Robert (Bob) Buzzell

Robert (Bob) Buzzell (1933-2004) 

Robert (Bob) Buzzell was a remarkable scholar whose contributions in many areas have been foundational.  The areas are: reform and transformation of MBA and doctoral curriculum, creation and design of Profit Impact of Marketing Strategy (PIMS) database, and leadership at Marketing Science Institute for research and academe-industry interface in marketing and strategy, mentorship of young scholars, and his own personal intellectual contribution to marketing strategy practice and thought.

Bob earned his BS in Government from George Washington University, M.S. in business from the University of Illinois in 1954 and a Ph.D. in business in 1957 from Ohio State University.  Bob made Harvard Business School his home.  A member of the HBS faculty from 1961 to 1993 and chair of the Marketing faculty from 1972 to 1977, he taught generations of MBA and doctoral students as well as thousands of Executive Education participants.

Ford and Carnegie foundations tasked a group of young business scholars to rethink, reimagine and restructure the curriculum for M.B.A., and doctoral/research studies in Business.  There were about a dozen scholars who were appointed to this taskforce and were housed in Harvard Business School.  Bob Buzzell was a prominent member of this taskforce, as was Frank M. Bass – a legend in marketing and marketing science.

Gurumurthy Kalyanaram (G.K.), a student and colleague of Frank Bass, and a doctoral alumnus of MIT notes, "Bob Buzzell's contributions to business curriculum and teaching and research, as a member of the Ford Foundation taskforce in 1959-1960 with other members such as Frank Bass, to is one for the ages.  We still follow the principles laid out then.  Bob's visionary work in composing PIMS data base has enriched the empirical work in marketing and industrial organization economics monumentally."  G.K. Kalyanaram recollects Bass talking fondly and reverentially about Bob Buzzell in many of his conversations with him.  “Bass recalled many times that Bob was so important to that taskforce in Harvard.  Bass and Bob became friends then and continued to be friends.  When Bass decided to leave Purdue in 1982, Bob tried to persuade Bass to join HBS.  Bass visited HBS and had a wonderful time, but he decided to go to Texas.”

Alvin (Al) Silk, now Lincoln Filene Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, and a very distinguished scholar who has taught in Northwestern University, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Chicago and MIT, recalls vividly Bob’s contributions to the recreation of the doctoral curriculum and its monumental impact on the field and personally himself.  “I remember vividly when I first Bob. It was in 1961, an exciting time for academics in marketing as the field was in early days of a major transformation, one spurred by the calls for reform of management education by the Carnegie and Ford Foundation studies. Bob Buzzell was invited to give a seminar to the marketing faculty and doctoral students at Northwestern on “new directions” in marketing. He distributed dittoed copies of the outline for what would become the volume, Mathematical Models and Methods in Marketing (1961), edited by Frank Bass, Buzzell, and a string of other young faculty who had spent the year at HBS in the Institute of Basic Mathematics for Application to Business. The seminar was something of a turning point in my education as I was unfamiliar with most of the papers listed on the prospectus to which Bob exposed us. Taking stock of my preparation for that material, I quickly registered for a course in linear algebra.” 

Now to the PIMS database and Marketing Science Institute.  Marketing Science Institute was established in 1961 to promote academe-industry partnership.  So that academic research may be better grounded in real-world issues, and that practitioners may be benefit from academic research and insights.  Harvard Business School (HBS) was a supporter of this effort and the institute.  And Bob led the institute as its executive director in 1970-1971.  It is during this leadership that Bob conceptualized, designed and created the PIMS database as a project of Marketing Science Institute.  Bob traces the origin of the PIMS database thus, “PIMS was initiated in 1970 as a project of the Marketing Science Institute (MSI), which had just 2 years earlier moved to Cambridge and become affiliated with the Harvard Business School.”  

