Brand Champion: A Q&A With Kevin Lane Keller

The E.B. Osborn Professor of Marketing on empathy, collegiality, and rock n' roll.

What makes Kevin Lane Keller tick? Empathy, collegiality, and rock n’ roll.

Kevin Lane Keller likes to joke about his “so-called spare time.” After having chaired Tuck’s marketing group, Keller, the E.B. Osborn Professor of Marketing, was recently appointed to a two-year term as the executive director of the Marketing Science Institute, a 52-year-old nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., that encourages cross-pollination between academia and industry. Keller is the co-author of the most successful MBA marketing textbook of all time, Marketing Management, with Philip Kotler, and his own bestselling MBA textbook, Strategic Brand Management. He continues to update both on an almost-continuous basis. When he’s not teaching, researching, writing, consulting, lecturing, parenting his two daughters (with wife and fellow Tuck marketing professor Punam Anand Keller), he helps manage Australian rock legends, The Church.

How did you get into marketing?

When I headed to business school, I fully expected to focus on finance, but once I took my first marketing course, I was hooked. I love that there’s a human side to understanding consumers—why people buy what they do. You’re trying to make people happy. I also love the competitive side, looking at how firms compete to win people’s loyalty and preferences. I like the social side in terms of all the public good that we can achieve for non-profits and public policy. Whether it’s advertising or pricing, or how you distribute products, I see marketing as the heart of business. And it changes constantly.

What is it about Tuck’s marketing group that makes it so strong?

Tuck is a smaller business school; there are just eight of us in the marketing group. But pound for pound, we match any program. Collectively, our research has rigor and relevance. It has gone through the scrutiny of being published in the top academic journals. We focus on practical, relevant problems that managers or policy makers are thinking about. We’ve had an important impact on industry, but we also do strong work on public policy and social marketing. We take important, tough, messy problems and collaborate on research that actually provides insight and illuminates answers.

And it’s also no small thing that our faculty is a genuinely nice group of people. I believe one of the reasons they’ve been so successful is that they’re easy to get along with. They don’t have big egos. Myself, Scott Neslin, Kusum Ailawadi, Punam Anand Keller, Praveen Kopalle—we’ve stayed together as a group for 15 years. We collaborate on research together and we honestly like each other. More recently we’ve brought in some really good new and established people too—Yaniv Dover, Ellie Kyung, and Peter Golder. They’re all outstanding.

Whether it’s MBA courses or executive education, we have very popular courses with great teaching. Many of our faculty have written the textbooks that impact education at Tuck, and at other schools too. We have a really impressive set of elective courses that I think are some of the best around on those topics. Scott’s database marketing course—he’s one of the world’s experts on that topic. You couldn’t find a better person to teach that. Praveen’s pricing course is another example. Many schools don’t even have a pricing course, and ours is well designed and very popular. Kusum’s channel course, Peter’s international course, and Punam’s social marketing class all benefit from their unique experiences and insights. It’s a blockbuster lineup.

How do you and your colleagues interact with practitioners and what value does that have for Tuck?

There are many ways that we work with companies, as consultants and as researchers. One typically leads to the other. For example, we’ll work with a company and find out that it’s got a big database of information. The company invites us to study it because it will help their marketing team understand the decisions they’ve made. When we’re working with industry, it’s not consulting for consulting’s sake. It has implications for research and teaching. It keeps us on the cutting edge, making sure we know exactly what’s going on in industry and helping to shape some of the things and what actions are being taken. It comes back into the classroom through case studies. I’ve consulted or worked with Starbucks, Intel, Nivea, Got Milk?, and Red Bull, and just about every top marketing company. That exposure helps me write case studies and also gives me a lot of insight I can share when those companies come up. For example, I’ve been in contact with Nike on and off for 20 years. I know an awful lot about the brand, including things most people don’t know—and mostly good things. Even though everyone knows about Nike, my experiences enable me to share behind-the-scenes information that helps students better understand why the brand has been successful and under what circumstances it was not.

What’s in it for companies who want to engage with academia?

