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Brand Confidence and the Economics of Good Will

July 14, 2009

Tags Free MarketsGlobal EconomyEntrepreneurshipHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

[This article is excerpted from Human Action, chapter 16 section 7, "Good Will."]

It must be emphasized again that the market is peopled by men who are not omniscient and have only a more or less defective knowledge of prevailing conditions.

The buyer must always rely upon the trustworthiness of the seller. Even in the purchase of producers' goods the buyer, although as a rule an expert in the field, depends to some extent on the reliability of the seller. This is still more the case on the market for consumers' goods. Here the seller for the most part excels the buyer in technological and commercial insight. The salesman's task is not simply to sell what the customer is asking for. He must often advise the customer how to choose the merchandise which can best satisfy his needs. The retailer is not only a vendor; he is also a friendly helper. The public does not heedlessly patronize every shop. If possible, a man prefers a store or a brand with which he himself or trustworthy friends have had good experience in the past.

Good will is the renown a business acquires on account of past achievements. It implies the expectation that the bearer of the good will in the future will live up to his earlier standards. Good will is not a phenomenon appearing only in business relations. It is present in all social relations. It determines a person's choice of his spouse and of his friends and his voting for a candidate in elections. Catallactics, of course, deals only with commercial good will.

It does not matter whether the good will is based on real achievements and merits or whether it is only a product of imagination and fallacious ideas. What counts in human action is not truth as it may appear to an omniscient being, but the opinions of people liable to error. There are some instances in which customers are prepared to pay a higher price for a special brand of a compound although the branded article does not differ in its physical and chemical structure from another cheaper product. Experts may deem such conduct unreasonable. But no man can acquire expertness in all fields which are relevant for his choices. He cannot entirely avoid substituting confidence in men for knowledge of the true state of affairs. The regular customer does not always select the article or the service, but the purveyor whom he trusts. He pays a premium to those whom he considers reliable.

The role which good will plays on the market does not impair or restrict competition. Everybody is free to acquire good will, and every bearer of good will can lose good will once acquired. Many reformers, impelled by their bias for paternal government, advocate authoritarian grade labeling as a substitute for trademarks. They would be right if rulers and bureaucrats were endowed with omniscience and perfect impartiality. But as officeholders are not free from human weakness, the realization of such plans would merely substitute the defects of government appointees for those of individual citizens. One does not make a man happier by preventing him from discriminating between a brand of cigarettes or canned food he prefers and another brand he likes less.

The acquisition of good will requires not only honesty and zeal in attending to the customers, but no less money expenditure. It takes time until a firm has acquired a steady clientele. In the interval it must often put up with losses against which it balances expected later profits.

From the point of view of the seller good will is, as it were, a necessary factor of production. It is appraised accordingly. It does not matter that as a rule the money equivalent of the good will does not appear in book entries and balance sheets. If a business is sold, a price is paid for the good will provided it is possible to transfer it to the acquirer.

It is consequently a problem of catallactics to investigate the nature of this peculiar thing called good will. In this scrutiny we must distinguish three different cases.

Case 1. The good will gives to the seller the opportunity to sell at monopoly prices or to discriminate among various classes of buyers. This does not differ from other instances of monopoly prices or price discrimination.

Case 2. The good will gives to the seller merely the opportunity to sell at prices corresponding to those which his competitors attain. If he had no good will, he would not sell at all or only by cutting prices. Good will is for him no less necessary than the business premises, the keeping of a well-assorted stock of merchandise and the hiring of skilled helpers. The costs incurred by the acquisition of good will play the same role as any other business expenses. They must be defrayed in the same way by an excess of total proceeds over total costs.

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Murphy's Guide to Mises

Case 3. The seller enjoys within a limited circle of staunch patrons such a brilliant reputation that he can sell to them at higher prices than those paid to his less renowned competitors. However, these prices are not monopoly prices. They are not the result of a deliberate policy aiming at a restriction in total sales for the sake of raising total net proceeds. It may be that the seller has no opportunity whatsoever to sell a larger quantity, as is the case for example, with a doctor who is busy to the limit of his powers although he charges more than his less popular colleagues. It may also be that the expansion of sales would require additional capital investment and that the seller either lacks this capital or believes that he has a more profitable employment for it. What prevents an expansion of output and of the quantity of merchandise or services offered for sale is not a purposive action on the part of the seller, but the state of the market.