PIMS grew into a rich and veritable source for research.  Bob, the founder of the database, explains in detail the design and development of PIMS database. “The approach used in PIMS was patterned after earlier work conducted within the General Electric by Sidney Schoeffler. Schoeffler analyzed the financial performance and strategic characteristics of GE’s numerous business units during the 1960s. He developed a so-called ‘‘Profit Optimizing Model’’ that was utilized by GE corporate management as a benchmarking device for divisional plans and forecasts.  PIMS built on the earlier GE research and extended it to a much wider variety of industries and companies. GE’s endorsement, together with the sponsorship of MSI and Harvard Business School, induced 57 large, US-based corporations to join the program by late 1972. Eventually, more than 500 companies participated for varying time spans, providing data and financial support for the research. By the mid-1980s participating firms included foreign corporations and smaller companies, as well as the original ‘‘Fortune 500’’ types.”

PIMS has facilitated modeling and understanding of the strategic actions of firms.  Bob summarizes the highlights of the research findings here.

Al speaks to this contribution. “Bob made numerous contributions to empirical research on the economics of marketing but is probably best known for developing the “Profit Impact of Market Strategy” (PIMS) research program at MSI. That innovative project shaped both a generation of scholarly research and managerial thought about marketing strategy. A detailed summary of findings Bob co-authored with Bradley Gale was published in 1987 under the title: The PIMS Principles, Profit Impact of Marek Strategy -Linking Strategy to Performance (Free Press).”

One of the beneficiaries of PIMS database was William (Bill) Robinson, who was in the 1980s a doctoral student in University of Michigan under the guidance of Claes Fornell.  Bill is now Associate Professor at Purdue University.  Bill was studying the research and managerial question: Is there an incumbent advantage?  He employed the PIMS database for his research and published two papers in Journal of Marketing Research.  Listen to what Bill has to say.  So clear and so poignant. Bill crystallizes two elements: the impact of PIMS database on research, and how generous-hearted Bob was in mentoring young faculty.

“As a marketing PhD student, I had taken numerous courses in economics and wanted to write an empirical dissertation that tested theoretical hypotheses on product innovation. Fortunately, the PIMS data, which Bob helped gather, helped enormously. This is because there were numerous measures of product innovation like product patent protection, product R&D spending, and order of market entry. My dissertation ended up examining order of market entry with a focus on market pioneers. This research and other follow-up empirical studies over the next ten years would not have been possible without the PIMS data, which was generously shared with many academic researchers.

As a young assistant professor at the University of Rochester, I had read Hauser and Shugan’s award winning paper on “Defensive Marketing Strategies” in Marketing Science. I wrote Bob Buzzell at HBS asking if he knew of any existing data that measured marketing mix reactions to new entrants. He quickly replied that a PIMS-type of database had been gathered that reported marketing mix reactions faced by start-up ventures. The start-up venture database was again generously shared, which played an important role in my academic research. So, I am very grateful to Bob because he helped not once, but twice in furthering my empirical research.”

Finally, Bob’s contribution to scholarship was deep and sustained.  He wrote eleven books covering various elements of marketing and marketing strategy.  Al describes here Bob’s contributions to enrichment of scholarship.  “Bob was a highly productive and influential scholar, a pioneer in what we now recognize as marketing science. He authored or co-authored a series of volumes that advanced not only the substantive content of marketing science but also the teaching of that material to students in MBA and executive education programs. A notable example of Bob’s contribution in the latter vein was his Mathematical Models and Marketing Management (1964).”

Why and how was so Bob Buzzell successful?  His critical and inquiring mind, and openness to ideas.  Robert (Bob) Dolan, now Baker Foundation Professor at HBS, recalls with appreciation.  “Buzz and I were colleagues at HBS for 13 years. I derived great benefit from being with Buzz in teaching groups and research seminars. Having to present teaching plans or research ideas to a mind like his – able to spot every shortcoming, and not at all shy about noting the same to all – brought discipline to one’s thinking. But the noting of shortcomings was always followed up later with “I have thought about this some more and here’s how that can be better” or sometimes, but less frequently at least for me, “I have thought about this some more and I think you are right.”  But always the pursuit was the same, the candid sharing of his well-considered ideas to improve your work. In other words, a great colleague.”

Gurumurthy Kalyanaram (G.K.)
Dated: October 2021