Kellogg professor Philip Kotler did not set out to write the Harry Potter of business school textbooks.
But with his classic work Marketing Management still flying off the shelves 40 years after publication, it is clear that Kotler possesses a wizardry even Potter creator J.K. Rowling would admire.
How many other marketing texts have ranked among the top 200 titles on Amazon.com? How many have been named among the 50 best business books of all time? How many are credited with shaping the very field they teach?
Through the decades, Kotler’s prolific intellectual output has served as a kind of “brand central station” for astute business leaders looking for an edge in marketing.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Marketing Management is now in its 13th edition. It is the most widely used text in graduate business schools around the world, having been translated into more than 25 languages. Kotler’s tome is included alongside classics such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Peter Drucker’s The Practice of Management in Financial Times’ list of the 50 most influential business books ever published.
Such is the demand for Kotler’s wisdom that the oft-described “marketing guru” has produced dozens of other books adapting and developing his core Marketing Management concepts for a variety of audiences. Many of these works, such as Principles of Marketing (now with co-author Gary Armstrong, University of North Carolina) and Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations (now with co-author Alan Andreasen, Georgetown University), have become best-sellers as well. With three million books in print, Kotler is the most prolific author in the marketing textbook field.
“The network of knowledge and influence (Kotler’s) textbooks have generated is unparalleled,” writes Peggy Cunningham, a Queen’s University marketing professor who has analysed the impact of Kotler’s work and served as co-author for a Canadian edition of Marketing Management. “Millions of MBA and undergraduate students have been educated using his materials. …I’ve heard managers, consultants and executive teachers alike cite Kotler’s work as underpinning their thinking, practice and success.”
Marketing was being taught as a discipline well before the 1960s and marketing professors already had a variety of textbooks to choose from. So, why did Marketing Management make such a splash?
Kotler’s big idea in 1967 was that companies ought to be driven by customers and markets, rather than by the intuition of marketing executives. He went on to bring scientific and analytical thinking into the marketing field to add to the rich description of markets that already existed in marketing literature.
“When I came in, it seemed to me that marketing needed more logical processes for making decisions,” recalls Kotler, who joined the Kellogg School faculty in 1962 and is now the SC Johnson and Son distinguished professor of international marketing. He based his new textbook on ideas synthesized from economics, behavioural science, organizational science and mathematical thinking.
Kotler had been trained as an economist at the University of Chicago and MIT, studying under Nobel Prize-winning figures such as Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow. As a result, he introduced a variety of mathematical models to help companies allocate marketing resources, including setting the size and goals of the sales force.
“I said, ‘These are big decisions that companies face’,” Kotler recalls. “They don’t get much help from standard economic theory. These companies need a process for making decisions about how many salespeople to hire, how much to spend on advertising, how much to spend on sale promotion. What is the shape of the sales response function, what are the drivers and what are the weights that these drivers carry in affecting sales and profits?”
The result, writes Cunningham, was a book that was “scholarly as well as practical.”
“Kotler’s talent lay in taking highly complex phenomena and breaking them down into discreet step-wise components,” she notes. “Not only did this make the material more approachable by students, it lent itself to being taught in a clear and organized fashion.”
Sales took off immediately. Kotler, whose original goal was to write a textbook to use in his own classes, says he was “delighted and surprised.” Much of the text, after all, had been developed from the notes he had used to teach his Kellogg School classes. He soon found himself updating the book for the next of 12 subsequent editions.
As Kotler himself notes in the preface to his latest edition, the practice of marketing has changed drastically in the last 40 years. Basic concepts such as segmentation, targeting and positioning were barely discussed back then. Terms such as brand equity, hybrid channels, database marketing and e-commerce might as well have been phrases from another planet.
With each new edition, Kotler has developed and advanced these and many other marketing concepts, including relationship marketing and social, place and person marketing.
Kotler has also added a co-author, branding expert and Tuck School of Business professor Kevin Lane Keller.
Kotler says he is pleased that many people who studied earlier editions of Marketing Management buy the more recent editions of the book (each of which includes at least 20-30% of new text). Engineers and other professionals are also reading the book for the first time. Recent editions contain more on brand building and on the impact of the Internet on marketing practices.
At 76, Kotler remains the quintessential marketing leader. He is still teaching, consulting for major corporations and speaking to standing-room-only crowds around the world. He credits this continuous feedback loop with enabling him to stay ahead of the curve on marketing trends.
Never complacent, Kotler views his work as ruthlessly as any would-be competitor. He is constantly on the lookout for issues and angles that others might address.
“The best line of attack is to attack yourself first,” Kotler says of revising his classic work. “Be aware of the new ideas, trends and stories and make them prominent in the next edition.”
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Rebecca Lindell is a staff writer at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.