A group of School of Management professors is trying to bridge the gap between academic and corporate research.
More than seven years after two professors founded the Center for Consumer Insights (YCCI) at the Yale School of Management, the center has established ties with more than a dozen major companies and capitalized on these relationships to promote research and to create an MBA course at SOM that presents students with corporate problems. Companies pay the center to answer market research questions using academic methods, providing the SOM faculty with engaging real-world research questions and the funds to pursue them. Ravi Dhar, SOM professor of marketing and director of the YCCI, said the center has made itself relevant to top executives at Fortune 500 firms, including Visa, I.M.B. and PepsiCo, by answering the question that “keeps them up at night.”
Dhar said firms often feel that research conducted at business schools is not readily applicable to problems facing corporations and YCCI hopes to make research at the SOM more relevant by turning corporate questions about consumer behavior into academic questions for research. He said the center’s services have experienced overwhelming demand, reflecting the attractiveness of the YCCI model for firms, which pay an annual membership fee between $100,000 and $250,000 for YCCI’s services, according the center’s brochure.
“We found the business community was very receptive to [the YCCI],” Dhar said. “And we think the reason they were receptive to it was because they weren’t getting their answers from their traditional places, like consultants and partners.”
While other business schools have similar programs for researching various aspects of consumer behavior, Dhar said no other program takes a similarly comprehensive research approach. Eric Bradlow, co-director of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, also said the YCCI is unique in its interdisciplinary approach. For example, he said, the Wharton center focuses on quantitative and statistical analysis of data sets provided by companies, while the YCCI plays to Yale’s “broad-based” strength by integrating approaches from a variety of areas, including empirical and observational data, as well as managerial expertise.
“The YCCI provides this really unique combination of both [an] academics perspective on marketing problems blended with practitioners’ perspectives of marketing problems,” said David Edwards, chief customer officer at the retirement insurance provider TIAA-CREF, a longtime YCCI partner. “You can get both in various places, but putting them together is what I think makes it a little more unique and therefore desirable.”
Apart from corporate partnerships, Dhar said the most exciting development in recent years at the YCCI has been the founding of the MBA Insights Projects, where small teams of business school students spend a semester researching a consumer question for a firm. The program began approximately four years ago, and roughly 35 students participate every year.
Many SOM students report that the Insights Projects are their most valuable experience during business school because the corporate question and ensuing projects are so “messy and unstructured,” Dhar said.
Edwards said that TIAA-CREF benefited in the fall from a team of MBA students in the Insights Projects, and he said that he hopes to work with more groups in the future.
“The team did really great work doing a little deeper dive into some research on pension customers and understanding their attitudes and perspectives and behaviors,” Edwards said, adding that the MBA team and Dhar are scheduled to present their findings to the TIAA-CREF CEO within the next month. “[It’s] an external and fresh perspective without the biases we have here internally.”
In the fall, Christina Bruno SOM ’12 researched smartphone usage among millennials for Visa as part of an MBA Insights Project. She said that the project was valuable in multiple ways, including the access to high-level executives at Visa, close collaboration with senior School of Management faculty, including Dhar, and the chance to work with a small team for the semester.
“What the [YCCI] is bringing is the opportunity to work with a client like Visa,” Bruno said. “They have that relationship already built with the company, so that access is really valuable.”
The YCCI has also established an international presence though the 2008 founding of the China India Insights Program. K. Sudhir, director of the CIIP and professor at School of Management, said that the center fills a void of academic research about developing markets.
Dhar said that while the YCCI has become the most successful business school customer behavior group, the center is still working to reach its target level of recognition among firms as a premiere team for consumer research. Sudhir said he wants the YCCI to be viewed as a “think tank for marketing research.”
YCCI co-founder Dick Wittink died in June 2005, approximately five months after opening the center with Dhar.