The Institute for Research in Marketing: 10 Years of Corporate Collaboration

Friday, November 20, 2015

Ten years ago, then-Carlson School Dean Larry Benveniste approached the school’s department chairs with a proposal. Some funding was available, and he was looking for the best way to invest it. So, as a sort of informal competition, the departments each drew up plans on what they could do with extra funds.

Professor Akshay Rao and his department felt that the money should be invested in one of the core strengths of the school—marketing. The reasons were plenty: The department had some of the top-producing scholars in the world, the school had a large share of eager students interested in the field, and marketing jobs were growing, especially with such prominent companies in the school’s backyard like 3M, General Mills, and Medtronic.

“It gave us the impetus to do something different and original,” says Rao. “And the different and original thing we proposed was an industry-sponsored think tank modeled after the Marketing Science Institute. The idea was that senior corporate executives are often confronted with issues and problems of a marketing nature to which we already had answers or we could find answers. So for the things that keep senior marketing people up at night because they don’t read the scientific journals, we might be able to provide some perspective.”

Thus, the Institute for Research in Marketing (IRM) was born. IRM’s relationships with the corporate world would make or break it, so founder Rao set right out to cultivate these relationships. “Getting the outside world on board was a piece of cake because I had a really good product to sell,” he says.

Outgoing IRM Director Wayne Mueller says that the linkage to the Carlson School brand was important to companies from an image standpoint. “Perception in their business of marketing is such a critical element—having their company and brand attached to the Carlson School and our Marketing Department enhances their brand, credibility, and image,” he says. “They are seen as connected to some of the best marketing research in the world.”

At peak, IRM had 17 sponsoring organizations, with a third of them outside Minnesota, such as Kraft in Chicago and Unilever in London. Senior marketing executives from these companies make up IRM’s advisory board, and it is the interaction between the board and the school’s marketing faculty that drives IRM forward.

“By bringing together academic thought leaders and top practitioners, each side informs the other of the latest practices and approaches in industry and academia,” says Marketing Department Chair Vladas Griskevicius, who is responsible for the oversight of IRM. “As a faculty member, I always learn something new in the Institute meetings, such as what is happening in a company behind the scenes that is driving its marketing decisions. Sometimes these learnings can even lead to new research, such as when one of our PhD students worked with an Institute member company to solve one of its pivotal marketing challenges that formed the basis of his dissertation.”

Sometimes the companies offer research ideas. “We sponsor what we call ‘white papers,’” Rao says. “For example, a company would come to us and say, ‘We really don’t know much about brand dilution, but you have two on your faculty who do. Here is some money. Can you do research on it?’ Or, ‘What are gender differences in response to advertising?’”

Besides crafting original research and offering guidance, IRM also has hosted several marketing conferences over the years—including some in collaboration with its original model, the Marketing Science Institute based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Self-reflexively, it served as the marketing arm of the Marketing Department. “Every time one of my colleagues published a paper, we put out a press release and shopped it to The Economist and The New York Times,” Rao says. “As a result, many of my colleagues were featured in these national and international venues.”

This rapid pace of generating research has not gone unnoticed by academia as the Marketing Department can boast these rankings:

  • #2 in Actively Publishing Faculty in America
  • #3 in Research Productivity in America
  • #5 in Research Impact in America
  • #5 Most Cited Marketing Department in the World

And none of this would have been feasible without the support of IRM’s advisory board over these past 10 years—close to $1 million in financial support alone. “I cannot be prouder or more humbly thankful to our board members and our marketing faculty for their collaborative efforts to make all of this happen,” Mueller says. He goes on to say “that a real key to our success is Ashley Dziuk, our Institute Program Coordinator, who has done an excellent job of coordinating all Institute meetings with board members and faculty while providing excellent website and overall marketing support. She is the glue that makes the Institute work day in and day out.”

Transitions continue to happen, however, and Mueller has handed over the reins of the Institute to Steve Goodyear, a seasoned corporate marketing professional and adjunct lecturer at the Carlson School since 2007. “The Institute for Research in Marketing has established a strong presence,” says Goodyear, “and my job will be to build on the tremendous foundation that has been created by Akshay and Wayne.”

Cultivating talent

“Research led by the Institute provides Ecolab and fellow businesses the insights to make sound business decisions,” says Julie Moore, just-retired senior vice president of global marketing and strategy, institutional, of Ecolab. “By sharing resources, all business leaders benefit from the outputs. The expertise of Carlson’s educators has provided structure into how to objectively approach a business challenge and has suggested thought-provoking topics to be discussed and studied that will be impacting us in the future.”

Moore says Ecolab joined up with IRM in order to build strong relationships with the business community in this market as well as with educators. Ecolab also had the opportunity to interact with the government, as IRM invited lawmakers to discuss community-wide issues at its various conferences.

“The Carlson School and the Institute allow Ecolab to connect to amazing talent,” she says. “It is an opportunity for us to connect to our future associates and the future leaders of our communities and business partners.”

Accessing top researchers

G&K Services’ Vice President of Marketing and Sales David Euson has been involved with IRM for nearly six years, but his company had been connected even further back than that


“The original intent of our involvement was to stay current on trends in market research and form a greater association with the Carlson School,” he says. “Gaining access to some of the top business and research faculty in the U.S. has opened our eyes to research trends on both the B2C and B2B sides of business.”

Euson notes that being able to engage with faculty members as well as with top marketers on IRM’s advisory board has exposed his company to new opportunities to generate profitable growth. The Institute also facilitated getting a group of MBA students to consult with G&K on a semester-long assignment on one of its core business issues.

“By being associated with the U and the Institute, I believe the G&K brand profile has been elevated in the Twin Cities community,” he says. “We have a world-class university and business school in our backyard, and it is extremely important that Minnesota-based corporations support the U to help advance their various agendas.”

Building relationships

“It is easy for me to give the excuse of ‘being too busy’ that often prevents me from taking time to step out and refresh my own thinking and paradigms,” says UnitedHealthcare’s Strategic Insights Group Vice President David Mucha. “The Institute provides its members the luxury to stop and reflect on the great work of our peers and colleagues. All Institute members learn from each other and easily build relationships with other business leaders and nationally recognized professors.” 

Mucha adds that there is an untapped value in being part of a community that leverages and deepens practical consumer-centric research and thinking. “I have been fortunate to have some of the country’s best researchers from the Carlson School speak to my marketing team about ways to leverage the learnings from the field of behavioral economics,” he says. “I have also leaned on other members for their insights and ideas into issues that I was facing in the area of innovation. Having ready access to so many great thinkers and leaders is such a great benefit to me in my role and to my company.”

Supporting the Institute is a simple way to recognize and maintain the Carlson School’s standing as one of the leading business schools in the country, Mucha says. “Local business engagement keeps open the dialog between fresh research that companies can apply to their own unique business issues, and business leaders have a voice in the direction and type of research the professors and students explore in their studies.”