Xavier Dreze

Xavier Dreze (1964 - 2012)

Xavier Drèze was an excellent marketing scholar who bridged the quantitative and behavioral fields in marketing. His contributions are as eclectic as they are deep. 

Xavier not only contributed in substantial measure to the scholarship in marketing, but he also enriched the lives of family, friends, and colleagues in full measure.  Jean Drèze, the brother of Xavier (Jean is a celebrated development economist with a focus on South Asia -- and more specifically on India -- and a co-author with many Nobelists including Amartya Sen), recently shared with me a beautiful composition on Xavier – produced by Xavier’s colleagues and friends and presented to Xavier in January 2012 as it became clear that his transit to that undiscovered world was matter of months.  That poignant composition is a testimony to Xavier’s compassion, curiosity, passion and big-heartedness. Xavier’s wife Aya recently shared with me precious biographical notes and pictures of Xavier.

Who was Xavier?  The January 2012 composition had this to say: “Scholar, teacher, sailor, diver, magician, friend, and more…. Xavier Drèze is a man of exceptional talent with a heart of gold. He fights cancer with indomitable courage (even his sense of humor is intact).”

Xavier earned his BS from Université Catholique de Louvain, and his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago.  Xavier taught at various universities, Wharton, INSEAD, the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and Louvain.  At the time of his death, Xavier was a Marketing Professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Xavier was a man of many intellectual interests.  His erstwhile colleagues at UCLA in their collective tribute observed, “Xavier was one of the few who actively contributed to the literatures in consumer behavior and marketing science.  He was a passionate reader of science fiction, art, watch and pen collector, pool and ping pong player, sailor, diver, car racer, magician and bridge player.” So, it was not surprising that his colleagues at UCLA appointed him as co-chair of UCLA’s center for research in the management of enterprise in media, entertainment, and sports (MEMES).

Stephen (Steve) Hoch, doctoral adviser of Xavier at University of Chicago and now Laura and John J. Pomerantz Professor Emeritus of Marketing at University of Pennsylvania elegantly summarizes Xavier’s approach to discovery and research. “Xavier was an engineer at heart, interested in better understanding business problems. He was not doctrinaire and willing to use whatever tools worked best for the problem at hand. His vita signals eclectic and playful tastes.” 

Two other elements enhanced Xavier’s instinct for exploration.  One, Xavier’s ability to persevere in order to advance new ideas – discovering the truth in a steady but relentless pursuit. Two, Xavier’s ability to synthesize the empirical with the theoretical; and data with concepts. Listen to what Marc (Marc) Vanhuele, Professor of Marketing at HEC, Paris and Gilles Laurent, now Research Fellow at ESSEC Business School and formerly a colleague of Marc have to say on these elements.

Marc: “Coupons were used a lot less in France than in the US and retailers competed heavily on price, based on the assumption that consumer often switched stores to benefit from deals. This supposes consumers know prices. We put this assumption into question which eventually became a Journal of Marketing paper. We together presented the results to practitioners at a dedicated event and received the reply that even if most consumers did not know and compare prices of individual products, they did know what their weekly shopping basket cost at other stores. Examining this assertion led us to analyze all the shopping trips of 10,000 panel households over a complete year. We developed a segmentation of the client base of all retailers which we together with our data provider turned into a consulting service. The corresponding academic paper was unfortunately rejected. In the meantime, we had kept working on price knowledge, to understand how it is acquired from a cognitive perspective. This work was published in Journal of Consumer Research.”

Gilles: “What always struck me about Xavier was his interest and ability to combine his outstanding talent to handle large data sets with conceptual or qualitative knowledge he would seek from other sources. I have two examples in mind. On consumers’ memorization of prices (a joint article with Marc Vanhuele and myself), the conceptual framework relied on results from cognitive psychology on the different forms of short-term memory, and their limitations. This body of knowledge was very distant from Xavier’s doctoral training. On luxury (in the paper with Young Jee Han and Joe Nunes), I remember having organized a dinner in Paris so that Xavier and Joe could discuss with a highly-experienced senior manager of luxury companies about different outcomes and insights from their project.”

How impactful was Xavier’s thinking on practice?  Very much.  How did practice impact Xavier’s research? In a robust manner.  Here is Joseph (Joe) Nunes, Joseph A. DeBell Endowed Professor in Business Administration, and Professor of Marketing at University of Southern California, on these questions. “Xavier and I did some consulting for companies, including a number of airlines, with regard to loyalty programs, one of our joint areas of interest and fields of research. What we did impacted what they did. For example, our position was to always reward consumers based on profitability, not usage (such as flight frequency or distance). This led to many airlines changing the structure of their frequent flier programs – often changing the status of different members, including ourselves (low-fare, high mileage fliers). We spent countless hours talking about what perks mattered for consumers and why, often based on our own experiences.

