How a 55-year friendship and intellectual partnership made marketing larger than life
Sidney Levy had become fascinated with marketing. A trained behavioral scientist, he suspected that branding went beyond soap, steel and candy bars. He’d been researching the social aspects of marketing since the 1940s and saw the field’s vast potential. In 1961, he began teaching marketing classes at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Levy’s first year at Kellogg was an exciting time for marketing, with a booming economy, booming consumerism and a baby boom in the years after WWII. The recently invented color TV was brought into living rooms across America, carrying with it hours of previously nonexistent ad space. A large audience was not only reachable but willing to be reached; marketing and advertising became more important than ever for big business. From 1950 to 1960, annual advertising expenditures in the U.S. quadrupled from $1.3 billion to $6 billion, according to The Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising.
It was also an exciting time for the Kellogg school, which was transitioning from a traditional faculty and marketing program to a school that included scholars from outside the field. One such scholar was an economist named Philip Kotler.
In 1962, Kotler was recruited to Kellogg and told by the school that he could choose to teach either economics or marketing. After a visit with Levy and other members of the faculty, Kotler says his choice was clear: “I chose marketing.”
“That was one of the attractive things in meeting the faculty and deciding whether to join Northwestern: meeting Sid Levy,” Kotler says. “Sid and I hit it off early. He’s a very charming and interesting man; an original mind, fresh insights into things.”
Kotler, like Levy, did not have a marketing degree. He had studied economics under Nobel laureates such as Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow. While Kotler didn’t have a marketing background, he—like Levy—did have a unique viewpoint and a desire to refine and expand the field.
Fifty-five years after joining Kellogg, Kotler is affectionately known by marketers as the “father of modern marketing.” Over those five and a half decades, Kotler, Levy and other faculty members at Kellogg studied, explained and thought about marketing in ways no one had before. “We actually wanted to hire people who were not trained in marketing,” Kotler says. “Not that it was a prejudice. It was that we would go further if we had different social sciences in our group.”
“Both Kotler and Levy had a profound influence on marketing as we know it today. Levy did pioneering things in the domain of branding, culture and the realm of the symbolic. Kotler must be credited for having established marketing as an MBA and boardroom institution. It could be argued that Kotler is marketing’s best marketer.”
– Markus Giesler
That diversification of ideas spread throughout academia and, soon after, the marketing business world. Levy, who ran Kellogg’s doctoral program for 16 years, says the influence of Kellogg’s golden era stretched far and wide: His first three student graduates became the heads of marketing departments at the Sloan School of Management (Alvin Silk); the Haas School of Business (John Myers) and the Wharton School (Tom Robertson). Kotler’s textbooks are used in universities across the world. More than 3 million copies have been sold, and they’ve been translated into 20 languages.
In 2017, the AMA turned 80, Kotler turned 86 and Levy turned 96. Though Kotler and Levy have not formally worked together in two decades, their impact on the marketing industry reverberates, and their bond as lifelong friends holds strong.
Changing Marketing, Changing Society
In the age of post-WWII explosive spending, marketing was a narrow field that focused on practice sans theory. Businesses spent money but didn’t know what kind of ROI they were getting on campaigns or what went on in the mind of the customer, nor could they properly segment customer bases.
But for each of these issues, it seemed Kotler and Levy had an answer—or at least a series of edifying questions to ask. The duo brought unique concepts and ways of thinking to marketing, just as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky brought to behavioral economics. Take, for example, Kotler’s assertion that marketing is a branch of economics, a thought that likely drew some cross looks in the 1950s. Now, Kotler’s assertion is accepted and practiced by academics and executives. “The field of economics is becoming very rich because of what marketers have been studying for 100 years,” Kotler says.
In his early years at Kellogg, Kotler spent a lot of time reading extant marketing textbooks. They were disappointing. Most books described what a salesman, wholesaler or advertiser would do in a given situation, but none were based on data. None had analytical models. The books were anecdotal, dry and not well-researched.
