Interview with Tuck Professor Kevin Lane Keller

DBJ sat down with Professor Kevin Lane Keller, who is the E. B. Osborn Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business. Professor Keller has degrees from Cornell, Carnegie-Mellon, and Duke University. At Dartmouth, he teaches MBA courses on marketing management and strategic brand management and lectures in executive programs on that topic. His specific research interest is in determining how theories and concepts that relate to consumer behavior can improve marketing strategies. In addition, Professor Keller is currently conducting a number of studies that address strategies to build, measure, and manage brand equity. In this interview, Professor Keller discusses his 30 years of experience in marketing and branding for major national and international brands and reviews some of the main lessons he has learned.

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): Professor Keller, you have taught at a number of top ranked universities, such as Stanford, Cal Berkeley, and UNC at Chapel Hill. With that experience, what specifically brought you to Tuck?

Kevin Lane Keller (KLK): After I received my PhD from Duke, I moved to Stanford, which was a really great place to live and teach, but when I first met Punam, my wife, who is also a Tuck Professor and an Associate Dean for Strategic Research, she was at Columbia. Since we needed to find a place with two faculty positions in marketing we initially joined the UNC business school. Later, when an opportunity came up for us both to teach at Duke, we were all set to join the business faculty. When Tuck expressed interest in hiring us, we took a trip to Dartmouth thinking that there would be no chance we would ever leave Chapel Hill, but we discovered that everything about the College, Tuck and the area was so great that we decided to come. One interesting point, with all my various MBA teaching experiences before coming to Tuck, I always used to say that my favorite students were Dartmouth students, who I found to be really smart and well-rounded. We have found the same to be true of Tuck students, which is one reason why we like being at Dartmouth so much.

DBJ: You have done consulting work in marketing for some of the world’s most successful brands. Can you pick one company and tell us what it was like to work with them and, briefly, what you did for them?

KLK: I have been lucky to work with many great brands over my career, but one of my very first clients, Disney, comes to mind. Early on, in the late 1980’s, I did consulting on a classic brand strategy project for Disney to help them better understand what the Disney brand stood for based on its characters, movies, theme parks, etc. Disney was trying to get more aggressive with their consumer products, for example, in the licensing of their brand to other companies making toys, clothing and so on. As a result, they needed to know how to leverage their brands with different clients and opportunities, and therefore what the essence of the Disney brand was.

I learned a lot from that project. One thing I learned about is the notion of “death by a thousand cuts.” Basically, Disney had to get more disciplined internally as a company about the whole concept of branding and licensing deals. The problem was that people felt that the Disney brand was so strong that even if the company did a licensing deal that wasn’t really consistent with what the Disney brand stood for, the deal would still be okay because the brand was so strong. This line of thinking could be, potentially, highly problematic for Disney’s brand. Although one inappropriate licensing deal for Disney may not have hurt the brand that much, a number of inappropriate licensing deals could really add up and hurt the brand via “death by a thousand cuts.” Therefore, internally, it was important for Disney to clearly define what their brand stood for. Once they did, they needed to give people good strategic “guard rails” to help them stick to their brand. Their nightmare was that they would wake up one morning to find out someone in the organization had struck a deal for Mickey Mouse licensed ashtrays! Strong brands such as sDisney often have to be even more vigilant and protective than less-strong brands because people can take the brand for granted and that can cause real problems.

Secondly, I learned that even when everybody says they know exactly what a brand stands for, they often actually tell you different things about what they think the brand represents. Therefore, it’s important to have complete clarity inside the company about exactly what the brand is supposed to communicate to consumers. The internal part of branding is just as important as the external part of branding. Thinking about Disney’s brand, at the time we came up with a brand mantra “fun family entertainment” which helped Disney stay on course and on track with their brand.

Thirdly, I learned that even after we crafted that mantra, over time people became very creative, such that the Disney brand ended up becoming too elastic. People started to take the brand to places Disney may not have had in mind. We then followed up with a concerted program to make sure everyone at Disney knew exactly what the mantra meant and why.

DBJ: You are known as an expert in brand management, can you explain how branding is similar and how branding differs from marketing?

KLK: Branding and marketing are actually very similar. In these two areas, I have authored the textbooks Marketing Management and Strategic Brand Management. In many ways, there is a lot of overlap in the basic concepts between branding and marketing. With brand management, it is the case that you put much more emphasis on the brand itself; however, even with branding, you still spend a lot of time talking about the strategies and tactics associated with marketing. Remember, the brand is what people have to buy and what you are selling. It’s all about creating value to customers and the company, just as with marketing. I think the concepts, in general, are highly related. Good marketing makes for good branding.

