Bark with bite

His manner could be blunt, but Theodore Levitt’s intellect was both sharp and inspirational

Academics succeed if their names are linked to one important idea that outlives them. Professor Theodore Levitt’s name is linked to many. The first was a blockbuster. “Marketing myopia” was published by Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 1960, one year after Harvard Business School plucked Prof Levitt, the son of a German immigrant cobbler, from the University of North Dakota.

The article famously asked: “What business are you in?” It critiqued railroads for “letting their customers get away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than the transportation business”. They were product-orientated rather than market-orientated.

Over the next 40 years, Prof Levitt’s articles dominated HBR, alongside those of Peter Drucker and, later, Michael Porter. His sweeping generalisations were rendered tolerable by the elegance of his prose. He opined brilliantly on the perils of corporate social responsibility, the need to differentiate everything, and the importance of tangible evidence to reassure customers choosing among suppliers of intangible services (the impressive bank building, the authoritative logo). All 25 HBR articles went through at least five rewrites. As he said: “Why should you make customers go through the torture chamber? I want them to say ‘Aha!’”

I spent perhaps no more than eight hours in the company of Prof Levitt, but he had a profound impact on my career.

Arriving at Harvard as a doctoral student in the mid-1970s, I had heard Prof Levitt was one of the big men on campus. Walking to my first class, I noticed behind me a sprightly man with bushy eyebrows whom I assumed correctly to be the professor. I held the classroom door to let him through. As he passed, he barked: “You’re late!”

I gave him a wide berth until it was time for feedback on my thesis proposal after three months of hard labour. The meeting lasted five minutes, barely long enough for Prof Levitt, whose mentoring style was more tough love than hand-holding, to dismiss me with: “Throw this out, start again and come back in a week with something important!” Fortunately, I did.

Prof Levitt’s advice was always to work on important problems that are important to important people in important companies. It spurred me to get out into the field, talk to business people, write case studies and understand the messy complexity of the world, rather than work behind my desk on mathematical models based on unrealistic assumptions.

After graduating, I took a job at the University of Western Ontario. The famous blizzard of 1978 dumped 37 inches of snow outside my apartment; it was time to leave.

I wrote to Prof Levitt, by then head of Harvard’s marketing department. A terse one-sentence reply mailed weeks later announced there were no openings. Ten days later, the phone rang – an unexpected resignation. The professor needed me at Harvard in two months to teach the required MBA marketing course.

In 1983, HBR published Prof Levitt’s “Globalization of markets”. It rocked the marketing world by claiming: “Gone are the accustomed differences in national and regional preferences” as consumers everywhere pursued the single objective of “world-class modernity at affordable prices”. Believing the thesis to be exaggerated (which, as a consummate provocateur, Prof Levitt freely admitted), I worked long and hard on an HBR rebuttal, “Customizing global marketing”, which demonstrated how successful multinationals such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé combined standardisation of marketing strategy with local adaptation of marketing tactics. As a non-tenured professor, I was nervous about taking on the big beast. Prof Levitt loved it.

A few months later, and just ahead of my promotion review, Prof Levitt called my office to announce he would be sitting in on my next class. The case study involved a discussion of a marketing ethics question: should The Boston Globe newspaper accept advertising for South African Krugerrand coins? The discussion was spirited and the students thankfully well prepared. At the subsequent debrief, Prof Levitt asked me how I rated the class. “Well,” I stumbled, “it wasn’t bad but I could have done a few things differently ...” He cut me off. “Quelch, it was a terrific class, no more need be said.” Prof Levitt gave praise sparingly but, when he gave it, he gave it unreservedly.

Professor John Quelch is dean of Ceibs in Shanghai. His latest book is ‘All Business Is Local’. Previously, he was senior associate dean at Harvard Business School and dean of London Business School

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