“The whole idea of being analytical and trying to get explanations of a phenomenon rather than just describing things descriptively was in my mindset,” Kotler says. “I immediately said that we needed a textbook in marketing which was based on four foundations: economics, organizational theory, consumer behavior theory and mathematics.” His book Marketing Management [Analysis, Planning, and Control] was a big risk, he says, because all the work could have collapsed if professors didn’t respond well.
Left: an archival issue of Marketing News featuring Kotler.
Kotler was pleasantly surprised as professors not only responded well to his 1967 textbook, but many lauded it as the best book on marketing they had read. It was adopted in classrooms across the U.S., then the world. Fifty years later, the book remains in print and is in its 15th edition.
Levy was doing his own intellectual heavy lifting. His landmark 1959 paper titled “Symbols for Sale” was the first to say that marketing goes beyond simply selling practical merchandise—it also sells symbols. Anyone with a pair of Nike sneakers or a Gucci bag likely knows this now, but at the time Levy’s concept was novel. Ever the social scientist, Levy argued that marketers needed to consider the personal and social meanings behind what people buy, the diversity of spending and “the recognition of modern goods as essentially psychological things which are symbolic of personal attributes and psychological goals,” as the paper says.
“This seems obvious if we grant the importance of symbols—but not all businessmen do, of course, and that has accounted for many failures in sales,” Levy wrote. “Greater attention to consumers’ modes of thought will give marketing management and research increased vitality, and, in turn, add to its own practical and symbolic merits.”
In addition to advancing the idea of brand symbols and brand image, Levy is credited by many with coining the term “brand.” Kotler says Levy first used the word at a conference where David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy and Mather, “picked up” the word from him. “So Sid didn’t get credit for inventing that,” Kotler says. “But many people have picked up ideas from Sid and used them as their own.” No matter, as Levy’s groundbreaking work on branding is in print for all to see.
While each man did important solo work, perhaps their most formidable breakthroughs came in tandem. In 1969, Levy and Kotler co-authored a paper in the AMA’s Journal of Marketing titled “Broadening the Concept of Marketing.” Levy and Kotler laid out the idea that marketing was about more than goods and services, it was about places, people and ideas. Instead of simply focusing on soap, toothbrushes and televisions, they wanted to expand marketing to cover cities, ideas and policies, too.
In 1969, the article was presented at the AMA’s Summer Educators’ Conference. “I regarded it as an assertion of the universal application of marketing activities to all individuals and organizations,” Levy says. “I had already done marketing research work since 1946 for numerous kinds of individuals and organizations—[such as] politicians, entertainers, hospitals—the article was a natural extension of the idea of marketing.”
“Quite independently of one another, Phil and Sid had as big an impact on marketing thought as anyone else I know. Through their joint work on broadening the concept of marketing, they further shaped how we even conceive of the field in the first place. … The atmospherewas special and made more special by the ways in which everyone stimulated the department’s intellectual goals.”
– Gerald Zaltmane
When this paper was published, Kotler and Levy polled of some of the top academic economists on whether they were in favor of broadening the concept of marketing or if they wanted it to remain defined as the sale of goods and services. “Marketing will either take on a broader social meaning or remain a narrowly defined business activity,” they wrote in the paper. The response to the poll was overwhelmingly positive and a broader definition of marketing was born.
What Kotler considers to be his and Levy’s biggest idea was that of “demarketing.” The 1971 paper, titled “Demarketing, Yes, Demarketing,” explained that there are some products that are either not good for people or are in short supply. These products need to be rationed, they wrote.
“So everything that’s opposite of building up the demand is to take down a demand,” Kotler says. “Demarketing is the science of reducing the demand for something, such as the demand for arrests or for using water very carelessly when there’s a shortage.”
