Monday, 21 April 2008

Exclusivity and Demand

I was talking to a Professor of physics from Imperial College the other day and he mentioned that a few years ago they increased their 'standard offer' of A level grades required to get in from AAB to AAA. The effect on applicants was a marked increase*.

It's an example of the exclusivity effect - you can make something more desirable simply by pricing it higher. I first thought about it when motorcycle touring in America in the 90's. Sitting in a cafe in Sturgis during a huge rally (quarter of a million bikes in the area for the week) I found myself chatting to a typical Harley-Davidson owner. Typical of the time that it - mid 40's, overweight and a gynecologist. In order to buy a new Harley you had to put down the full cost (about $28000 back then) in advance and then wait 18 months for the factory to build your bike. Second hand bikes were more expensive than new! This approach had turned around an ailing company playing out the last chords of a sad threnody and started a whole new movement of a whole new symphony. Harleys were cool, desirable and hard to get hold of.

Obviously it's a dangerous line to tread - annoy your customers by not delivering and you're dead. But it worked there and it has worked for Imperial.

We've seen it again recently with the Ford Mondeo vs the BMW 3 series. Obviously the main objection to the Mondeo is that they are everywhere - everyone drives one. So it'd probably do BMW's sales no good at all if people found out that the BMW 3 series now outsells the Mondeo...

I see something of an analogy here with physics. Make a subject accessible to all and you risk driving away students and teachers who value it for its lack of appeal to all - not a snobbish exclusivity, not a "I'm in the physics club you're not" but a simple pride in being able to solve problems and work in a way which others cannot, and so make a genuine contribution to society and the economy. Do we really want Ford Mondeo physics? Or BMW physics? And is it possible that, if we offer BMW physics, it might actually appeal more widely?

* His claim, which is anecdotal, was that applications doubled.

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