Professor Seenu Srinivasan is recognized internationally for his work on consumer choice and sales force compensation, but as his peers testified during a gathering celebrating his 36-year academic career, Srinivasan is also revered as a teacher and mentor.
His first doctoral student, Barnett Parker, calls him a guru, and the Simon School of Business graduate 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 privately with colleagues at a tribute to Srinivasan held at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management is retiring after serving as a member of the faculty for 36 years. He's a center of energy. He has an aura about him. And, chuckles Parker, a professor of health and business administration at Pfeiffer University, 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, graduate students, coauthors, and family 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.
Srinivasan's interest in the well-being of others is characteristically reflected in his approach to marketing, which, throughout his career, has focused on trying to understand consumer preferences. Getting beyond particular products or service categories, he has developed objective methods to discover the structure behind 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.
The Stanford business school professor is most well known for his research in conjoint analysis, an approach for establishing why the customer chooses one brand or product over another. Conjoint analysis allows companies to predict which, among several products or services with multiple attributes, customers are likely to select. Srinivasan asks consumers to rank-order a list of product attributes such as price, size, safety, ease of use, durability, and then uses 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 more than 10,000 commercial applications of conjoint analysis methods take place in the big wide world. Conjoint analysis is also used in contexts broader than the term marketing might suggest. It has been applied, for example, to determine preferences regarding choice of health care facilities or medical treatment options, methods of transportation, and even of political candidates. Srinivasan is regarded as a key architect of conjoint analysis along with Professor Emeritus Paul Green of Wharton. The two coined the term in a research paper in 1978.
Seenu has always wanted his work to have applicability, says Allan Shocker, who was a graduate student with Srinivasan at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, Shocker is a retired member of the University of Minnesota faculty. Srinivasan has provided ever more useful methods to managers, improving their validity and making such methods easier to apply. He has also served as a hands-on consultant to businesses.
Frequently in collaboration with coauthors, Srinivasan has also contributed to other market research areas through his nearly 100 articles published in a range of top-tier journals. Strategic portfolio planning, market structure and segmentation, brand equity, and demand forecasting for new products are just some of the topics he has studied in depth.
Then there's his coauthored work in sales force compensation, which has shown that more volatile industries should have a greater percentage of 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.
Managers can figure out how much more their company will earn if it invests in various kinds of branding activities using another Srinivasan model. It's a significant contribution in a field in which the best that most marketers have been able to do is measure consumers' image of a brand but not the dollars-and-cents effect of that image. For instance, he and his coauthors estimated that in the cellular telephone market in Korea, Samsung gained $127 million dollars because of its increased brand awareness, improved perception of voice quality, and other factors.
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.
Taking a training program with a Bombay engineering firm, he was put into production planning and management, which, to his surprise, he found he enjoyed. After two years in the position, he enrolled at Carnegie Mellon to study industrial administration, earning his MS and doctorate together in a remarkable three short years, and having nearly a dozen working papers already written or under review by the time he graduated. It was here that his interest in marketing and consumer preferences was sparked and developed through extended discussions with his roommate, Shocker, who became his first collaborator.
Many schools attempted to recruit Srinivasan to their faculties, but the Simon School at the University of Rochester won out, hiring the eclectic young man as an assistant professor of marketing, operations research, and operations management, and promoting him to associate professor after two years. With offers continuing to come in from Wharton, Carnegie, and other schools, a year later Srinivasan was hand picked by David Montgomery, the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing Strategy, Emeritus, to come to Stanford. Srinivasan never looked back. The Graduate School of Business promoted him to full professor of marketing and management science after just two years, less time than many academics take to secure a single promotion, notes Shocker, who himself went on to become the Curtis L. Carlson Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, and has since retired.
Quips his long-time friend Jim Lattin, the Robert A. Magowan Professor of Marketing at the business school: Seenu's life can be summed up as a personal branding quest to dissociate himself from the ordinary. The marketing industry has correspondingly showered this legendary figure with some 22 awards and accolades, including the Parlin and Converse Awards for outstanding contributions to research, and the Churchill Award for lifetime achievement. The INFORMS Society for Marketing Science has also honored him with their Fellow Award.
In 2006, India's Great Lakes Institute of Management created the Kotler-Srinivasan Centre for Research in Marketing to develop marketing understanding, particularly as it relates to India. Srinivasan splits the eponymous honor with Kellogg Professor Philip Kotler, another luminary in the field.
In short, Seenu has won almost every major award the marketing profession can convey, says Shocker. But unlike many other talented academics who enjoyed high success, which has only fed their arrogance, he is 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.
Having created what Lattin describes as an environment of collaboration at Stanford, the gentleman scholar has turned numerous doctoral students he has advised since 1974 into some of his closest research associates. Indeed, Srinivasan played a key role in having PhD candidates do more research and less structured coursework when he served as the director of the doctoral program from 1982 to 1985. I believe in the apprenticeship method, which gets the candidate involved in work with his advisor, he told the Stanford News Service.
Oded Netzer, PhD '04, Srinivasan's most recent doctoral student, affirms, tongue in cheek: 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.
The quality of Srinivasan's advising is reflected in that fact that eight of his doctoral students have won top awards for their dissertations or dissertation-based papers. Having taught in the MBA program as well -- courses such as Data and Decisions and Customer-Focused Product Marketing -- he has consistently been well respected by his students. Most recently, he served as faculty advisor for the Stanford Business School's collaborative MBA course with the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. He has also directed the school's Strategic Marketing Management executive program.
Srinivasan's penchant for collegiality is evident in the innovative course Integrated Design for Marketability and Manufacturing, which he co-created in 1991. For the past 18 years courses that grew from that have trained Stanford engineering and MBA students to get beyond bean counter and gearhead 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.
As a result, scores of MBAs have walked away with shop floor experience, and engineers have confronted the reality of designing in a competitive environment. All have learned to develop the communication and group process skills necessary to work in an interdisciplinary team. Srinivasan stepped away from the course in 2001, and since then it has morphed into Stanford Business School Professor James Patell's Design for Extreme Affordability course under the auspices of the university's d.School (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford).
Srinivasan's career has not been the only thing to occupy his time over the past four decades. He and his wife, Sita, have also raised two boys, Ramesh and Mahesh, who are now pursuing careers in academia and have established enviable success trajectories of their own. The family remains close with their relatives in India, as well, including Srinivasan's brother, Balachandran, an emeritus accounting professor from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, with whom he has served on the academic advisory boards of not only the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai but also the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.
A survey of those attending his retirement celebration revealed that Srinivasan's friends and family are now eager to see him take some time off from the academic arena to travel the world, spend more time with his extended relations, and read fiction. Will the prolific professor comply? In fact, it appears that while he will indeed travel with his wife, he has no real intention of slowing down. 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 says.
Srinivasan will also teach a course on conjoint analysis at 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 says.
-- Marguerite Rigoglioso
Conjoint Analysis in Consumer Research: Issues and Outlook, Journal of Consumer Research, 5, No. 2 (September 1978), (with Paul E. Green)
Salesforce Compensation Plans: An Agency Theoretic Perspective, Marketing Science, 4, No. 4 (Fall 1985), pp. 267-291 (with Amiya K. Basu, Rajiv Lal and Richard Staelin)
A Hidden Markov Model of Customer Relationship Dynamics, Marketing Science, 27, No. 2 (March-April 2008), pp. 185-204 (with Oded Netzer and James M. Lattin)