Collaboration with academics creates competitive advantage for marketing researcher practitioners and brands 

Editor’s note: Chelsea C. Hammond is clinical associate professor of marketing and program director of the online graduate certificate in marketing analytics at the Smeal College of Business at The Pennsylvania State University. 

It’s no secret that the landscape of marketing, and business practices in general, has been rapidly changing over the past decade. Among other things, marketers have been tasked with leveraging more sophisticated research science and data analytics, while also being challenged to better understand key areas such as customer segments, brand landscapes and competitive differentiators. Market research suppliers and consultants are being asked to provide deeper and more discerning insights. Yet many struggle to meet these expectations. One solution that’s often overlooked is collaboration with academics. 

Historically, there’s been a divide between business-field “academics” and their “industry” counterparts. In other fields, particularly those in the STEM areas, academic-industry collaboration is much more prevalent, some may argue, even necessary. Yet rarely do we find such relationships between those in marketing, branding, customer experience and other aspects of business. Why? 

I’ve spent substantial amounts of time on both sides of the fence, having careers as a practitioner and an academic. One of the main reasons I’ve run across for the lack of these partnerships is a misunderstanding of the value each side provides. Those in industry often lament that their faculty counterparts don’t fully understand the real-world applications of the subjects they teach about. While I won’t deny this may be the case in some circumstances, many faculty have strong practical experience in the subjects they teach. Likewise, faculty who lack industry experience still have valuable subject-matter expertise and are conducting research that provides illuminating new insights about things their industry counterparts are seeking fresh perspectives about. 

3 benefits of academic-industry collaboration within marketing research

Industry collaboration with academics can bring immense value to a brand or organization. Here are a few of the benefits of working with faculty:

1. Research expertise supports rigor and credibility. Most faculty have Ph.D. degrees; the Ph.D. is essentially a masterclass in research methodology, educating students about how to conduct research science in their chosen field of interest. As such, most faculty have strong skills in research methodology and analytics. Likewise, most faculty are required to engage in a variety of ongoing research throughout the life of their careers, so they are often knowledgeable about the latest research techniques. 

Organizations seeking to validate their research can use faculty to audit their processes and practices. In addition, firms designing productized assessments and proprietary analytics will benefit from faculty expertise in measurement design and applied statistics, grounding new analytic products in rigor and credibility. 

2. Deep subject matter knowledge leads to new perspectivesPerhaps the most obvious reason for collaborating with faculty is to leverage their deep understanding of the subjects they research. Brands are always looking for ways to better understand their markets and customers yet are often limited to more traditional views, relying on narrow perspectives that have rarely been drilled into with much complexity. In contrast, faculty spend their entire careers delving deep into their chosen subjects, fleshing out topics with detail that’s highly useful to those in industry. Yet many business leaders shy away from connecting with faculty because of “ivory tower syndrome” or the perceived inability of faculty to translate their subject matter expertise in ways that are meaningful for businesses. Certainly, there are faculty whose backgrounds are more suited to the academic realm; however, many are easily able to shift their academic knowledge to perspectives that will resonate with, and be useful to, their industry counterparts.

3. Fresh viewpoints to drive innovation. It goes without saying that most organizations rely on innovation to stay competitive. Yet many (or likely most!) will tell you innovating is tough work. One significant factor inhibiting innovation is the dreaded stale perspective. Many practitioners struggle, for a variety of reasons, with thinking outside the box. Faculty consultants can provide new, unique, thought-provoking, and conversation-starting perspectives that may ultimately lead to the spark that starts the fire of successful new ventures. 

Faculty are the perfect additions to ideation and strategy sessions because they’re experienced with identifying and promoting new ideas – they’re constantly challenged to foray into unknown and untested waters to identify new and unique ways of looking at the world that will enhance the body of knowledge about their chosen fields. 

3 tips for successful academic-industry collaboration within marketing research

Perhaps I’ve piqued your interest in reaching across the divide to collaborate with your academic counterparts. If so, here’s a few suggestions to ensure success: 

1. Seek out the right background. As you would with any candidate, seek to match faculty subject matter expertise to the business needs. Most universities have faculty bios on their webpages; together with LinkedIn profiles, it’s fairly easy to identify candidates that may be the right fit. Peruse some of their publications to get an idea of the specific types of things they study and their industry experience. Beyond that, professional associations and LinkedIn groups are additional resources for finding appropriate connections. 

2. Previous industry experience is a plus, but not necessaryAs with any profession, experience leads to expertise. Faculty with a history of working successfully with industry are likely to be more familiar with the processes and needs of organizations. But lack of industry experience doesn’t necessarily mean the candidate won’t be a good fit. Look for background alignment first, then test the waters for fit with a conversation. 

3. Evaluate for the ability to interface. One of the most common complaints I hear from both sides is about the inability to speak the same language. It’s true, academics and practitioners inhabit different worlds, each with their own sets of jargon, cultural norms, and definitions of success. The key to effective collaboration lies with strong communication. When vetting candidates, pay attention to communication styles – in particular, whether the candidate has a sensitivity to adapting their academic expertise to be useful for businesses. Likewise, seek candidates who can create connections by using inclusive language. Faculty who are successful industry collaborators will be those who can effectively connect with their industry counterparts, building common ground. 

Marketing researchers can use collaboration to gain perspective

Academic-industry collaboration is a win for both parties. Market researchers and brands can benefit from the deep expertise and new perspectives faculty bring, while faculty gain valuable industry experience that will benefit their research and students. Thus, a strong competitive advantage can be had by both sides – and that’s something worth spanning the divide for.