August 30, 2004
57, Number 02
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August 30, 2004
Jagdish Sheth would have found success no matter what
he chose to do—that’s pretty easy to see. But his career
path, the one led him to be one of the most innovative and accomplished
marketing minds on the planet, can be traced to a simple classroom
give-and-take while Sheth was an MBA student at the University of
Pittsburgh in the early 1960s.
Professor John Howard was discussing a recent study by Dupont, which found that
40 percent of housewives went to the store without shopping lists. This meant
that 60 percent of shoppers were impulse buyers, he said.
Sheth was uncomfortable with the conclusion. The only foreign-born student in
the program (Sheth is of Indian origin), he was even more uncomfortable with
questioning a professor, a discipline Sheth was raised to treat with the utmost
Still, Sheth raised his hand and asked, “Does that mean that everyone in
illiterate countries is an impulse buyer?” After all, a woman who couldn’t
write certainly couldn’t compile a shopping list.
Howard, surprised that he had never considered such a viewpoint, was silent
for about 20 seconds. After the long pause, he replied, “That’s
a good question.”
Howard remembered the exchange. And when he was looking for a graduate student
to help him with some new research, he thought of Sheth. Seeing that the thoughtful
23-year-old could offer a worldview he lacked, Howard offered him a job. For
much of the decade they worked on a marketing theory that focused on consumers
rather than sellers, why consumers buy what they do—an approach that
had never previously been tried. In 1969, the results of that work were published
in a book, The Theory of Buyer Behavior, and the discipline of consumer research
“It was a radical theory,” said Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor
of Marketing in the Goizueta Business School. He came to Emory in 1991 following
an already distinguished career at the universities of Southern California
and Illinois, Columbia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“In all [previous] economics and demand theories, the notion was that consumers
make rational choices,” he said. “Our theory was, through experience
and learning, consumers actually reduce choice to simplify their lives. They
become loyal to a brand, for instance.”
All of this is basic marketing now, but before Howard and Sheth published their
book, the area had never been explored. It’s practically impossible to
overstate the significance of Buyer Behavior.
Sheth didn’t peak early. In all, he has written more than 200 books and
research papers on marketing. He is a consultant to several companies and even
governments (he has worked with the government in Singapore almost 20 years
and earlier this month was in Turkey meeting with that country’s
top economic ministers).
While he has earned many awards, perhaps the most meaningful came this past
June when Sheth was presented with the American Marketing Association’s
Distinguished Marketing Educator Award, the highest honor in his discipline.
The fact that the recipient is selected by his peers only makes the honor more
“What’s good about this recognition is not the satisfaction of the
person who gets the award,” Sheth said. “But that you become a role
model for others; that drives me. It’s what I enjoy—that I can
be a role model for other ethnic people in this country who come from all over
Being a role model and giving back to his community have always been important
to Sheth. The Madhuri and Jagdish Sheth Foundation was created in 1991 at Illinois
(where Sheth taught for 15 years and the alma mater of both his children—his
oldest, Reshma Shah, is an assistant professor of marketing at Goizueta). At
Emory three years ago he established the Sheth Distinguished Alumni Award,
which recognizes international alumni who have distinguished themselves in
service. He also funds the Sheth Lecture on Indian Studies, which brings a
scholar on South Asia to Emory for a campuswide address as well as visit to
a graduate class.
Earlier this year, Sheth and Madhu, as she is known to her family and friends,
pledged $50,000 to create Emeritus College’s Sheth Distinguished Lecture.
The first speaker was President Emeritus Jim Laney, the man who hired Sheth.
“I’ve always felt it important to give back to the academy that nurtures
you,” Sheth said. “Every institution has been good to me.”
Sheth’s successes as an adult, and his appreciation for them, are perhaps
magnified by the struggle of his youth. He was born in Burma (now Myanmar)
in 1938, the youngest of six children. He was just a toddler when his family
fled the country in the winter of 1941, just ahead of the invading Japanese
at the start of World War II. Immigrants from western India, Sheth’s
father had moved the family to suburban Rangoon for his business as a rice
trader. In the escape back to India, the family lost everything. During the
mother sold jewelry she inherited from her parents, and his three sisters did
embroidery and baked bread to
make ends meet.
After the war, the family got back on its feet. Sheth’s oldest brother,
Himatlal, opened a shop in which he sold jewelry boxes. Second brother Gulab
Chand became a teacher and eventually joined Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian
“My two brothers were heavily influential on me, but in different ways,” Sheth
said. He inherited his business sense from Himatlal, 16 years older. Sheth’s
academic leanings came from Gulab Chand, 14 years older. And that combination
of influences would guide Sheth for many years.
An excellent student whose initial goal was to be an accountant, Sheth came
to the United States at Himatlal’s urging. The goal was to earn an MBA, then
return home to help with the family business. That’s not exactly what happened.
Sheth became fascinated with the psychological research that accompanied his
and Howard’s work on buyer behavior. He decided to pursue a doctorate
and joined Howard at Columbia when the professor moved there in 1963.
“I was in the stacks 10 hours a day, six days a week,” Sheth said
of his research, which he literally dove into.
“I still have the smell of those stacks. I loved it, soaking up all the
knowledge of social science.”
While Sheth’s family was initially disappointed with his decision to
stay in this country, they eventually supported it. There was one complication,
though: Sheth was to be married upon his return.
Sheth met Madhu, a teacher, in a literature group back home in Madras (now
Chennai), where the family had settled. When he decided to stay in the United
States, he asked her to marry him in this country. He couldn’t afford to bring her
over, so he borrowed $1,000 from the University of Pittsburgh (although he moved
to Columbia, he kept his affiliation with the school and received his Ph.D. in
1966); his salary as Howard’s graduate student covered the rest, and
the Sheths were married in the Heinz Cathedral in Pittsburgh.
Sheth’s work ethic is tremendous and consistent throughout his academic
career, and he hasn’t stopped producing leading-edge scholarship. His two
latest books, 2000’s Clients for Life and 2002’s The
Rule of Three,
were both well received.
Sheth is working on three books, all with co-writers, at various stages of development.
One of them, which explores the geopolitical realignment of the world based on
economics (NAFTA and the European Union are examples Sheth cites), posits the
theory that regionalization will be more of a defining force than globalization.
That one is almost finished, and Sheth is searching for a publisher.
A book Sheth currently is writing defines a new framework of marketing called
the “Four As.” They are: acceptability, affordability, accessibility
and awareness. “The first three are easy,” Sheth said. “Customers
always want a more acceptable product at a more affordable price in a more accessible
way. So if you offer that, you always win the market. It’s a no-brainer.
“We added awareness, because even though you have done all these things
right, you still have to promote yourself,” he continued. “You have
to make people aware that you exist.” That work is about six months from
Sheth’s third book, which is about 18 months from wrapping, is an exploration
for companies that are successful from a customer viewpoint. They are usually
from small towns and family run he said. “They create value for everybody.
Employees are happy, customers are happy and the shareholders are happy.” The
book’s working title is a happy one as well: Firms
Sheth does all of this writing on top of his teaching and mentoring of students.
More than 20 of his doctoral students are world-class scholars themselves.
“I enjoy motivating young people,” he said. “I like to
say if you take a grain of wheat and make a loaf of bread, the value added
is 20 times. If you take a rough diamond, polish it and make it into a finished
diamond, the value added is 40 to 60 times. If you take a human being and nurture
and invest in that human being, the value added is infinite.”