Aside from preserving the pricing purity of the main brand, these pugnacious products have another advantage: they block your competitors from undercutting you. Pricing strategist Reed Holden, founder of Holden Advisors, points to Motorola, which was slow to introduce low-end cell phones. So Nokia “swooped in on the low end and attacked,” says Holden, co-author of Pricing with Confidence. Nokia now leads in market share, Holden says.
Similarly, Starbucks has seen the unlikely phenomenon of McDonald’s becoming its archenemy as the burger chain rolls out its cheaper specialty coffees. “They will definitely take some of Starbucks’s market share,” predicts coffee industry consultant Andrew Hetzel. “There are coffee drinkers who are looking strictly to economize.”
No Sure Thing
Of course, a fighter brand will succeed only if it can be produced at a significantly lower cost than the main brand. In 2003, Delta Air Lines introduced Song, a low-cost airline intended to counter high-flying JetBlue Airways and other discount fliers. Three years later, Song was grounded. Ted, United Airlines’s similarly positioned product, also turned out to be no runway success. “The bigger airlines couldn’t replicate the cost model of their competitors,” says Holden. More recently, Greyhound rolled out a new “BoltBus” service in the Northeast to counter a slew of low-cost competitors. Only time will tell which ones can turn a profit with tickets costing as little as $1.
When General Motors introduced Saturn in 1990 to race against lower-cost imports like Toyota, the compact inspired a fanatical, if small, following. Originally set up as a separate business with its own manufacturing facility and no-haggle dealers, Saturn’s iffy margins ultimately led GM to park it back in the corporate lot. It has steadily lost market share, along with its distinctive identity.
Sometimes companies create a de facto fighter brand by coming up with a stripped-down version of their core brand, counting on a bare-bones option to maintain sales. In business-to-business markets, for instance, customers can cut prices by forgoing 24/7 support, choosing the pokiest shipping option, or shrinking warranty coverage. Some Internet companies have floated the idea of charging customers based on their monthly downloading volume. That gives consumers some power over what they pay, unlike those supermarket items that don’t increase in price but do decrease in size. The latter approach results in customers feeling cheated — exactly what the manufacturer was hoping to avoid when it decided not to raise prices.
If a fighter-brand strategy isn’t viable — retailers that have their own private-label brands often aren’t all that welcoming — it may be more productive to offer coupons, rebates, and other incentives, since, as Rafi Mohammed says, such moves “don’t prevent you from charging a premium in the future.”
Indeed, as soon as pricing pressure eases up fighter brands are free to leave the ring. The main brand then reclaims that shelf space, relying on a migration strategy — offering trial-size promotions, say — to regain customer mind-share. The fighter brand retreats, ready to fight another day.
Josh Hyatt is a contributing editor of CFO.
Manufacturers create fighter brands to attract value-conscious consumers in tough times, but sometimes the attraction is so strong that the brand lives on.
Procter & Gamble
Outcome: Luvs has grown to become its own midpriced powerhouse.
Delta Air Lines
Outcome: Song lost its wings after about three years.
Fighter: Busch Beer
Outcome: Busch is well established as a “subpremium” brand.