The quality of content in the ACI Scholarly Blog Index is due to the rigor of our selection process and to the incredible scholarship and credentials of scholarly bloggers publishing in their fields. Due to this selectivity in content and academic contributions, ACI is proud to highlight exceptional blog authors in order to showcase their work and inspire other authors… and today’s author spotlight is on Timothy Calkins.

Professor Calkins received his BA in History from Yale University and his MBA from Harvard University’s Harvard Business School. After several years as a marketing executive at Kraft Foods, he is now Clinical Professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. In addition to authoring the StrongBrands blog, he is also the author of Breakthrough Marketing Plans and Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defensive Strategy to Deal with Competitive Attacks.

StrongBrands:  Visit the Blog  |  View in ACI

Tim Calkins original blog

Read on for ACI’s full interview with Timothy Calkins.

You graduated from Harvard Business School in 1991. How has marketing, and/or the focus on marketing in business, changed since your grad school days?

Marketing has changed dramatically since I graduated from business school. A few years back marketers could rely on traditional advertising vehicles to reach customers: television, print and radio advertising. Now the focus is on banner ads, social media and apps. Anyone going into marketing today needs to be comfortable with the digital world.

Technology has transformed how we market products and services. We can target better than ever and deliver precise messages based on customer behavior. It is astonishing.

At the same time, the fundamentals haven’t changed. Segmentation, targeting and positioning are still important concepts. Marketers still have to dig for insights to understand customer behavior. Great advertising still has to break through the clutter and engage people. Brands still have a huge impact on customer perceptions, both positive and negative.


Before joining Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, you were a longtime marketing executive at Kraft Foods, so you’ve experienced the marketing focus in two very different environments. Have you found any surprising or major differences in how theories or ideas about marketing are approached within academia versus within a public-facing company?

I spent eleven years at Kraft Foods managing brands including Miracle Whip, Taco Bell and Parkay. Corporate life is completely different from the academic world even though it is the same field, and many of the same concepts apply. The single biggest difference is that there is intense short-term pressure in a corporate setting. Senior executives want to see strong results, right away. If your business results are poor, there is a good chance you’ll be fired. You have to do something quickly; there isn’t time for much analysis and debate. I remember a few days during my time at Kraft when I left the office happy that I had survived another day.

In an academic setting, the focus is more long-term. It is much easier to talk about what a business should do, about the optimal way to build the brand. The short-term pressure is less pressing.


You’ve written a lot about using defensive strategy in marketing, both in posts and books like Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defensive Strategy to Deal with Competitive Attacks. When attacks come through social media, is it better to repeat the good or refute the bad (options we also see in political campaigns)?

Today it is almost always best to respond to attacks. In the digital world, comments can persist for a long time. Small issues can quickly become major problems. Ignoring a negative review or comment is rarely the ideal response.

It is important to respond and to do so quickly. If a customer isn’t happy, you want to know about it and try to fix the situation as quickly as you can. This can turn a negative situation into a positive.


In your video Defending Your Brand: 6 Companies That Failed To Defend, you highlight cases where established industry leaders – like Motorola and Blackberry – underestimated the threat of new competitors and suffered the consequences. Say you were in the boardroom of such a company “before the fall”: what line(s) of thinking would you most want to instill in those present?

People tend to focus on the upside. How much will we grow? How fast can we increase profits? This line of thinking has to be balanced with consideration of the downside. What could we lose? How much might profits fall if things go poorly? If you just think about the upside you will not respond to competitive threats.

I recently worked with a business team that was facing a competitive threat. The team wanted to increase spending by $10 million to address the competitor, but senior management opposed the idea. So I had the team calculate the potential downside. How much might profits fall if the competitor was successful? Using reasonable assumptions, we calculated that there was a $5 billion profit risk. The downside was enormous. The team explained this analysis to senior management and quickly received the additional funding.

Dismissing competitive threats is tempting, especially for successful organizations. This can become a major problem.


The Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review, which you created in 2005, has generated more than five billion media impressions since its inception. What led to the program’s success?

Each year, my colleague Derek Rucker and I pull together a student panel to evaluate all the Super Bowl ads. The panel uses a framework to consider which of the ads would be most effective at building the business and building the brand. We then release these results shortly after the game.

The event has generated quite a bit of media coverage. One reason is that journalists need to write articles about Super Bowl advertising, and need credible, unbiased sources. We are a good option for them because we are readily available, experienced and independent.


It looks like you began your StrongBrands blog back in 2009. What are the biggest, or perhaps most unexpected, benefits of blogging?

I started my blog for my students. I teach the Marketing Strategy course at Kellogg, and I found I often ran out of time in class when talking about current events. The blog was a way to continue the discussion after class.

Since then the blog’s audience has grown. I like the fact that it pushes me to write on a regular schedule and look for interesting issues in the marketing world.


Do you have any advice for those business or marketing students – or early-career entrepreneurs – who are thinking about starting a blog?

Three pieces of advice. First, be clear on your objective. Maintaining a blog takes time. If it doesn’t provide a benefit for you, it will fade away.

Second, stick with it. Blogs grow over time. At the start, a blog will probably have limited reach and impact. It is over time that its impact and audience will grow.

Third, work with an editor. Last year I started having someone review all of my posts. This improved the quality and significantly reduced the number of typos. A blog with many mistakes won’t enhance your brand.

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