The traditional theory of the firm assumes that firms are profit maximisers. Although, in practice, decision-makers in firms are driven by a range of motives and objectives, profit remains a key objective for most firms – if not maximising profit, at least trying to achieve profit growth so as to satisfy shareholders, retain confidence in the company and prevent the share price from falling. After all, if the company is profitable, it is easier to fund investment, either from ploughed-back profit, borrowing or new share issue. And greater investment will help to drive profits in the future.
But does the pursuit of profit and shareholder value as the number-one objective actually lead to higher profit? It could be that a prime focus on other things such as consumer satisfaction, product design and value, innovation, safety, worker involvement and the local community could lead to greater long-term profit than an aggressive policy of marketing, cost cutting and financial rejigging – three of the commonest approaches to achieving greater profits.
In 2018 and 2019 there were two fatal crashes involving the new 737 MAX-8 aircraft. On 29 October 2018, Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea; all 189 people on board died. On 10 March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 similarly crashed; all 157 people on board died. Both disasters were the result of a faulty automatic manoeuvring system. The company and its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, knew about issues with the system, but preferred to keep planes flying while they sought to fix the issue. Grounding them would have cost the company money. But taking this gamble led to two fatal crashes. This damaged the company’s reputation and cost it billions of dollars.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated the cases and found that the company had made false statements about the plane’s safety and had put ‘profits before people’. But putting profits first ended up in a huge fall in profits, with the 737 MAX grounded for 20 months.
Since the crashes there have been several other issues with various critical systems, including stabilisation, engines, flight control systems, hydraulics and wiring. In December 2023, Boeing asked airlines to inspect its 737 MAX planes for a potential loose bolt in the rudder control system.
On 5 January 2024, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 experienced an emergency. A window panel on the 737 MAX-9 aircraft, which replaced an unused emergency exit door, blew out and the cabin depressurised. Fortunately the plane was still climbing and had reached only just under 5000m – less than half of the cruising altitude of over 11 500m. The plane rapidly descended and safely returned to Portland International Airport without loss of life. Had the incident occurred at cruising altitude, the rush of air out of the plane would have been much greater. Passengers would be less likely to be wearing their seat belts and several people could have been sucked out.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily grounded 171 MAX-9s for inspections. It found that several planes had loose bolts holding the panels in place and could potentially have suffered similar blow outs.
Profits rather than safety?
Critics have claimed that the corporate culture at Boeing prioritised profit over safety. This was made worse in 2001 when company headquarters moved from Seattle to Chicago but production remained at Seattle. The culture at headquarters became sharply focused on financial success. Boeing was under intense competition from Airbus, which announced its more fuel-efficient version of the A320, the A320neo, in 2010, with launch planned for 2015. Boeing’s more fuel-efficient version of the 737, the 737 MAX, was announced in 2011, scheduled for first delivery in 2017. Since then, Boeing has been keen to get the 737 MAX to customers as quickly as possible. Also, Boeing has sought to cut manufacturing costs to keep prices competitive with Airbus.
Despite warnings from some Boeing employees that this competition was leading to corners being cut that compromised safety, Boeing management continued to push for more rapid and cheaper production to fight the competition from Airbus.
The aircraft industry is regulated in the USA by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In 2020, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure produced a detailed report on the industry. It found that the FAA delegated too much safety certification work to Boeing. This was a case of regulatory capture. It was also accused of sharing the goal of promoting the production of US-based Boeing in its competition with European-based Airbus.
Effects on profits
But rather than a focus on profit leading to greater profits, safety issues have led to groundings of 737s, a fall in sales and a fall in profits. The first chart shows deliveries of 737s slightly lagging A320s from 2010 to 2018. Since then deliveries of 737s have fallen well behind A320s. In terms of orders for all planes, Boeing was ahead of Airbus in 2018 (893 compared with 747). Since then, Boeing has significantly lagged behind Airbus and in 2019 and 2020 cancellations exceeded new orders. The January 2024 incident and subsequent groundings are likely to erode confidence, orders and profits even further.
As you can see from the second chart, profits fell substantially in 2019, and with COVID fell again in 2020. They have not recovered to previous levels since. Depending on how the market responds to the issue of loose panel bolts on the MAX-9, profits could well fall again in 2024. There will almost certainly be a further erosion of confidence and probably of orders.
