SMU’s Professor Nirmalya Kumar recognised for Lifetime Contributions to Marketing Strategy Research

Singapore Management University (SMU) is delighted to announce that Professor Nirmalya Kumar, Professor of Marketing of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business has been awarded the 2021 Mahajan Award for Lifetime Contributions to Marketing Strategy Research by the American Marketing Association (AMA), a professional association for marketing professionals with 30,000 members.

Established in 2000, this award honours career contributions to marketing strategy which encourage the academic community to produce high quality academic research in the field of marketing strategy.

As one of the leading marketing scholars in the world when it comes to impact, Prof Kumar has produced some of the most influential academic research on the topic of interfirm relationships. He has also written multiple books on leadership, branding, private label strategy, global marketing and spoken at several TED Talks on marketing and innovation. 

We spoke with him to get to know a little more about his passion for Marketing, his proudest piece of research and advice for aspiring researchers.

What motivated you to enter the field of marketing and research?

When I was ten years old, my father was pursuing an executive MBA. His marketing textbook was Kotler’s Marketing Management, 2nd edition. We did not have any telephone or television in my apartment, so the only entertainment was reading. The local library allowed you to borrow only one book a day, which was entirely inadequate for me. This was before schools gave copious amounts of homework. So at the age of 14, I read the Kotler book and got fascinated by marketing.

Upon entering the MBA programme at University of Illinois, my marketing professor, the late Professor Chem Narayana, encouraged me to apply for a PhD to Northwestern.  Philip Kotler, who was the doctoral coordinator admitted me on the basis of a fifteen minute interview. Kotler celebrated his 90th birthday last month. He continues to inspire millions, and I am one of them.

Tell us a little about the research piece you are most proud of, and why?

It is like choosing between your children. The stream of research on inter-firm relationships which resulted in a dozen papers in major journals between 1995 and 2006 has had the most substantial academic impact. The final paper was quoted by Oliver Williamson in his economics Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

The most counter-intuitive finding from this research was debunking the notion that if firms were dependent on other firms, they would be less powerful. In contrast, our research demonstrated that to gain power, firms create mutual dependencies. No firm is an island. In 1990s, this predated the networked organisation and ecosystems, terms which really did not exist then.

The 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “How emerging giants are rewriting the rules of M&A”, was the first article in HBR’s 75 year history then that focussed exclusively on an Indian firm. Probably, I am most proud of my books and articles on India as it documented the rise of Indian business globally.

What are your research areas, why do they appeal to you?

Currently I am writing about the impact of COVID on business. My articles argue why, and how, firms should pursue counter-cyclical marketing during recessions. The basic finding is that rather than cut marketing outlay when sales are declining during a recession, winning firms enhance their relative marketing efforts vis-à-vis competitors.

Consistent with SMU’s focus on digital transformation, I have written several cases on the need for firms to get “phygital” – fusing the physical and digital distribution channels.  Amazon versus Walmart, Gucci, Luckin versus Starbucks, as well as Zara in China and India are among the cases that have been introduced in the various masters programs.

Finally, I am passionate about improving corporate governance and understanding the dilemmas that stakeholder orientation presents for firms.

Any advice for aspiring researchers?

Let’s conclude where we started, with Philip Kotler. My first class in the PhD programme was led by Kotler with an individual assignment of critiquing a working paper that he had just completed. My analysis of why it was not a particularly good paper received an “A”. A most important lesson. Deference is not a good quality in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Subsequently, this paper was published in the Harvard Business Review! 

Impactful research should be counter-intuitive, question prevailing wisdom, and search to find the limits of any argument. Knowledge progresses through a deeper understanding of the “gappy conditionals” – when do our widely accepted, received truths fail. You seek to falsify your own previous findings. It requires building a research culture that is curious, questioning, non-hierarchical, seeking big ideas, embracing risk, and confronting existing research through falsification. It is a forever journey.