Harish Bhat

Happy Marketing Teachers’ Day

HARISH BHAT | Updated on September 11, 2014


A tribute to the teachers who taught us all about consumers and marketing

September is the month we celebrate Teachers’ Day. On September 5, the birthday of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, we bow to thank our teachers for everything they have taught us. Dr Radhakrishnan was a legendary teacher himself, having taught at places as diverse as Madras, Mysore, Calcutta, Banaras Hindu University and Oxford. He went on to become the second President of India, and indeed it is a privilege for a country to have a teacher as its head of state.

Great teachers of marketing

In celebration of Teachers’ Day, this column is therefore dedicated, on behalf of all marketers, to the great teachers of marketing whom we have all learnt from in our colleges and business schools. I still recall the red-brick classrooms of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad three decades ago, where legendary professors such as MN Vora and Abhinandan Jain taught my fellow students and me the art and science of marketing. Leading us through case studies on brand propositions, sales networks, market segmentation and consumer research, they opened our eyes to how brands could wow consumers, and how marketers could win or lose the world.

How often they pulled apart our logic to shreds in front of an entire classroom, when we imagined that we had “cracked open” a case! They showed us the fallacies of marketers, and how to scrupulously avoid them. And they also showcased to us some brilliant insights and ideas, which have stayed with me as vivid as ever, after all these years. If many of us from my batch in IIM-A spontaneously chose marketing or sales or advertising as our profession (and many of us did), one key reason was the passion for this subject with which our great teachers infected us.

Gift of knowledge

Similar to my own experience, I am sure each of you will recall your great teachers of marketing, from your respective college days. If you are still a student in a business school, then of course you have the privilege to enjoy these wonderful interactions even today with your professors, before you eventually step into the corporate world as a practising manager. For the rest of us, we carry the wonderful memories, and, most importantly, the invaluable knowledge that they gave us.

There is no greater gift than knowledge because it is knowledge that gives us the power to shape our own careers and lives. The excellent university in which I completed my undergraduate studies, BITS Pilani, highlights this fact in its timeless Sanskrit motto – “ Gnaanam paramam balam” “Knowledge is Power Supreme”. Our teachers gave us this gift, and we should pause for a moment on this day to remember them fondly and pay them our tribute.

From my own experience, I can say that great teachers of marketing share some common attributes. Here are three of these attributes – Love, Lead and Life. Perhaps these “three Ls” are true of teachers of all disciplines, but let us examine them here in the context of our specific area.

First and foremost, these great teachers love the subject of consumers and marketing. As they stride across the classroom and put forward to us concepts and stories, you can feel in their voice and energy the rare passion that can only come with love. This is why they made such a deep impact on us. I can attest that Professor Abhinandan Jain’s classes on consumer research at IIM-A were more memorable, provocative and impactful than some of the finest movies or works of literature that I have seen or read. Such love for the subject also comes, I think, from dispassionate and deep thought about consumer behaviour, which is at the root of all good marketing.

Leading us to new doors

Great teachers also constantly lead us to new doors of knowledge. Perhaps the best known example of this in the area of marketing is Professor Philip Kotler, whose classic book on the subject has, for so many years now, opened new windows in millions of eager minds. Will we ever forget the simple yet compelling manner in which he put forward to us the four Ps of marketing – product, price, place and promotion – with accompanying flow-charts and boxes on every single black-and-white page of that incomparable thick book? Professor Kotler is scheduled to be in India later this year (in Mumbai, on November 18) and I am looking forward keenly to meeting up with a teacher who has never lectured me in the classroom but has taught me many fundamental things I need to know through his timeless book.

Living the stories

Legendary teachers live the art of marketing through wonderful storytelling. They bring concepts and theories to vibrant life through remarkably apt stories of brands or consumer insights or sales and distribution systems, which illustrate big successes or equally big failures. I will never ever forget the story of the big success of Ford’s Model T, or the even bigger failure of Ford’s Edsel, or the story of iconic Indian brands such as Surf or Liril, or indeed the failure of New Coke, as narrated by Professor Vora or his fellow Professors at IIM-A. I am sure each of you will remember marketing concepts through the stories your teachers have narrated, rather than through the theoretical frameworks alone.

For the fraternity of marketers, I think this specific aspect of great teaching also emphasises, in its own way, the importance of storytelling in our lives. We need to tell the stories of our brands and products superbly, because that is what consumers ultimately buy.

It is equally important to remember that, for many of us who have been in the corporate world for a longish time (and certainly for me) some of our best teachers of marketing were not only in the classrooms of our colleges, but also in the cabins and cubicles of our workplaces. Think of the senior managers and supervisors who were our bosses, with whom we walked the markets or discussed brand launches or campaigns, and the many lessons we have learnt from them over the years.

All these great managers shared the same three Ls – Love, Lead and Life – with the legendary professors of our youth.

This emphasises the need for each of us, who are senior marketing professionals in organisations, to invest time, genuine effort and the “three Ls” in imparting our knowledge and lessons from our own case studies to our less experienced yet very eager colleagues. That is how we can create learning organisations which become sustained champions of the art and science of marketing. So, even as we salute our teachers on this special occasion, may I end this tribute by encouraging each of us to become very good teachers ourselves. Happy Marketing Teachers’ Day!

Harish Bhat is the author of “Tata Log : Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution”. These are his personal views. He can be reached at bhatharish@hotmail.com

Published on September 11, 2014

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