The Boeing story is a salutary lesson in how not to achieve long-term profit. A focus on design, quality and reliability may be a better means to achieving long-term profit growth than trying to appeal to shareholders by increasing short-term profits through aggressive cost cutting and hoping that this will not affect quality.
Video and audio
- ‘All those agencies failed us’: inside the terrifying downfall of Boeing
The Guardian, Charles Bramesco (22/2/22)
- A terrifying 10 minute flight adds to years of Boeing’s quality control problems
CNN, Chris Isidore (8/1/24)
- When A Company Prioritizes Profit Over People: Boeing CEO Tells Congress That Safety Is ‘Not Our Business Model’
Forbes, Jack Kelly (30/10/19)
- ‘Boeing played Russian roulette with people’s lives’
BBC News, Theo Leggett and Tom Burridge (November 2020)
- 737 Max: Boeing refutes new safety concerns
BBC News, Theo Leggett (26/11/21)
- 737 Max: Boeing to pay $200m over charges it misled investors
BBC News, Monica Miller (23/9/22)
- Boeing’s mid-flight blowout a big problem for company
BBC News, Theo Leggett (8/1/24)
- Boeing: US regulator to increase oversight of firm after blowout
BBC News (12/1/24)
- Boeing’s 737 Max Is a Saga of Capitalism Gone Awry
International New York Times, via Deccan Herald, David Gelles (24/11/20)
- Boeing and a dramatic change of direction
johnkay.com, John Kay (10/12/03)
- Congressional report faults Boeing, FAA for 737 Max failures, just as regulators close in on recertification
CNBC, Leslie Josephs (16/9/20)
- Boeing 737 Max: The FAA wanted a safe plane – but didn’t want to hurt America’s biggest exporter either
The Conversation, Susan Webb Yackee and Simon F Haeder (22/3/19)
- Boeing needs to get real: the 737 Max should probably be scrapped
The Conversation, ManMohan S Sodhi (12/1/24)
- Why is the pursuit of long-run profit likely to result in different decisions from the pursuit of short-run profit?
- How has Airbus’s strategy differed from that of Boeing?
- How would you summarise Boeing management’s attitude towards risk?
- Is it important to locate senior management of a company at its manufacturing base?
- What is regulatory capture? Is it fair to say that the FAA was captured by Boeing?
- Should Boeing scrap the 737 MAX and design a new narrow-body plane?
German Engineering has dominated for decades and is seen as the pinnacle of quality and the key to manufacturing long-lasting products. But are long-lasting products a good strategy for a company? If products break quickly, customers need to replace them and this encourages more spending. But does this encourage customers to switch to other suppliers? Instead, do high quality products that don’t require replacement but demand a higher price offset this lack of repeat custom?
Markus Miele is the Chief Executive of Miele, the German domestic appliance manufacturer and he takes a personal interest in his products and customers. Typical appliances from Miele can cost up to twice as much as similar appliances from other companies and yet this company is going from strength to strength. Rather than selling products that need frequent replacements, Miele is proud of its strategy to retain customers by selling products at a very high price, knowing that they will last for years. Customers appear equally willing to pay this high price for big consumer durables and their long-lasting nature is clearly encouraging its customers to buy other products too. This strategy has been so successful that other big companies are now targeting these customers. Anthony Williams, from GfK said:
“Evidence suggests manufacturers are putting in money to ensure good build quality…There are so many standards that now have to be adhered to, particularly for hi-tech products, by the nature of the product they have to make sure the [manufacturing] environment is very carefully monitored.”
The following article from BBC News considers the market for domestic appliances and the role of durability.
Can you charge double and still keep your customers coming back? BBC News, Lucy Hooker (2/10/15)
- How important is the concept of price elasticity of demand in determining a company’s strategy?
- If other firms are targeting a similar strategy to that of Miele, what might this mean for prices?
- How does the brand ‘made in Germany’ affect the demand for a product? Is there imperfect information here?
- With increase competition, companies such as Miele may be pressured into moving into cheaper production markets. How would this affect the company?
- Will the recent scandal at VW have a negative impact on companies such as Miele who rely on the ‘brand Germany’?
The Scottish debate revolved around a variety of issues and one of the key factors that added weight to the ‘No’ campaign was the idea of being British. But the concept of ‘Britishness’ is not just important to those who live here. It still appears to be a key signal of quality in foreign markets and it is something which foreign consumers are willing to pay a price for.
