 2012

Right before the release my book, Pricing Strategy, the husband of my boss asked me to tell him what pricing strategy is all about, and he said “make it simple, I don’t want the details.”  I knew he was serious.  And I knew he was smart.  With my boss who is also the Chair of the DePaul Marketing Department sitting right next to him, I knew this was a “make it or break it” moment.  After researching and writing for years, how was I to explain the entire body of thought on pricing in 15 seconds or less?  I took a sip of my beverage then dove into with full blunt force:

“There are three key questions that must be addressed for defining any pricing strategy, and each must be asked from the customer’s perspective, not your own.  Number 1:  What is the alternative? Number 2:  Are you better or worse?  And Number 3:  Why should I expletive care?”

To my relief, the marketing department’s chair smiled.

It has been a little over a year now since I first boiled pricing strategy down to these three questions.  Since then, I have seen this mantra resonate strongly with others.  So now, I think it is time we explore it.

The Customer’s Perspective

The starting directive is to take the customer’s perspective, not your own.

This directive comes from the marketing concept of the firm.  According to the marketing concept, a firm exists to create value for its customers, value which it exchanges through the pricing mechanism for cash.  If the firm can’t create value for its customers, it can’t survive.  If a business does create value for its customers, it can.

This viewpoint is supported by Peter Drucker, Theodore Levitt, Ronald Baker, and many others who work in the fields of business and pricing strategy.  These leaders advocate working from the customer’s perspective back to define the price, and ultimately the product.

This directive is in direct contrast with medieval pricing where costs are calculated, margins added, and then salespeople are told to convince customers to buy.  Instead, in using this customer perspective, the needs of a target market are defined, their willingness to pay to fulfill these needs determines the price, and the product is then designed to hit that price at a profitable cost.  The firms that still use medieval pricing then find themselves in a nightmare of missed sales quotas and discount led margin erosion.  Those firms which use this customer perspective find themselves engineering products and prices at which customers will be gladly pay and the firm will gladly profit.

What’s the Alternative?

No product is launched into a vacuum.  Every product faces competition even if that competition is “do nothing”.  This competing alternative will be used as a reference point by your customers in evaluating the merits of the product.  Therefore, the price of the competing alternative forms the starting point for pricing your product and the first question is “What’s the alternative?”

If the product faces direct competition from a highly similar product, the price should be very similar.  If the product faces no direct competition, then the price of the nearest substitute which enables the customer to achieve the same or similar set of goals should be used as the starting point for identifying the price.

And you cannot escape this question by claiming that your product is a “new to the world” product.  Products are purchased because customers believe it will help them fulfill their goals.  However customers achieved the goals which your product is designed to help them achieve should be considered to be your competing product.

Are You Better or Worse?

If you enable customers to reach their goals better than the competing alternative, you can price your product higher.  If your product is worse than its competing alternative, you should price your product lower.  That is what pricing to value is.  Hence the second question is “Are you better or worse?”

The point of product differentiation is contained in this question.  The price of a product relative to its competitors should reflect the sum value of the positive differentiating factors less the sum value of the negative differentiating factors.  By adding more positive differentiating factors to a product, the firm is increasing its pricing power.  .

If your customers think that all the competing products are the same, then I am sorry to say that your pricing strategy is reduced to matching your competitor’s price for you have determined that you sell commodities.  But don’t give up hope, even the marketing of commodities can be differentiated and hence some pricing power can be uncovered.

Why should I expletive care?

This last question is purposely stated in an emotional manner, because purchasing is an emotional decision by customers.  The third question is written to remind us of the importance of the customer’s perspective, ensure that whatever differentiating factors are used to define the pricing strategy are relevant to the market, and to bring a little psychology into the mix.

The first two questions, “What’s the alternative?” and “Are you better or worse?”, are logical questions.  They drive pricing strategy to fit a rational economic viewpoint of the world:  customers are value maximizing creatures who will purchase the best product after subtracting the price of acquisition.  This homoeconomicus viewpoint will get your pricing in the right ball park most of the time, but sometimes it is wide of the mark.

Customers, which in both consumer and business markets are humans, are not completely rational.  Our perception of what is the right price to pay for a product is subject to, what academics like to call, cognitive errors.  These cognitive errors arise from deep seated psychological, neuroeconomical, behavioral, environmental, and perhaps even evolutionary forces.

In terms of pricing, it is important to ensure that the emotional perception of your price is in line with the logical perception of your value.  If the price is logically right but emotionally wrong, it is likely that the emotions will override the logic and your customers won’t purchase.  Fortunately, the perception of the product’s value, and therefore the right price, is somewhat under the firm’s influence.   Firms can use this to help their customers care deeply about the positive points of differentiation and little about the negative points of differentiation, thus enabling the firm to capture higher prices.

Setting Pricing Strategy

So if you know little about pricing or need to divine a pricing strategy quick, just ask these three questions, and ask them from the customer’s perspective.

  1. What is the alternative?
  2. Are you better or worse?
  3. And why should I expletive care?


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  1. Adam on March 2, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Do you mean “expletive” rather than “explicative”?

    • Tim Smith, PhD on March 3, 2012 at 9:22 am

      I sure did have the wrong word. And, there were a few other typos / spellers in an earlier edition. Thanks for the note. I have corrected it.

    • John Stanhaus on April 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm

      I was just reading this again before forwarding on a piece where this page was cited, and I always assumed expletive was the correct word, in the Richard Nixon “expletive deleted” sense. You learn something new every day!

  2. Daniel on March 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Great piece Tim. I will use this with my team as a primer for pricing.

  3. Deborah on March 5, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Applying these questions to the Apple iphone, just to see if the answers justify the huge price advantage they enjoy.

    The alternatives are many. Blackberries, Samsung phones, though I suppose you could eliminate traditional phones because they lack many features, and add laptops because of skype. These are in the over $200 range.

    The iphone appears to be better in terms of user experience, design, features like Siri and the icloud that they continue to add to stay ahead of competition, although their competition is quickly catching up on some capabilities.

    I think the biggest advantage is in the answer to why consumers should care. Apple has figured out how to tap into our emotional responses. Buying the iphone or any Apple product means the customer thinks different, is an early adopter,appreciates excellent design and is cool.

  4. Steve Matheson on April 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Great article, especially like the reference to medieval pricing. For very large customized IT solutions which require years to deliver, breaking away from medieval pricing seems impossible. Maybe we will get there someday.

About The Author

Tim J. Smith, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Wiglaf Pricing, an Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Economics at DePaul University, and the author of Pricing Done Right (Wiley 2016) and Pricing Strategy (Cengage 2012). At Wiglaf Pricing, Tim leads client engagements. Smith’s popular business book, Pricing Done Right: The Pricing Framework Proven Successful by the World’s Most Profitable Companies, was noted by Dennis Stone, CEO of Overhead Door Corp, as "Essential reading… While many books cover the concepts of pricing, Pricing Done Right goes the additional step of applying the concepts in the real world." Tim’s textbook, Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures, has been described by independent reviewers as “the most comprehensive pricing strategy book” on the market. As well as serving as the Academic Advisor to the Professional Pricing Society’s Certified Pricing Professional program, Tim is a member of the American Marketing Association and American Physical Society. He holds a BS in Physics and Chemistry from Southern Methodist University, a BA in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University, a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago, and an MBA with high honors in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago GSB.