Wharton Professor Focuses on Strong Brands Happy Customers

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


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.

Sobel: You and I connected through an exciting massive open online course (MOOC) class I am taking — Introduction to Marketing, starting April 21. You and fellow Wharton professors David Bell and Peter Fader are the instructors. Can you explain the MOOC concept is all about, a bit about the course and reasons CMSWire readers should consider signing up?

Kahn: MOOC’s are free online courses that are open to anyone. My marketing colleagues and I are teaching the Intro to Marketing course as part of the Wharton “foundation series.” Wharton is using the very same professors that teach in our full-time MBA programs in these free online foundation courses to provide people anywhere with the basic concepts of the business core curriculum.

Our course is nine-weeks long and consists of pre-recorded lecturers and interactive features such as discussion boards that allow students to ask questions and get answers from the professor, a teaching assistant or from classmates.

The material is not watered down. While you won’t get the full Wharton on-campus experience — or an internship, career services or alumni network for that matter — the MOOCs offer you the opportunity to learn some of the ideas and principles that you would learn during your first year at our business school.

Sobel: The intersection of social media, the Internet and e-commerce is something that is finally being accepted by retailers, advertisers and consumers ... or is it?

Kahn: We are really in a paradigm shift in the world of marketing. It is a global, omnichannel, multiplatform, 24/7 world. These differences are changing what marketing means. Basic principles still apply, but the implementation of those principles requires very different thinking. Our MOOC specifically addresses some of these issues. I talk about the branding implications; Pete Fader talks about what it means to be a customer focused or customer centric firm, and David Bell addresses the differences in the go-to market strategies.

Sobel: Many of our readers are looking into taking their product or service global. Some have already made the leap and others are holding back. Any suggestions for them?

Kahn: We are in an era of global brands. So in thinking about taking a brand global, you have to make sure you have global core values. You can't be a premium brand in one market and a value brand in another — there should be one clear global brand message or mantra. However, you also have to consider local differences in your marketing strategies.

In addition, when thinking about expanding your brand into new markets, think also about how you can stretch your existing brand meanings through product extensions or new segments so you can develop new businesses even in your home markets.