Barclays Corporate Banking has undertaken research into eight key export markets to determine the value of ‘Britain’. One of the key factors that boost demand for a product is quality and another is the idea of a brand. As quality improves and brands become more recognized, a product’s demand curve will begin to shift to the right, thus pushing up the market price. In other words, with higher quality and brand recognition, an individual’s willingness to pay rises. One brand that foreign consumers seem willing to pay a premium to purchase are those labelled ‘Made in Britain’.
The research indicates that 31% of customers in emerging markets have been prepared to and have purchased products that are from Britain, despite the higher price. Seeing the label ‘Made in Britain’ seems to send the signal of quality and this in turn creates a higher willingness to pay. Furthermore, this willingness to pay, while still good for Scottish, English and Welsh products, is higher for ‘British’ products, perhaps another indication of the truth behind the ‘Better together’ campaign.
The increase in willingness to pay between products with seemingly no country of origin and a British country of origin is 7% and this knowledge should give a confidence boost to the British export market. It should also indicate to exporters in Wales, Scotland and England that they are better to advertise as ‘Made in Britain’ than ‘Made in Wales, Scotland or England’. The expected boost from the 8 key emerging markets is around £2bn. The following articles consider the concept of ‘Brand Britain’.
Good news for exports as Brand Britain is revealed to be valuable concept Small Business, John Bromley (3/11/14)
Britain ‘best brand’ for Welsh exports, survey suggests BBC News (26/11/11)
Overseas consumers 64% more willing to pay premium for ‘Brand Britain’ Marketing Week, Sebastian Joseph (3/11/14)
Report flags up ‘British’ benefit The Courier, James Williamson (3/10/14)
- Using a diagram, illustrate the effect of a product’s being a well-known brand on its equilibrium price and quantity.
- Why is it that the relative willingness to pay a premium for British products is higher in developing countries than in developed countries?
- Using the concept of marginal utility theory, explain the impact of the ‘Made in Britain’ label.
- The BBC News article suggests, however, that some Welsh companies have not found the brand effect to be the case. What factors might explain this?
- To what extent are the concepts of consumer and producer surplus relevant here?
The market for any good or service is affected by countless factors. On the demand-side, things such as incomes, relative prices, expectations of price changes and tastes determine the shape and position of the demand curve. For the supply curve, it’s factors including costs of production, the profitability of alternative goods and in some cases, the weather or natural disasters. It is this last factor, which has presented Weetabix with problems.
An established breakfast cereal and brand, Weetabix is well-known for producing a range of high quality products. However, production of some of its most popular products has been stopped, as the quality of the British wheat used to make the various cereals was called into question. Last year, we had little summer to speak of and this led to the ‘worst harvest we have seen in decades’, so much so that the quality of the wheat was not sufficient to be used in making the breakfast cereal. This has caused production to cease on certain products and shortages have already begun to emerge, with some shops completely selling out and facing no prospect of being re-stocked.
Weetabix is now owned by a Chinese state-owned company, but still prides itself on using locally sourced wheat. However, with the weather affecting the harvest, wheat from abroad has had to be used, aiming to reduce the gap between demand and supply. The UK is typically an exporter of wheat, but with the poor harvest has come a drop in the amount of wheat produced and thus exported by some 2m tonnes – this is back to a similar level as was seen in the 1980s. A spokesman for Weetabix said:
Normally they’re proud to claim Weetabix is not just British wheat but from within 50 miles of Burton Latimer … They have had to source a bit from outside the UK, but Weetabix is still proud to say it sources its wheat within the UK … weather permitting.
Supply will be increased once wheat from abroad is used, but it is expected that this will take a couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you’re a consumer of the traditional Weetabix, you don’t need to worry, as it’s the less-known cereals that have been affected. The following articles consider this external factor and how it affects the supply of a product.
Weetabix products hit by poor wheat harvest BBC News (22/4/13)
Weetabix supplies hit by dismal harvest The Guardian, Rupert Neate (22/4/13)
Weetabix move to scale back production and re-engineer process is a commendable one The Grocer (20/4/13)
Britain’s disastrous wheat harvest halts production of Weatbix Minis and Oatibix Mail Online, Leon Watson (22/4/13)
Bad weather threatens wheat harvest Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (3/4/13)
Weetabix halts production of Minis after poor harvest Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (22/4/13)
- With a poor harvest, which way would you expect the supply curve to shift? Illustrate this on a diagram.
