We have a special kind of resentment for all words that come with a ‘terms and conditions’ asterisk. Entering a store after seeing a massive ‘flat 50 percent off‘ sign only to find out that the tiny asterisk that was next to that ’50 percent off sign’ means you have first to shell out your entire life savings before you can get one last item at that “50 percent off” price, can be a dagger in most shopper’s hearts. This may be a little exaggerated, but similar incidents happen all the time. Incidents where brands try to lure you with a price that all but turns out to be borderline false, all thanks to that smallest (almost invisible) asterisk that they put next to the offer.

dear brands, can we have phone prices without asterisks please? - asterisk pricing

It may be sounding like one, but we swear this is not a shopper’s rant. Not yet. This is actually about a new (old) marketing strategy that many smartphone brands have started adopting of late.

It is the tale of the asterisk in the tech world.

That price being offered includes offers

These days, when a brand launches a new phone and claims that it comes with a certain starting price, we suggest you keep an eye out for this tiny symbol somewhere near the price. Chances are you will find it lurking around. This means THAT starting price might actually not be the real starting price for most consumers. It is a written version of “mutualfundsaresubecttomarketrisksreadallreleatedcoumentscarefully” that is often uttered at the speed of light at the end of mutual funds ads.

This is a new trend that many smartphone manufacturers have started following recently. In their official documents such as press releases and on their official social media handles, they push a certain starting price for their new smartphones, only to reveal later that the particular starting price is actually an ‘offer,’ which can only be availed by a small number of consumers, and not the actual starting price. Much like high-end features and specs, this trend first made its appearance in premium range smartphones and now has made its way into the mid-segment.

These discount offers and prices were available in the past as well, but back then, brands did not camouflage them as starting prices to make devices look more pocket-friendly than they actually were. They were simply offers and discounts and highlighted as such. But of late, brands like Samsung, Xiaomi, Realme, OnePlus, and many others have all been guilty of almost misleading their potential consumers. A press release or a statement on Twitter might say that a phone starts at a certain price, but the actual purchase page or package might show a different price altogether. Some brands even show these reduced prices on the product’s landing page, revealing the higher real price only when you hit the “purchase” button.

Playing the pseudo price game

While showing this “asterisked price” may be legally correct and technically right, it actually is somewhat deceiving and almost ethically wrong. We understand that one has to play the price game, but including this “offered starting” price even in documents like press releases and other public communications and attempting to project it as the MRP is a little much in our books. Especially when this offered starting price is only for a small segment of consumers who have credit and debit cards from particular banks are using certain financial schemes, purchasing from a specific store or site, exchanging specific devices, and so on.

dear brands, can we have phone prices without asterisks please? - misleading pricing

This pseudo-price gameplay is problematic for many reasons. One of which is that even with all the marketing and discounts, the actual MRP of the device will remain the one brands are trying so hard to hide from the general audience. The seemingly reduced price may be able to garner the attention that brands want but is unlikely to turn into sales. That is because eventually when your potential customer adds the phone to their cart or goes to a store with a certain price in mind, only to find out that the price is not available to them, it will probably just make them vary of such “starting prices” coming from the brand in future. The classic case of ‘the boy who cried wolf.’

Discounts and offers are awesome but are NOT part of the real price

Companies may believe that it is all right to present discount offers aimed at a really niche target audience as the real price of a smartphone, all because they have the asterisk up their sleeve that they can throw around like confetti anywhere, any time. But this still remains just a marketing strategy. It will not change the actual price of the device into a special discounted price for all consumers. And yet that communication with a reduced price is sent out to all consumers, not just the segment that can avail it.

There is nothing wrong with highlighting these special offers and discounts. In fact, they should be advertised heavily so that the consumer sector that can benefit from it gets to avail them. But to pitch them as THE starting price makes devices seem more affordable than they actually are. It is marketing sleight of hand. Yes, the consumer does discover the real price at some stage, but only after having gone through the whole roller coaster of thinking that a device costs less than it actually did. Those “flat 50 percent off” asterisked sign feels!

Companies and brands have to keep in mind that with all that asterisk power comes price-related responsibilities. It would be great if bigger brands especially can keep this in mind when they launch their next phone. We are all for discounts and offers. But provided they appear as discounts and offers and do not masquerade as the real price.

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