In another 1971 paper—this one by Kotler and Gerald Zaltman, a fellow Kellogg staff member who is now the Joseph C. Wilson Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School—titled “Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change,” the phrase “social marketing”—now also known by many as cause marketing—was born. The paper showed how marketing analysis, planning and control could help solve societal problems such as safe driving and family planning.
There’s no measurement of how far any of Levy or Kotler’s ideas have spread through marketing, but their pervasiveness is undeniable.
“It Was Not Just Two Professors.”
Ideas from Kotler and Levy laid the groundwork for modern marketing, but the ideas also helped build the foundation for a 55-year friendship. “We had a family relationship, too,” Kotler says. “It was not just two professors.”
True to themselves, the friendship was far bigger than marketing. When they first met, Levy and Kotler quickly discovered that their parents had owned retail businesses not far from each other in Chicago. Outside of campus, they spent time together with their families. Levy’s daughter babysat for Kotler’s young children. Kotler fondly remembers he and his wife, Nancy, sitting in Levy’s living room, pulling up a seat to a big table and finding out what Levy’s two children had learned that day.
From left to right: Kotler, Levy and Nancy Kotler in Levy’s living room.
At work, Kotler and Levy would go to lunch and talk about anything—music, art, forms of government, health care. These big conversations were often not about marketing, but Kotler says they helped jar loose some of his and Levy’s biggest ideas. Levy was—like Kotler—also a “cosmopolitan type,” unafraid to broach any subject.
“Sid and I may have talked a lot about Karl Marx in the sense of there was a proletariat, there are poor people and there are people who are super rich,” he says, touching on a controversial topic in the years after McCarthyism and the Red Scare. “We wondered, ‘What is a good society?’ We would talk about questions like that. ‘What makes for happiness in life?’ and so on and so forth. We were just free-thinker types.”
Often, their conversations would lead to action. Kotler recalls a lunch where he and Levy got out their pens and paper and worked out what an American single-payer health care system might look like. They weren’t satisfied with improving marketing: Levy and Kotler wanted to answer life’s biggest questions.
In 1991, Levy retired from Kellogg. He remained an active member of the faculty until 1997, but then he and his wife moved to Arizona where the weather is a bit warmer than the snowy, windy conditions that tend to denude the trees on Lake Michigan’s shores. Ever the workman, Levy’s “retirement” turned into his chairmanship of the University of Arizona’s marketing department at the Eller College of Management. Now, at 96, he continues to live on Arizona’s campus and works as the Coca-Cola Distinguished Professor of Marketing.
Kotler, who still teaches at Kellogg but is mulling retirement in 2018, laughs when mentioning Levy’s attempt at retirement. “You think he’s retired, but he went from Northwestern to that other place,” Kotler says with an air of disbelief. Perhaps he just wanted to go somewhere warmer where his wife could have a garden full of plants, Kotler says. But listening to Kotler’s voice, one can sense his belief that he and Levy could have had more conversations, answered more big questions and made marketing even broader if Levy had stayed.
Dealing with Disagreement
While the two men now see each other less often, Levy returns to Kellogg every two years—most recently in May 2017—to visit Kotler and Kellogg’s marketing students. During a 2015 visit on his 94th birthday, Levy gave a talk titled “A Theory of the Brand.” Levy discussed his belief that branding is the central concept of marketing. Unsurprisingly, a conversation broke out. Kotler stood up and disagreed with Levy, expressing his belief that marketing itself is the central concept and branding is only a piece of the puzzle.
This type of disagreement has not happened often between the two—especially publicly—as their bond prevents odious comments from escaping the mouth of either. Kotler says he would never disparage Levy, but they disagreed from time to time. However, their friendship was not one that depended on agreement. They could push each other without taking it personally.
“Their classic paper, ‘Broadening the Concept of Marketing,’ has led marketing departments at business schools to seek faculty with training in basic disciplines such as economics and psychology. This has had an enormous impact on marketing practice, helping it to move up the corporate ladder and now reside in the C-suite.”
