Betting on People

Marketing Professor Ellie J. Kyung took an unconventional path to Tuck, guided by a simple principle: follow the people you trust.

By Jeff Moag

Jan 16, 2018

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Ellie J. Kyung teaches the MBA marketing core at Tuck as well as the elective research-to-practice seminar Time in the Consumer Mind, which examines how the psychology of time influences consumer decision-making. Time and perception are central to Kyung’s research, which focuses on the ways that memory (how people think about the past) and mental representation (how people think in the present) influence consumer behavior. Her research is ultimately about how people mentally represent their choices, so it’s fascinating to hear her speak about the unconventional choices that led her to Tuck.

“Many times I will make a spreadsheet listing all the pros and cons of a decision, and then I’ll make a decision different from what is suggested by the spreadsheet,” she says. “I’ve made my major career decisions based on the people—people who have a genuine interest in others and could help me grow.”

Kyung’s father was a PhD chemist and MBA, and her mother was a nurse. Both came from Korea, her father first and then, after a long-distance courtship, her mother. The two had never met in person when they agreed to marry. “It was like a very old-school version of online dating with snail mail,” says Kyung, who grew up in Ohio and Wisconsin.

Hers was a traditional immigrant household, in which education was prized and career expectations were at once ambitious and narrowly proscribed: medicine, law, perhaps engineering. Kyung excelled in school and music. When she was four, she attended a family friend’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor. Kyung was entranced and begged her parents for piano lessons. Before she finished high school she was performing with professional symphonies.

Many times I will make a spreadsheet listing all the pros and cons of a decision, and then I’ll make a decision different from what is suggested by the spreadsheet.

In spite of her interest in music, from a young age, Kyung planned to become a doctor. But when she got to Yale freshman year, she struggled with its rigorous pre-med curriculum.

“I was one of those kids who were classically weeded out freshman year through introductory courses,” Kyung says. “But it was probably one of the best things to happen to me—that experience really led me to rethink my interests.” At 19, she began charting a new course for her life.

Kyung then changed to a double major in economics and international studies as a way to apply her interest in mathematics. An internship with the Monitor Group led to a full-time offer at the iconic Boston-based management consultancy after graduation. There she focused on marketing and multi-channel strategy with an emphasis on interface design. She chose to work in these areas based on key mentors—Victoria Levy T'98 who introduced her to marketing strategy and later senior partners and lauded academics Jeffrey Rayport (currently on the faculty at Harvard Business School) and Bernie Jaworski (currently on the faculty at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University) who introduced her to the world of research. She contributed research to the duo’s prescient 2005 book Best Face Forward. Published long before omni-channel marketing became a buzzword, the book made the case for using both technology and people to manage the customer experience.

Kyung had never experienced an MBA-style classroom before, particularly one conducted with the virtuosity of Rayport and Jaworski who had honed their respective teaching chops at Harvard Business School and the University of Southern California. Sitting in on executive education sessions they led, Kyung gained a new appreciation for discussion-based learning. But most importantly, through Rayport and Jaworski, she discovered a particular affinity for deep inquiry—she wasn’t satisfied with knowing what consumers would do in a particular circumstance; she wanted to understand why. Recognizing her inquisitiveness, Rayport and Jaworski suggested she pursue a PhD in marketing.

I had always had an interest in science fiction and historical fiction, because I liked the idea of picturing an alternative future or putting yourself in the shoes of someone in the past.

Kyung briefly considered first attending an MBA program before pursuing a PhD. She applied and was accepted at Harvard Business School, but couldn’t see herself fitting in as a student there. The decision not to go to Harvard was another departure for the immigrants’ daughter. Kyung said, “My parents asked, ‘How can you not go to Harvard?’” Instead she applied to several leading PhD programs, and ultimately made the decision to attend New York University.

“NYU is where I really felt that I fit in,” she says. She forged an immediate connection with Geeta Menon, current dean of the NYU Stern Undergraduate College, who would become her adviser, mentor, and close friend. “It was an amazing group of faculty, and one of the reasons I chose NYU is that from the very beginning, Geeta always treated me like an equal, even in my first year when I’m sure I must have been asking the most ridiculous questions,” Kyung says.

Much of her early research focused on memory and Construal Level Theory (CLT), which relates to the way people think about things that are not in the here and now. She was introduced to the concept in the classroom of NYU psychology professor Yaacov Trope, who is one of the theory’s principal architects.

“I had always had an interest in science fiction and historical fiction, because I liked the idea of picturing an alternative future or putting yourself in the shoes of someone in the past,” Kyung says. “When I learned about Construal Level Theory I realized this is exactly what I love about the fiction I read—the idea of mentally traversing a distance and picturing something that’s not where you are now. It is fascinating how differences in mental representation can influence our decisions.”

Trope, too, became a mentor. Kyung has published several papers with him and Menon. 

While most CLT research focuses on how people think about the future, Kyung’s work concentrates on how it influences thinking about the past. For example, she has found that asking people to think about how something happened rather than why it happened can influence their perception of the event and who is responsible for it. “That’s a more abstract way of thinking about it—thinking about the reasons as opposed to the actual sequence of events,” she says. “That can shape consumer perceptions about negative events, such as product recalls.”

She has continued to publish work developing theories on how CLT influences memory with collaborators Manoj Thomas at Cornell University and Aradhna Krishna at University of Michigan, fellow NYU alums, and now close friends who she connected with while on the academic job market. Her more recent research focuses on how simple changes in the format of questions or their responses can shape how consumers mentally represent their decisions and how speed, in addition to time, can influence mental representation. For example, how physically moving fast or slow, or merely feeling that one is moving fast or slow, can materially change people’s choices and preferences.

The intersection of memory and time is the focus of the research-to-practice seminar she teaches at Tuck, Time in the Consumer Mind. The course is capped at 14 students, selected from more than fifty students who elect for the course, which facilitates a style of learning based on discussion and inquiry. She also teaches two sections of 75 students each in the marketing core, which calls for a different approach rooted in her memory research. She designed the course using the spreading activation model of memory, with each session built around a strategic question, a framework and quantitative tool designed to trigger the recall of related concepts.

Recognize the important people who helped shape your path and try to help others in the same way.

Kyung co-teaches the marketing core course with Professor of Marketing Peter Golder, who was coordinator of the PhD program at NYU and came to Tuck a year before she arrived in 2010. With several offers in hand, Kyung, who has always bet on people, chose Tuck. With Golder and the other senior colleagues in the marketing area—Kusum Ailawadi, Kevin Lane Keller, Punam Anand Keller, Praveen Kopalle, and Scott Neslin—Kyung found an inspiring set of mentors, not only as researchers, but also as people.

Another reason she choose Tuck is that her very first mentor and case team leader, Victoria Levy T’98, now a senior partner at Monitor Deloitte, always spoke glowingly about her Tuck experience—both in terms of her fellow students and faculty.

“I had no idea at that time that I would go into academia or that I would have the opportunity to come to Tuck, but Vicky’s enthusiasm for Tuck really stuck with me,” she says.

Hanover was another selling point for Tuck. Kyung’s husband has based his software company in Boston and the Upper Valley is an idyllic place to raise their two daughters.

As Kyung reflects on her unconventional path to academia, critically shaped by key mentors who took time and interest in her as an individual, she looks for ways to “pay it forward” and do the same—with students, co-authors, other faculty. “Recognize the important people who helped shape your path and try to help others in the same way. This is a hallmark of the Tuck community.” 

*This article originally appeared in print in the winter 2018 issue of Tuck Today magazine.