It was while we were studying loyalty programs and thinking about our own program status (Xavier with American Airlines, myself with United), that we got interested in luxury goods and branding. He was an aficionado of some of the finer things in life, such as watches, pens and chocolates. He introduced me to Mary’s chocolates (the grande dame of Belgian chocolate), while we went to visit his family one year. But one thing he was especially particular about was water. He claimed he could distinguish among the different brands in blind taste tests (and he could), with his preferred choice being Badoit, which had to be served at room temperature.”

Sanjay Sood, Professor at UCLA, and a friend and colleagues of Xavier, summarizes Xavier’s research contributions elegantly thus. “His intellectual curiosity led him to work on an eclectic mix of projects over the course of his career.  Xavier was driven by the desire to have an impact on business practice.  He had the ability to combine substantive quantitative models with applied psychological models. Working on research with Xavier was always an adventure. Not only did he take the research into innovative directions but he had an uncanny way of making his co-authors better.  Few scholars have the skill set to examine such a broad set of problems—ranging from optimizing retailer shelf space, online advertising, movie sequels and luxury brands—to name just a few topics that Xavier addressed over his career.”

How was Xavier as a teacher?  Listen to Andrew Ainslie, Xavier’s colleague at UCLA and now Benjamin Forman Professor in Marketing at University of Rochester, “I co-taught with him several times, which was always humbling - the students loved him.”  Listen to Aya’s narration of this incident, at the same time both inspiring and gut-wrenching: “In April of 2011, Xavier underwent a 9-hour operation that required a surgical incision from the sternum to the umbilicus. He was determined to discharge from the hospital in exactly 8 days, because he had a class to teach, and he did - in the process winning a bet with one of the oncology nurses who was incredulous. He did teach the next day (in a wheelchair) a grueling 2-session class, each lasting over 3 hours, which is difficult enough for an able-bodied person. I sat in the lecture hall anxiously, a bottle of Percoset in one hand and a bottle of Vicodin in the other, silently staring daggers at his lively students who kept asking questions. After the class, as I rushed over to very pale Xavier to give him pain medicine (which he refused before the class for fear it might affect his teaching), I noticed a small group of students politely waiting. Just as I was going to beg them to let Xavier rest, one of them thanked him for teaching the class in his condition, and then the group just stood and watched us as I pushed Xavier in the wheelchair up the ramp out of the lecture hall.” Sanjay recalls, Xavier was a dedicated teacher.  Xavier could make quantitative material come to life by showing students how his academic research informed the decision-making process for chief marketing officers.  For example, on one occasion we were both teaching separate sections of the core in the morning followed immediately by a combined review session.  I was getting nervous in front of my students because I couldn’t start the class as Xavier and his section were late in coming to review session.  Apparently, a student had asked a question about his work on customer loyalty right at the end of the class.  Immersed in the content, Xavier took the students through a master class on frequent flyer models and neither he nor the students realized the class was running over time.”

The full measure of a human being is how she/he confronts adversity.  Here, Xavier was inspirational.  Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, Xavier continued to live his professional and personal lives joyfully, productively, and zestfully.  Andrew shares this observation, “We overlapped at UCLA for his last few years before his early passing from cancer, and I watched him bravely battle the disease, teaching and researching right up to the end.”  Marc: “I had the privilege to visit him when he was in his final weeks. He had enormous support from Aya, his wife. When I arrived at his house, he was discussing a research project with Joe Nunes. The next morning, he was visited by Gary Frazier, then editor of Journal of Marketing, and now Professor at University of Southern California.  With Eric Yorkston, now Associate Professor at Texas Christian University, Xavier was trying to publish a paper (on comic strips as an effective advertising medium) in the form of a comic strip.”  His erstwhile UCLA colleagues: “As a teacher and a colleague, Xavier was a real team player. He volunteered to teach courses that the group needed the most, and even while fighting his illness he was always generous with his advice on research to colleagues and graduate students alike.”