- How should this shift in supply affect the market price and quantity of wheat, assuming all else remains the same?
- How can this example can be used to explain the interdependence between markets?
- With shortages possibly emerging, what might happen to demand today? Illustrate your answer on a demand and supply diagram.
- Does sourcing wheat from local areas give Weetabix a competitive advantage? If so, how might it be affected if it does choose to import wheat?
Adverts are increasingly diverse, ranging from families using various products and promoting their qualities, to a gorilla drumming, a horse dancing and a monkey drinking tea! But, how important is advertising to a product’s brand. Does it have a positive effect on sales and profitability?
The key role of advertising is to sell more products and many firms spend a huge amount on advertising campaigns. Indeed, over £16bn was spent on advertising in 2012. Given that the economy is still vulnerable and many firms have seen their sales and profits decline, this is a huge amount. Procter & Gamble spent over £200 million, British Sky Broadcasting spent £145 million and Tesco spent £114 million in 2011.
Advertising increases consumer awareness of the product and its features, but also actively aims to persuade people to purchase the product. By differentiating the product through adverts a company aims to shift the demand curve to the right and also make it more inelastic, by persuading customers that there are no (or few) close substitutes.
Since the start of the economic downturn in 2008, advertising expenditure has fallen, as companies have seen a decline in their budgets. From a high of £18.61 billion in 2004, the Advertising Association found that it fell to £14.20 billion in 2009 at constant 2008 prices. In the last few years, advertising expenditure has remained at around £14.5 billion. But, is cutting back on advertising a sensible strategy during a recession? Of course budgets are tight for both firms and consumers, but many suggest that media-savvy firms would actually benefit from maintaining their advertising. By doing so firms could take advantage of weaker competitors by increasing their market share and establishing their brand image in the long run.
It’s also important to consider another link between economic growth and advertising. Research suggests that advertising can be an important factor for economic growth. A three-year study undertaken by the Advertising Association and Deloitte, commencing in January 2013 suggests that for every £1 spent on advertising in the UK, £6 is generated for the wider economy. Based on these predictions, the estimated £16bn that was spent on ad campaigns in 2011 added over £100 billion to the UK’s GDP.
So, perhaps encouraging more advertising is the answer to the UK’s economic dilemma. This is certainly the opinion of Matt Barwell, the consumer marketing and innovation director of Diageo Western Europe, who said:
People fundamentally believe in advertising but a lot of the conversation focuses on negative elements. People rarely get the opportunity to talk about the positive role advertising plays in terms of wealth creation, exports and the social benefits that it provides. These are all things that many of us take for granted.
If private firms can therefore be encouraged to boost their marketing campaigns, jobs may be created, demand for products will rise and with the help of the multiplier, the economy may strengthen. Advertising has both pros and cons and opinions differ on what makes a good advert. But, whatever your opinion of the role of advertising, it is certainly an important aspect of any economy. The following articles take a view of advertising.
Could we advertise ourselves out of recession? Marketing Week, Lucy Tesseras (31/1/13)
Advertising in times of recession: A question of value The Open University, Tom Farrell (13/3/09)
Recession spending on advertising and R&D Penn State, Smeal College of Business
Nothing to shout about The Economist (30/7/09)
UK’s payday lenders face restrictions on advertising Reuters (6/3/13)
Value claims improve advertising effectiveness in recessionary times Com Score, Diane Wilson (17/9/13)
Advertising in a bad economy About Advertising, Apryl Duncan
Advertising worth £100bn to UK economy The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (31/1/13)
Can advertising be the motor that gets the struggling UK economy out of first gear? More about advertising (26/2/13)
Adverts ‘worth £100bn to UK’ Independent, Giddeon Spanier (30/1/13)
Advertising Pays – How advertising fuels the UK economy Advertising Association & Deloitte (30/1/13)
Advertising Pays – How advertising fuels the UK economy: Accompanying video presentation Advertising Association & Deloitte: on YouTube (30/1/13)
- What is the role of advertising?
- Using a demand and supply diagram, illustrate and explain the role of advertising.
- During a recession, why would you expect advertising expenditure to fall? What impact would you expect this to have in your diagram from question 1?
- How might firms that sustain their advertising expenditure during a downturn benefit?
- Explain the link between advertising and the economy.
- Why could a higher level of advertising boost economic growth?
- Are there any negative externalities from advertising?