Companies are always trying to stay up to speed and compete in their markets. Often companies are so close to the issues that they can’t see things, or they get in the habit of thinking a certain way. Outside input is extremely helpful. There are times I work with companies when I think, “Gosh, these are smart people and this seems so obvious. Why haven’t they figured this out?” What academics and MBA students can do for companies is help them structure problems and come up with solutions. In any real world situation, there’s so much going on and it can be an almost overwhelming amount of detail. The value of an MBA education is the ability to structure and solve business problems in a rigorous way so that companies are not just shooting from the hip ad hoc.

Has the field of marketing changed?

Oh, it’s hugely different from when got my MBA in 1980, and even over the 15 years I’ve been at Tuck. The change is profound and accelerating. There are concepts that are enduring and timeless, like positioning, targeting, and segmentation. But it’s amazing how much has changed about channels, communication, pricing, and other marketing tactics.

I’m guessing a lot of that has to do with technology?

Definitely. Technology is pervasive. People in marketing tend to hone in on social marketing and how the consumer is in control, but technology is empowering companies as much as it’s empowering consumers. They forget that consumers don’t always want to be in control. They have jobs and busy lives. If you think of all the brands you’re going to touch in a given day, you can’t be bothered going to a blog to evaluate your every toothpaste and soap purchase. And even if they want to, not everyone has the skills and knowhow to do that. Tech is clearly empowering consumers, but empowered is not the same as enlightened or motivated.

What are some other trends you’re watching?

Social responsibility is a powerful force in marketing. I’m especially interested in finding win-win solutions where a company is aiding a cause—environmental, health, social, or community—but at the same time strengthening their brand. Corporate philanthropy is great, but companies may not do as much if they don’t see the payback to their brands. Procter & Gamble is a good example. I worked with them for a long time and I’d push them hard on cause marketing. I think they’ve really raised their game in the last five years. They got really involved with the Olympics and produced some great tearjerker ads about thanking mom. And they also donate a lot of money to the Special Olympics, a great organization. Everyone wants to build relationships with customers and cause marketing allows you to do it in emotional and personal ways.

Globalization is another big one. There are so many new markets you can sell to, particularly developing markets like India and China, but also multicultural markets within the United States. A multicultural mindset is a good one to adopt, whether you’re global or not, because cultural differences exist even here at home.

Tell me about your current research.

One thing I’m working on, along with Peter Golder, is how brand knowledge gets developed among college students in China and how loyalties form and change over time. This is a time in life when a lot of preferences get formed, so marketers are keen to understand it. I have another study looking at brand extensions. Trying to understand how expandable brands are and the best way to sequence a series of brand extensions. For example, if you’re an athletic apparel company and you’re thinking about getting into exercise shorts, running shoes, and healthy cereals, which should you introduce first? We’re in the middle of the study now, but we’re finding that in some cases, a company might be better off making a stretch extension first—like the cereal. If you’ve established yourself firmly as apparel only and then you make a big jump, you’ve violated a consumer’s expectation of who you are and overall impressions are negative. However, if your brand is less established and they have a broader picture of who you are, you can ultimately go further.

In your years of studying consumer behavior, have you come to any insights about how to better understand people?

I’ve always tried to be very empathetic. It’s vital for marketers to try to adopt a customer mindset. And to be honest, that’s hard for professional marketers, let alone MBA students. We do an exercise in my Strategic Brand Management course called the Average American Consumer Quiz. I have a set of questions from a nationally representative sample of 2,000-plus Americans. It presents a series of statements like, “I like to hunt or fish” and “A woman’s place is in the home” and “I like to pay cash for everything I buy.” I then ask the students to estimate how many American consumers would agree with each statement, by gender. Then I show them what the real answers are. They always learn two things: First, they are way off. And second, they exaggerate gender differences.

Wikipedia says you help manage the rock band The Church? Really?

I’ve loved rock and roll forever. I remember the summer of ‘67 really well—I was 11 years old – so many great bands and songs. I’ve worked with The Church for 15 years and been the executive producer on their records. It’s been a neat way to give back to a band that I loved, and one that needed help in various ways with management and marketing. As famous as they already were when I met them, the business is so tough. They said if I hadn’t come around, they wouldn’t be putting out records today, and wouldn’t have made the Australian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which they did last year. I’ve learned a lot about the music business and enjoyed every minute of it.