Here is a testimony to Xavier’s patience and zest for life from Ainslie, “The best example I have of his great approach to life was when he lent me his 5-days old Porsche… and I sandblasted it in a sandstorm, causing $7000 in damage and leading to the beautiful car spending 3 weeks in the paint shop. When it came out, with his trademark upbeat approach to life, he proudly showed it to me and said, “See? It’s even better than the original paint job!” What an incredible, unflappable, positive approach to life!” Marc: “Xavier was a generous teacher. I came to appreciate that most on our many sailing trips in the Mediterranean Sea. He taught me so many things, not just about sailing but also about the wonders of nature and the mental challenges of dealing with the elements.” Steve: “He had the best bachelor pad house in Philly’s mainline neighborhood (it had an indoor pool), and teetotaler Xavier is well remembered for hosting many department parties.” Joe: “One of the things he loved most was sailing on his boat Lady Creole, which he did for extended periods each summer while regularly inviting friends to join him. Xavier was such a skilled sailor; he could manage the 42-foot sailboat on his own. I, as his other friends aboard, were simply moveable ballasts. Xavier maximized every moment of his life. One story that exemplifies this pertains to his checking account. He never balanced it. When asked about it, he explained that for many years he balanced it with each statement, but never found a mistake. Hence, why spend the time doing so anymore? It wasn’t really a good use of time, which could be spent doing other things.”  Sanjay reflects poignantly and wistfully, “Xavier never let the disease take away his thirst for life.  I was there in Belgium for his first chemotherapy treatment and he was so strong, encouraging me not to worry about the future.”  And Sanjay speaks to the monumental love that Xavier inspired. “In the final months of his life a group of friends would visit Xavier daily at his recently purchased home.  Xavier loved that home so much. It uniquely reflected his personality with a dramatic view of the ocean from the rooftop.  During these visits Xavier had talked about renovating the master bedroom to include the bathroom of his dreams.  Without hesitation his friends instantly decided to make Xavier’s dream a reality.  We worked nonstop as a team for weeks to complete the renovation just in time for his last few days of life.  The smile on Xavier’s face when he saw the finished work was priceless.  Through sheer force of his personality, Xavier had somehow got a group of busy academics to take the time and celebrate life.  I feel that we were all blessed to have had some time on this planet in the company of a person with the intellect and heart of Xavier.” 

Xavier was a gift to marketing community.  He delighted us.  Like so many things in life, Xavier’s entry to and engagement in marketing was completely serendipitous.  For this, we are thankful.  Listen to Steve Hoch on how Xavier literally stumbled into marketing science, “I met Xavier in the fall of 1987. He was a first year MBA at U of Chicago and I was a newly promoted associate professor teaching a class on managerial decision making. For some reason, the 23-year-old Belgian liked both me and the course and we got to know each other a bit as Xavier was improving his English skills. Xavier took the next year off to sail either the Atlantic or Pacific with his parents on their around the world sailing cruise. In his second year, he took a couple more classes from me. I knew that he was an OR major in undergrad and so I asked him why he was taking these behaviorally-oriented classes and in typically honest Xavier style, he said that he was interested in learning stuff that he didn’t already know (I only wish that all MBAs had that attitude). At the end of his second year, Xavier was planning on going back to Europe and had a job lined up with McKinsey, but at the last minute it all fell through. At the same time, I had started a Micro-Marketing project and desperately needed to hire someone to deal with the fire hose (at least at that time) of data that arrived each and every week. I knew that Xavier had great technical and computing skills. And so impulsively (on both his and my part), I hired him, and he started the PhD program in marketing. At his graduation, I met his parents and his father Jacques confidently told me that Xavier would not let me down. Fortunately, Jacques was right.”

Joe wrote to me, “I suppose you know his dad is Jacques Drèze (born 1929), the well-known Belgian economist. For two guys who studied luxury, when he took me to his childhood home in Belgium I was impressed at the modesty of his upbringing. Three notable academics in one family is remarkable.”

As a composer of this profile, as a fellow academic colleague and now an Education Counselor to MIT, Gurumurthy Kalyanaram (G.K.) says wistfully, “I did not get to know Xavier well. I regret that. But even in his death, he brings a spark to my life as he does to so many.  He has given me an opportunity to yet again appreciate that life is transient, there is an urgency to life and that there is no better gift than to give to the community.  And he has connected me firmly to two wonderful people -- Aya and Jean, and to so many colleagues and friends.  This has all ennobled me.  As a firm believer in democratization of education and thought, I much appreciate the contributions of Jacques, Jean and Xavier. I knew of them before, and now I know Jean and Xavier more substantially. Thank you, Xavier.”

Xavier’s colleagues at UCLA recall poignantly and wistfully thus, “He was a great scholar, an exceptional teacher… and the best friend anyone could have. Marketing lost an incredible person when Xavier left our midst…We miss you terribly, X.”  And in his honor UCLA colleagues have established the Xavier Dreze Prize for the “best Ph.D. student research paper.”


Gurumurthy Kalyanaram (GK)
Dated: December 2021