– Alice Tybout
“We may disagree but it was with the best of intentions,” Kotler says, reflecting back on the 2015 meeting. “If I remember, we had the faculty listening to Sid talk and present a view and something in me said, ‘I would think differently about that.’ That was not to be cited as a typical thing between us. Most of the time we just enjoyed each other’s viewpoints.”
Levy recalls the humor of the event: “Actually, the one time we met at Kellogg a couple of years ago and he said he disagreed with me about what I had said about the priority of grand branding, I just said, ‘Philip, I am not going to disagree with you publicly,’ and that ended the session, with laughter from the audience,” Levy says. “I just meant I didn’t want to embarrass him by explaining why he was wrong.
“But we are good friends,” Levy continues. “Intellectual shades of difference don’t affect that. I have always loved and admired Philip and Nancy.”
Pushing the Boundaries of Marketing
From the time Levy and Kotler first shook hands 55 years ago to present day, marketing has expanded larger than anyone—Levy and Kotler aside—ever imagined. Levy and Kotler’s admiration for and conversation with each other played a big role in pushing them and the industry forward. Each wanted marketing to become bigger, but also moral and ethical at its core.
“Sid and I were always concerned about making marketing a good field, a field that people could be proud of,” Kotler says. “If I said, ‘I’m a marketer,’ people might say, ‘You’re trying to sell me something.’ And they always have stories of bad companies and bad selling. We wanted to make it a field that actually should enrich lives. The best definition we used to use was marketing’s aim is to raise the standard of living of a whole community, to give people higher aspirations and higher capabilities.”
This aim strikes at the heart of why Levy and Kotler wanted to expand marketing: It needed to become larger to be used for a greater purpose. While marketers should keep the best of the old tactics, Kotler says marketing is a field where professionals must always evolve and grow, just as he and Levy did. If a CEO came up to Kotler and asked him to sign the 1967 version of Marketing Management, adding that he still uses it in business today, Kotler says he’d look the CEO in the eye and tell him “you’re doomed to fail.” There’s always a new idea, always fresh knowledge, always something to expand upon.
Levy agrees, saying there’s still room to grow in a field pregnant with potential: “Despite all that has happened since WWII, which is tremendous, there is still a long way to go for people to learn about marketing and how to engage in it for greater benefit.”
Kotler and Levy were always forward thinkers looking for that greater benefit. During Kellogg’s golden era, Kotler says it was especially helpful to have each other.
“I like that island of social scientists,” Kotler says, counting off a list of professors at Kellogg and their differing specialties—anthropology, economics, social science—all with a focus on pushing the boundaries on marketing. “We even began to forget we were anything else. I didn’t do that much economics initially in the classical theory point of view; I was a social scientist. By the way, I went back to the University of Chicago for an extra year to bone up on more social science, so Sid was a major influence on my thinking.”
Levy says the atmosphere at Kellogg during his days of tenure were “remarkably familial.”
“We did not suffer the emotional divisions that some schools have among their partisan thinkers,” he says. “Our quantitative, qualitative and managerial groups were amiable, congenial and discussed in outspoken but friendly ways. We had a picnic at the lakefront every spring and a party at the Levy house every fall. Together, we built the eminence of Kellogg School’s Department of Marketing.”
When Kotler speaks about the golden era of Kellogg and his work with Levy in expanding the definition of marketing, he becomes reflective and pauses.
“You know, let me give you a little insight that I just realized myself: Maybe what we felt was marketing was too narrow for us. Our interests were so broad, we had to broaden it,” he says with a laugh. “In other words, ironically we did this for our own sake. We wanted to be thinking about bigger issues and the field was narrow. Broadening was our answer.”
Kotler and Levy smile upon their days of broadening marketing, even now across the broad expanse between them. “If I’m not too late for your meeting with Philip, please give him my regards,” Levy says from Arizona. Kotler laughs when he hears from his friend and partner, 1,700 miles away. “Sid’s a great guy and I’m looking forward to seeing him when he comes.”