Fall 2015 Conversations Master Class Im No Dr Love Main Image
Illustration by Brett Ryder

I'm No Dr. Love

Professor Sanjay K. Dhar provides students with a tool kit for dissecting business problems—a critical "full engagement" exercise.

The Class: Marketing Strategy

From the Professor

Sanjay K. Dhar is the James H. Lorie Professor of Marketing.The Curriculum
Marketing is often perceived as being about slick advertising campaigns. To me, marketing is about running a business, a profile and loss account. I start the course by asking students, “If you are running a company and your market share drops, what will you do to fix it?” Students give all kinds of answers to my introductory market share question—they’ll cut prices, innovate, run a sales promotion. I wait until someone says, “We need to figure out what happened.” Unless you get at the underlying cause, you can’t find the solution.

I teach from the perspective of presenting the strategic aspects of decision making that are intrinsically linked with marketing. This includes setting an objective for a brand, understanding where customer opportunities lie, and positioning yourself to give your target a reason to buy your product. I call that “the right to win.”

The Framework
I give my students a robust tool kit that enables them to look at any business problem and dissect it. I want my students to be the ones people turn to in meetings because they have something of value to offer. If you understand the fundamentals, you’re never stumped when you face a situation you haven’t seen before. I refer to it as the 3Cs framework: customer, company, and competition.

The Approach 

My style might not be appropriate for everyone. I don’t play Dr. Love. Students need constructive and critical feedback. Some ideas are not as good as others, and I tell people that. I use the Socratic method. It’s full engagement. It’s stressful for students—they have to be on their toes, prepared. Every time we attain a goal, I push the difficulty level higher.

The Case Study
One of the case studies I like the most is Barco Projection Systems, a high-end projector company based in Belgium. Barco had a niche market for graphic projectors used by companies. It would create new markets and its big competitor, Sony, would come in with lower-priced products once the markets were mature. In the late 1980s, Barco came up with an innovation that made its product more user friendly but didn’t create a new market. Sony was in a unique position because it was a competitor and also a supplier of tubes to Barco, which provided additional insight. So Sony decided to disrupt the market with a better graphic projector at a cheaper price. The Sony 1270 projector threatened to put Barco out of business. I ask the class: “Who’s the victim here?” The students invariably say it’s Barco. I say it’s Sony. To know why, you need to take my class.

Unless you get at the underlying cause of why market share dropped, you can't find the solution.

Sanjay K. Dhar

The Simulation
I do an online simulation where student groups run a rental car company in three Florida markets: Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Orlando is a big market with a mix of tourists and businesses. Miami is more of a business town, and Tampa is small. The students have to manage their fleet size, costs, and pricing. They’re playing against a competitor who’s also, of course, trying to make money. They use actual data and they get feedback in real time. I let them play it in one market as a practice round first. Then they have an hour and a half in class to try it for real. The added constraint they have is time. They can’t possibly perfect the strategy in all three markets. Some of them get so into it, they keep on playing even during exam week. That’s not a good use of their time.

The Essential Reading
I give students the Sun Tzu classic—The Art of War. If you want to execute what I teach, you need to read this book. You’re  in a competitive marketplace, but you don’t want to take competitors head on. I like the Chinese philosophy “accommodate or ignore,” and then you only compete when you have no other choice. That’s the Eastern approach to competition, and I think it’s a beautiful philosophy.

—As told to Susan Chandler

From the Students

Aman Mohan: Before I took Professor Dhar’s class, I had worked in 10 different countries as an engineer in oil field services. My background was in operations, so marketing was new to me. Now I know how to build my own campaign, both tactically and strategically. I was able to put Dhar’s framework into practice when a friend who owns a timber-processing company in India asked for my help optimizing his operations. We began with the fundamental question: What is the unique value our company and its products provide to our customers and how can we maintain our competitive advantage? We decided that instead of buying machinery, we would work on training our skilled operations workforce and hire an additional sales associate.

Stephanie Miller: Before Booth, I was a management consultant with Chicago-based Oliver Wyman, focusing on retail and consumer goods. I may go back into consulting or I may go into an internal strategy role at a company, but whatever I do next the class will be helpful because it gave me a framework for identifying, categorizing, and solving problems.

Professor Dhar teaches you how to think. Instead of giving you specific information that might expire over time, he gives you a tool kit you can draw on in a lot of situations. I love the way he slowly built that up, and the Barco case made a big impression. Over the course of the class he took the training wheels off the bike, and pretty soon you were riding by yourself.