As the misinterpretation of these facts has generated a whole mythology of "imperfect competition" and "monopolistic competition," it is necessary to enter into a more detailed scrutiny of the considerations of an entrepreneur who is weighing the pros and cons of an expansion of his business.

Expansion of a production aggregate, and no less increasing production from partial utilization of such an aggregate to full capacity production, require additional capital investment which is reasonable only if there is no more profitable investment available.[20] It does not matter whether the entrepreneur is rich enough to invest his own funds or whether he would have to borrow the funds needed. Also that part of an entrepreneur's own capital which is not employed in his firm is not "idle." It is utilized somewhere in the framework of the economic system. In order to be employed for the expansion of the business concerned these funds must be withdrawn from their present employment.[21] The entrepreneur will only embark upon this change of investment if he expects from it an increase in his net returns. In addition there are other doubts which may check the propensity to expand a prospering enterprise even if the market situation seems to offer propitious chances. The entrepreneur may mistrust his own ability to manage a bigger outfit successfully. He may also be frightened by the example provided by once prosperous enterprises for which expansion resulted in failure.

A businessman who, thanks to his splendid good will, is in a position to sell at higher prices than less renowned competitors, could, of course, renounce his advantage and reduce his prices to the level of his competitors. Like every seller of commodities or of labor he could abstain from taking fullest advantage of the state of the market and sell at a price at which demand exceeds supply. In doing so he would be making presents to some people. The donees would be those who could buy at this lowered price. Others, although ready to buy at the same price, would have to go away emptyhanded because the supply was not sufficient.

The restriction of the quantity of every article produced and offered for sale is always the outcome of the decisions of entrepreneurs intent upon reaping the highest possible profit and avoiding losses. The characteristic mark of monopoly prices is not to be seen in the fact that the entrepreneurs did not produce more of the article concerned and thus did not bring about a fall in its price. Neither is it to be seen in the fact that complementary factors of production remain unused although their fuller employment would have lowered the price of the product. The only relevant question is whether or not the restriction of production is the outcome of the action of the — monopolistic — owner of a supply of goods and services who withholds a part of this supply in order to attain higher prices for the rest. The characteristic feature of monopoly prices is the monopolist's defiance of the wishes of the consumers. A competitive price for copper means that the final price of copper tends toward a point at which the deposits are exploited to the extent permitted by the prices of the required nonspecific complementary factors of production; the marginal mine does not yield mining rent. The consumers are getting as much copper as they themselves determine by the prices they allow for copper and all other commodities. A monopoly price of copper means that the deposits of copper are utilized only to a smaller degree because this is more advantageous to the owners; capital and labor which, if the supremacy of the consumers were not infringed, would have been employed for the production of additional copper, are employed for the production of other articles for which the demand of the consumers is less intense. The interests of the owners of the copper deposits take precedence over those of the consumers. The available resources of copper are not employed according to the wishes and plans of the public.

Human Action, open

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Profits are, of course, also the outcome of a discrepancy between the wishes of the consumers and the actions of the entrepreneurs. If the entrepreneurs had had in the past better foresight of the present state of the market, no profits and losses would have emerged. Their competition would have already adjusted in the past — due allowance being made for time preference — the prices of the complementary factors of production to the present prices of the products. But this statement cannot brush away the fundamental difference between profits and monopoly gains. The entrepreneur profits to the extent he has succeeded in serving the consumers better than other people have done. The monopolist reaps monopoly gains through impairing the satisfaction of the consumers.

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This article is excerpted from Human Action, ch. 16 § 7, "Good Will." Robert Murphy has written a study guide for this chapter, available in HTML and PDF. A print edition is also available in the store.

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Notes

[20] Expenditure for additional advertising also means additional input of capital.

[21] Cash holding, even if it exceeds the customary amount and is called "hoarding," is a variety of employing funds available. Under the prevailing state of the market the actor considers cash holding the most appropriate employment of a part of his assets.


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