Now that’s what a grand old University should look like. I’m currently in Munich for a Best Brands College event organized by Professor Anton Meyer of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität at München’s Institut für Marketing. It was a truly engaging event that started yesterday and went on today.
I got a chance to see the kind of work that some of Prof. Meyer’s Ph.D. students are doing here–Silke Bartsch, Ben Brudler, Florian Jodl, Alexandra Illek, Markus Rosier, Nina Specht, and Sina Fichtel–and I’m genuinely impressed.
This is a different model of scholarship, where the students are deeply involved in the business world, working with companies on their project, yet applying cutting edge technique to business problems. It isn’t so much about theory development per se, but theory in the service of particular practical problems. It’s refreshingly differently from the kind of scholarship that often goes on in North American b-schools, which is theoretically interesting and academically useful, but often has its flaws when it comes time to explaining and justifying itself to the business world. Of course, that’s not all-important, but any means, but it does mean something to me. There is all sort of debate on this question of relevance. Me, I’m in the camp of staying relevant to the business world. But that can, in practice, be a fine line to walk.
I saw real multidisciplinarity in the student projects that were presented. Although Prof. Meyer supervises 12 Ph.D. students by himself (whoah…that’s very different from the collaborative North American system, too), they deployed a wide range to techniques and methods, from psych questionnaires (using impressive video stimuli) to causal equation modeling of mass survey data from real managers in real companies, to netnography and critical incident studies of students’ servicescape experiences, to sophisticated collage methods.
This was a real eye opener, and I’m going to share some of the ideas I gathered from some of the projects with you in a future blog posting. The Ph.D. students here are Munich’s LMU university Marketing department are smart, they are talented, they learn rigorous techniques under Herr. Prof. Meyer’s tutelage, and then they go forth into the work world (lots into consulting), about 95% of them or more. That’s different. Doesn’t happen in the North American system very much, where we train Ph.D.s as professors. They’re also a very nice bunch to hang out with and I’ve enjoyed spending time getting to know them a little.
The Best Brands College was an event held for business practitioners, and I delivered the keynote today on “User-Generated Branding.” My core contention was that user-generated branding is happening whether companies want it to or not. It’s not really their decision. Not under their control. And that had some real interesting implications.
One of the presenters had a perspective of “How do I make money in this new space of online community generated advertising and WOM? Maybe there’s no money there. Maybe it’s all hype.”
I think that this perspective misses the point. I actually remember hearing that the Internet was a fad in earlier years, and was going to fade away. My friend Ingeborg Kleppe of NHH in Bergen had the presence of mind to keep some newspaper clippings that asserted that the Internet would be essentially over by the late 1990s. Seems sort of ridiculous in retrospect that people actually believed this. I love remembering those frustrating times. And if anyone says or writes that online communities won’t have major implications for business and marketing in the coming years, I just can’t help but think of those early predictions of the Internet. The same short sighted thinking.”How will anyone make money off of all those free web-pages? Big deal.”
The key proposition in my talk was that this is actually a change in society that is bigger than the short-term planning horizons of companies. Of course, there are companies that will make money by understanding the phenomenon and the trends and working with them rather than against them (can anyone say Google?). I have no doubt of that. But there are no magic bullets, no one-size-fits-all solutions. How could there be? What works for one brand might not work for another, for various reasons. And in fact, there are probably as many threats and challenges that this phenomenon poses to brand managers as there are opportunities for them. But can we really afford to ignore that complex change in reality?
What is required is a more subtle and holistic understanding (sometimes this is a difficult thing for anyone to do, not least of all managers who are constantly pressured in a variety of ways). An actual shift in perspective towards the lived communal experiences that are increasingly desired and common. And that’s not going to be easy. It’s not easy. And it’s not going to get any easier.
But consumer-generated branding happens. Whether you want it to, or not. We may as well get used to that, and start figuring out what it means to our entire view of what we do as marketers (maybe as members of a changing society, too). It’s important. And not just because it is or isn’t going to make us more money or not.