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How to Make Marketing Theory Exploration Exciting Again

How to Make Marketing Theory Exploration Exciting Again

Valarie A. Zeithaml, Bernard Jaworski, Ajay K. Kohli, Kapil R. Tuli, Wolfgang Ulaga and Gerald Zaltman

When it comes to marketing theory, should you a borrower be? The field of marketing is at a crossroads, says a new study in the Journal of Marketing. Most articles currently being published in the most respected journals borrow theories from allied disciplines and/or incrementally build on existing literature. However, incremental growth lessens marketing theory’s impact and relevance to practitioners.

To enhance the relevance of academic work, our research team advocates building new marketing theory by focusing on individuals’ mental models of a phenomena. For example, if the individual is a manager, theorists’ goal should be to extract the causal thinking about a problem where he or she has expertise. By interviewing a small sample of managers, one is able to build a “network” of if-then relationships that collectively form the managers’ “theories-in-use” (TIU). This approach enables researchers to find and build new field-based theory in marketing using the language-system and thinking of the managers.


All stakeholders in marketing—among them managers, customers, employees, and public policy makers—have mental models that can be elicited by TIU research to surface interesting, novel theories and concepts that can advance both marketing practice and scholarship. Specifically, we argue that TIU is a natural approach for creating theories indigenous to marketing or what some have called “organic” or “home grown” marketing theories. We have all been involved in this type of theory construction, including research focused on service quality, market orientation, solution marketing, or hybrid product and service bundles.

A TIU approach can help address three fundamental problems in our discipline: 

  • First, when we borrow from other fields, our own stakeholders’ problems do not guide our research and our scholarship loses touch with the practice of marketing.
  • Second, borrowing restricts us to what is already known, thereby hampering our search for novel and interesting phenomena.
  • Third, when using abstract theoretical constructs from other fields, we lessen our ability to communicate with our stakeholders in a vocabulary they understand. 

The TIU approach has unique characteristics that bear highlighting. It relies on one-on-one participant conversations and elicits theories from a relatively small number of participants (often 15-25). TIU is also unique in that it is a partnership that allows for the co-creation of a theory. Participants are treated as active partners in the theory development process, allowing for the presence of implicit and explicit causal thinking among them about the ideas they consider important. Researchers may then draw upon other sources of insight they have acquired about the topic to modify the ultimate constructs’ abstraction levels as well as explore causal connections among them to develop theoretical propositions.

A TIU approach becomes even more of a partnership when a researcher convenes representative stakeholders, including original study participants, to examine and discuss the researcher’s tentative formal theory. In this way, two mind-sets, the researcher’s and the theory holders’, are formally brought to bear on the topic—and better ideas are produced.

We provide an overview of three formal approaches for building grounded theory—TIU, case studies, and ethnography—that can be used in tandem. The TIU approach is best suited for addressing broad and deep research questions/issues for which we do not have good answers. Research participants should be selected for their knowledgeability about the questions/issues and willingness to share their knowledge and experiences with the researcher.

Some of the criteria commonly used to evaluate studies include internal validity, external validity, and reliability. Several scholars, however, have long argued that these criteria are cast in a positivist tradition and that different criteria should be used to evaluate interpretive research, including credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. Importantly, while these four criteria are useful, we suggest they need to be complemented by a fifth criterion—distinctiveness—which refers to the novelty of a theory’s constructs and propositions (relative to extant literature). This criterion is central for evaluating TIU research whose aim is the construction of new theory.

A theories-in-use approach can increase the relevance of marketing research tomore stakeholders. Relevant stakeholders may be managers looking to improve practice, consumers looking to enhance their consumption experiences, and/or policy makers seeking to improve society. TIU promotes engagement between researchers and subjects by involving them in the co-creation and testing of new theories. In our experience, managers taking part in the research are often excited about the prospect of becoming long-term partners in the research and education process.  

In conclusion, if the field of marketing is to continue to have relevance for the practice of marketing, we must develop ideas, concepts, and theories whose central focus is on the study of marketing in its natural environment. Within this environment, managers, consumers, and policy makers are a wonderful source of new ideas, unconventional thinking, and “ways of working” that can fundamentally re-shape our current thinking and theories and propel our field forward. 

Read the full article

From: Valarie A. Zeithaml, Bernard J. Jaworski, Ajay K. Kohli, Kapil R. Tuli, Wolfgang Ulaga, and Gerald Zaltman, “A Theories-in-Use Approach to Building Marketing Theory,” Journal of Marketing, 84 (March).

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Valarie A. Zeithaml is David van Pelt Family Distinguished Professor of Marketing, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Bernie Jaworski is the Peter F. Drucker Chair at the Drucker School of Management. He has published extensively in the most highly regarded marketing journals and has been ranked among the most highly cited scholars in the field of marketing. He has won all three major awards from the Journal of Marketing—the Maynard, Alpha Kappa Psi, and Jagdish Sheth Award—as well as several other awards. For 10 years he was a senior partner at Monitor Group, a global management consulting firm, where he helped lead several large-scale transformations of marketing at Fortune 500 firms.

Ajay K. Kohli is Regents Professor, Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair and Professor of Marketing, Georgia Institute of Technology, USA.

Kapil R. Tuli is Lee Kong Chian Professor of Marketing, Singapore Management University, Singapore.

Wolfgang Ulaga is Senior Affiliate Professor of Marketing, INSEAD, France.

Gerald Zaltman is the Joseph C. Wilson Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the author and editor of 20 books.