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Wharton Professor Focuses on Strong Brands, Happy Customers

Connecting with Bill Sobel

Barbara Kahn knows a thing or two about marketing. In fact, it helped her earn a unique claim to fame: The former English lit major is ranked as one the best business school professors in the world according to Poets & Quants, a social network for MBA candidates.

Kahn is the Patty and Jay H. Baker Professor of Marketing and director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She also spent three and a half years as the Dean and Schein Family Chair Professor of Marketing at the School of Business Administration, University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.

An internationally recognized scholar on variety seeking, brand loyalty, retail assortment and consumer decision making, she is also a prolific author. Between 1982 and 2006 she was the world's seventh most published author of articles in the most prestigious marketing journals. She wrote Global Brand Power: Leveraging Branding for Long-Term Growth and co-authored the book Grocery Revolution: The New Focus on the Consumer.

Branding, Relevancy and Customer Satisfaction

2014-09-April-Barbara-Kahn

Sobel: You've had an interesting journey. After earning a bachelor's in English Literature from the University of Rochester and PhD, MBA and Master of Philosophy degrees from Columbia University, you evolved into a noted scholar on variety seeking, brand loyalty and customer decision making. Your research provides marketing managers with a better understanding of the consumer choice process. Can you elaborate?

Kahn: After I graduated from Rochester, I moved to Seattle and found a job in advertising and public relations. After a few years, I wanted to move back to New York City. I was afraid that my relative status and experience in Seattle wouldn't translate to NYC at an equivalent level, so I decided to supplement my experience with an MBA from Columbia University. While at Columbia, I realized that I enjoyed the academic life much more than the commercial and non profit worlds and so I stayed and finished my PhD. My first job (after receiving my PhD) was at UCLA, and then I moved to Wharton. Academia obviously suited me and I’ve been a researcher and teacher ever since (with a short sojourn into administration to be a Vice Dean at Wharton and a Dean at the University of Miami).

Sobel: There are hundreds, possibly thousands of books on the subject of global business. What defines your newest book on Global Brand Power? What can we learn from it?

Kahn: I agree! There are hundreds of books on global branding and global business. So why write a new one? Two reasons: 1) it’s short — and I cover a lot of basic principles of branding in an easy-to-read, succinct format — I think there is great value in short — and 2) I focus on how to leverage brand equity for growth in a global, omnichannel world. It’s important to build a strong brand, but it’s also important to leverage the investments made in building that strong brand to grow the business and to keep the brand relevant as times change dramatically.

Sobel: You talk about ways companies handle challenges. I am most interested in two of the companies you have mentioned, Warby Parker and Target. These are very different companies with very different challenges on very different levels. Can you tell us more?

Kahn: Both Warby and Target are companies that developed clear brand positioning that helped them compete against much larger competitors. In Target’s case, of course, the main competitor was Walmart — and everyone knows you don’t want to compete against Walmart! But Target took a differentiated approach and became the design and style retailer of the mass merchandise world.

For a long time, this was an effective strategy that grew the company's revenues. It had a very successful campaign in 2011 partnering with the designer brand Missoni, putting together a 400-piece collection for Target customers during NYC fashion week. It was so successful it brought the website down. Both companies benefitted enormously from the relationship. Unfortunately Target has had recent woes with its credit card debacle, but’s that another story.

Warby Parker is a eyeglass retailer started by four Wharton MBA students. They competed against the eyeglass behemoth, Luxottica, by selling eyeglasses online. Because most people were not experienced buying glasses online, Warby developed the “home try-on program,” which allows customers to order five frames for five days for free. The can try them on and see which ones they want to purchase.

This program was quite successful and earned Warby Parker a lot of notice in the press and in social media. They were also very good at telling their brand story and promoting the fact that they were trying, in their own small way, to improve the world. With every pair of glasses they sell, they distribute a pair to someone in need.

 

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