Srinivasan's Career in Marketing Science Commemorated

Internationally known for his work on consumer choice and sales force compensation, Seenu Srinivasan is also revered as a teacher and mentor.

August 10, 2010

His first doctoral student, Barnett Parker, calls him a “guru,” and the Pfeffer University professor doesn’t use the term lightly. Indeed, for Seenu Srinivasan, the Indian-born professor who has become a legend and a beloved mentor in the field of marketing science, the much-overused Sanskrit moniker seems particularly apt.

“He’s a great teacher, and of more than marketing. He’s influenced me more than almost anyone else in my life,” an admiring Parker shared with colleagues at a tribute to Srinivasan held in March at the business school, where the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management is retiring after serving on the faculty for 36 years. “He has an aura about him. And,” Parker said with a chuckle, “he’s the only person I’d consider flying out to honor at my own expense without a second thought.”

Parker is not alone in his sentiments. Srinivasan’s colleagues and students are as apt to call the prolific scholar a generous, loving father figure as they are to brand him a brilliant thinker and a stickler for detail. His interest in the well-being of others is reflected in his approach to marketing, which has focused on trying to understand consumer preferences. Skip the hard sell and the advertising spin, his long string of award-winning articles has advised. If you build it — just the way people want — the sales will come.

Srinivasan is a key architect, along with Professor Emeritus Paul Green of Wharton, of conjoint analysis, a term they coined in 1978 to describe a technique that allows companies to predict which, among several products or services with multiple attributes, customers are likely to select. They ask consumers to rank-order a list of product attributes such as price, size, safety, ease of use, durability, and then use selective paired comparisons of attributes to infer quantitative measures of importance.

So useful has the survey-based research approach become for product planning that every year brings more than 10,000 commercial applications. Conjoint analysis also is used in contexts broader than the term “marketing” suggests. It has been applied to determine preferences for health care facilities, methods of transportation, and even political candidates.

Srinivasan has written about strategic portfolio planning, market structure and segmentation, and brand equity. He also coauthored studies of salesforce compensation, which showed that more volatile industries should rely more heavily on salary in their compensation plans rather than commission. As salespeople face more stable, predictable markets, however, they will be more motivated by a higher percentage of commission and less straight salary.

Another of his models can help a manager figure out how much more the company will earn from investing in various kinds of branding activities. For instance, he and his coauthors estimated that in the Korean cellular telephone market, Samsung gained $127 million dollars because of its increased brand awareness, improved perception of voice quality, and other factors. It’s a significant contribution in a field in which the best that most marketers offer is a measure of consumers’ image of a brand, not the dollars-and-cents effect of that image.

Born Venkataraman Srinivasan in a small town in southern India in 1944, Srinivasan was a Brahmin, an Indian of the highest caste that for centuries had been the administrative elite. The creation of the Indian republic unleashed resentment toward these former leaders and Srinivasan found himself the victim of a backlash of caste prejudice. Although he was a top student at his high school, he was denied entry into all engineering colleges in his native state of Madras (now called Tamil Nadu). Eventually, he was able to gain admittance to the Indian Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and received a gold medal as the top student in his graduating class.

A Bombay engineering firm introduced him to production planning and management, which led him to enroll in industrial administration at Carnegie Mellon. He joined the faculty of the University of Rochester and was recruited to Stanford by business school Professor David Montgomery. The GSB promoted him to full professor after just two years.

The marketing industry has showered Srinivasan with 22 awards and accolades, including the Parlin and Converse awards for outstanding contributions to research, and the Churchill Award for lifetime achievement.

“Seenu has won almost every major award the marketing profession can convey,” said his former roommate and frequent collaborator Allan Shocker, a professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota, yet he remains a “genuinely nice person. I’ve seen him critique others’ papers at conferences, for example, and he always takes care to do it in a way that’s not insulting. Rather, his comments, often phrased as questions, can be said to be educational.”

GSB marketing Professor Jim Lattin says Srinivasan created “an environment of collaboration” at the business school by turning numerous doctoral students into close research associates. As the director of the doctoral program from 1982 to 1985, he played a key role in having PhD candidates do more research and less structured coursework. Eight of his doctoral students have won top awards for their dissertations or dissertation-based papers.

Oded Netzer, PhD ‘04, Srinivasan’s most recent doctoral student, gives one reason why: “When you speak with Seenu, you feel like he’s the smartest person around and you’re the second smartest. He leads you with, ‘What you probably meant to say was “¦’ until you don’t know which idea was his and which was yours. Yes, you come out of the meeting feeling very intelligent.”

Srinivasan’s penchant for collegiality was also evident in the innovative course Integrated Design for Marketability and Manufacturing, which he co-created in 1991. For the past 19 years, courses that grew from that first course have trained Stanford engineering and MBA students to get beyond “gearhead” and “bean counter” stereotypes and work together to create products that both suit the leanings of designers and make sense in the market. The course, designed with then GSB Professor Bill Lovejoy and engineering Professor Dave Beach, had competing teams of students get down and dirty building product prototypes and conducting conjoint analyses to assess the market share potential of different design ideas. Srinivasan stepped away from the course in 2001, and since then it has morphed into business school Professor James Patell’s Design for Extreme Affordability course under the auspices of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

Srinivasan also is heavily involved in his native country. With his brother, Balachandran, an accounting professor emeritus from the Kellogg School of Management, he has served on the academic advisory boards of the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai and the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. He has been faculty advisor to the GSB’s collaborative MBA course with the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. In 2006, the Great Lakes Institute created the Kotler-Srinivasan Centre for Research in Marketing, named after him and Kellogg Professor Philip Kotler.

Retirement Srinivasan-style will include involvements both in India and Stanford. “I plan to do some research and consulting, teach in a couple of Indian MBA programs, and also become a student again, attending some Stanford courses in human biology, philosophy, macroeconomics — subjects I know very little about,” he said last spring. He will teach conjoint analysis in the doctoral program at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. “I’m looking forward to contributing to management education back in the country where I was born,” he said.

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