Marketing leadership: bridging theory and practice in a joint initiative

Bridging Gap Klein

By Arianne Van Der Wal Msc, Anne-Madeleine Kranzbühler Msc and Dr. Mirella Kleijnen.

In recent years, a lively debate has developed on the strategic role of marketing in the boardroom. Looking at CEOs and the composition of boardrooms, it seems that marketers are losing ground when it comes to fulfilling strategic leadership positions. In order to change this, the marketing consultancy agency VODW and the Marketing Department of VU University Amsterdam have joined forces in the Center for Marketing Leadership (C4ML). C4ML is developing a research agenda on topics that ‘matter in the boardroom’. Imperative to this research agenda is relevance to both practice and academia. As a result, on 1 September 2013, ABRI PhD students Anne-Madeleine Kranzbühler and Arianne van der Wal, co-sponsored by VODW and the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration (FEWEB), started working on two themes that are high on the priority lists of both marketers and researchers: Customer Experience and Sustainability.

Whilst customer experience has always been of great interest to marketers, especially in the service industry, in today’s world it is essential to create meaningful customer experiences in order to gain a competitive advantage. Goods and services alike are becoming increasingly commoditized, meaning that customers are demanding better experiences to differentiate both product and service offerings. In this research project we take a holistic approach to customer experiences, defining them as the internal, contextual, and subjective response customers have to any direct or indirect contact with a company within the entire course of the firm-customer relationship, ranging from the search phase to the aftersales phase and including multiple channels.

In her first project, Anne-Madeleine Kranzbühler has developed a research agenda on Customer Experience from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Investigating the knowledge needs of both practitioners and academics, it becomes apparent that in today’s multi-media, multiscreen, and multi-channel environment, consumer experiences have become much more complex, and that traditional models of consumer experience are failing to capture that complexity. In a first step to disentangle the complexity of decision-making in an online environment, a research project has been launched in cooperation with the Dutch healthcare insurance company VGZ. This study investigates the role of firm-initiated social interaction platforms in the customer journey. Firms increasingly provide customers with platforms such as value-adding services that offer not only subjective consumer reviews, but often also objective expert ratings in order to aid consumer decision-making. However, little is known about how the actual design of a firm-initiated platform affects the consumer journey and consumer decision-making, as well as the consumer’s evaluation of the experience at different moments of the customer journey. This project, called ‘Moments that matter: The impact of online social interaction on the customer journey’, won a research competition held by the renowned Marketing Science Institute, which called for novel research on the broad topic of social interactions and social media marketing, investigating critical questions that are relevant to both academics and marketing practitioners.

Another important issue that today’s marketers are facing is the role of sustainability. Developing so-called green marketing strategies is challenging on many different levels, and while firms recognize the need to embed sustainability in their way of doing business, in reality they often struggle to do so. Moreover, research shows that while substantial efforts are being made to enhance sustainable and environmental behaviour, consumers’ actual behaviour often differs substantially from what their pro-environmental attitudes might suggest.

Arianne van der Wal investigates this problem using a cross-disciplinary theoretical perspective, combining evolutionary and social psychology with marketing and consumer research. In her work, she suggests that it is useful and important to consider the ultimate, evolutionary reasons for behaviour and effectively incorporate this knowledge in the development of new marketing strategies. As a result, more effective sustainable solutions can be created and sustainable behaviour by both consumers and companies can be enhanced. The projects currently in progress look specifically into the role of so-called future discounting and social status. In her first set of experiments, Arianne illustrates that gamification elements can enhance sustainable behaviour, as competition can heighten social status. Her second project highlights the role of uncertainty and future discounting. Typically, strategies to enhance sustainable behaviour focus on the long-term effects of such behaviour. In her research, however, Arianne suggests that it is important to consider the role of future discounting in such situations. This is especially true in times of uncertainty, e.g., periods of economic crisis, where consumers are less concerned with long-term outcomes, but focus on the here and now. In other words, when sustainable behaviour does not directly pay off in times of uncertainty, consumers will not opt to behave in a sustainable way. Formulating direct pay-offs, however, is a challenging task for many companies.
Through the cooperation with VODW, the different research projects are not only multi-disciplinary in theory, but also multi-method in approach. The studies combine lab, online and field studies, and the use of secondary hard data. By cooperating with different clients, we are able to test scientific knowledge in real-life settings, creating novel insights with significant practical implications for public policymakers, social marketers, and managers. Hence, in working on themes that bridge theory and practice, C4ML enables not only the creation of knowledge, but also creates a gateway to immediately disseminate that knowledge into practice and translate it into relevant propositions and marketing strategies for business.

For further inquiries about the research project, please contact Dr. Mirella Kleijnen,