DBJ: You have research interests in different theories and concepts that relate to consumer behavior- can you describe one theory and how it relates to consumer behavior?

KLK: My undergraduate degree was in math and economics, so my training as a student was very quantitative. At Duke, while working on my PhD, I took a course in consumer psychology that really changed my career path. By taking the course, I became interested in psychology and particularly the psychology of memory. In fact, in my work, the one theory I probably have used the most is the associative network theory of memory. I think this model or theory is simple to apply but highly predictive for marketing and branding. The idea is that our memory consists of nodes of information and links that connect those nodes. When we investigate memory and recall for a particular product or brand, the question is what kinds of nodes exist, how strong the links are between nodes and how are all the different nodes and links are organized. An important implication of the theory is that memory recollection is a function of spreading activation within the memory network.

Let’s consider an example. There was a famous ad in the 1960’s for LIFE cereal that starred a little boy named Mikey. The TV commercial had three brothers and their mom wanted them to eat a certain cereal brand, but the older brothers didn’t think they would like the cereal because their mom wanted them to eat it; the idea behind this logic was that whatever your parents wanted you to eat was probably good for you, but also probably didn’t taste very good. But the little brother, Mikey, loved the cereal so that when the older brothers saw Mikey eating the cereal and enjoying it, they had to try it. For whatever reasons, people loved the commercial, but the sales for the cereal did nothing because when people went to the store, they looked on the shelf for “Mikey cereal” which obviously wasn’t there. Applying the associative network model of memory to this outcome, it’s about information retrieval versus information encoding in memory. The problem for LIFE cereal was that there were no good retrieval cues on the actual box of cereal that was being sold at the store, the brand name itself, LIFE, just didn’t work. So they put a little photo of Mikey on the front of the cereal package, framed it like a TV set and verbally added “Try the cereal that Mikey likes,” and with all these retrieval cues, the sales of the cereal reportedly doubled. So what’s available in memory isn’t necessarily accessible, you can’t necessarily retrieve information from memory unless you get the right reminders.

This led me to a lot of related research in advertising and got me interested in branding- what did the brand name stand for, how did it function as a cue, etc. As a result, I began to think more generally about branding and to work on topics such as brand extensions, brand positioning, brand architecture and so on. What consumers think and feel, and how they act towards a brand, is what drives value and how the brand is represented in memory is critical.

DBJ: You have lots of experience internationally in consulting and lecturing. How do you think marketing and branding differ in the U.S. compared to other markets?

KLK: A lot of the same principles still apply. Perhaps the biggest difference is between “developed” versus “developing” markets and the idea that in developing markets, such as India and Brazil, consumers may differ in some important ways in how they shop, what they look for in a brand, etc. As a result, there are some important marketing differences between developing and developed markets. For example, the distribution channels may be different such that in some developing markets, there are a lot more “mom-and-pop” stores making up the distribution channel. But at the same time, there are many similarities in global marketing too. In the U.S. and overseas markets, marketers still try to create differentiation for the brand and to provide value for customers. One important thing a U.S. company should be very careful to do with global marketing is to not take shortcuts to build their brand in new markets. Under some circumstances, you can speed things up, but you can’t skip steps, especially as to who you are, what you are and why the consumer should care. Some of what we do in branding and marketing in the U.S. can be exported to a new market, but some of what we do here may be too advanced for new markets.

DBJ: What career advice would you give undergraduates at Dartmouth interested in business?

KLK: I believe that a liberal arts education is great preparation for business. The richness of the academic experience, the development of the cognitive and writing skills students receive at Dartmouth, combined with a MBA at some later point in time, is a fantastic career option for Dartmouth undergraduates. I think of an MBA as both a great career accelerator and a great career switcher. After being out of college for four or five years, going back for two years to get an MBA is a wonderful experience, personally enjoyable and something people find very enriching and rewarding. I see a Dartmouth liberal arts undergraduate education, combined with getting more practical experience after graduation, then going to business school, as a natural career path. For Dartmouth students interested in marketing, my advice to them is that it is really helpful to understand people and to be able to relate and empathize with them. To persuade and sell products to people, you need to know what makes them tick. As another piece of advice, data analytics is also a field where there will be great opportunities for Dartmouth undergraduates as there has been an explosion in data, so that learning how to work with and extract meaning from data are useful skills to learn, especially if combined with great business understanding and insight.