This question has attained catchphrase status among current and former students of P.V. (Sundar) Balakrishnan. The professor’s popular Marketing Management Laboratory is where business students at UW Bothell learn about market segmentation and about the myth of the average consumer.
“In pursuit of the so-called ‘average consumer,’ businesses have launched an untold number of doomed products,” explains Balakrishnan. “Consumers want hot tea or they want cold tea, but, rather than hot or cold tea, we far too often see businesses market ‘lukewarm tea’ in order to appeal to the combined population of hot and cold tea drinkers – or the average consumer.”
One of his MBA graduates confided with Balakrishnan that the former student’s employer was slipping into a habit of marketing lukewarm tea. The former student was simply expressing some professional frustration. To Balakrishnan, however, the conversation served to affirm his choice to become a professor many years ago. His lesson had stuck.
Getting lessons to stick is just one of the reasons that Balakrishnan is being honored with the Distinguished Teaching Award.
Balakrishnan’s peripatetic upbringing and education eventually led to the University of Washington Bothell, a place he fondly speaks of as if it were a living thing. “In the 17 years since I joined the faculty here, I witnessed the birth of a campus,” he says. “Twenty years ago, there was nothing here. It was farm land. Today I see a robust institution with an astonishingly gifted assemblage of faculty, each of whom is dedicated to knowing his or her students.”
From the very first year of its operations, according to Balakrishnan, the UW Bothell faculty formed a mutual pact that all students would become known to the professors. Balakrishnan adheres to a rule stating that “for each and every student at UW Bothell, there will be at least two faculty who could ‘go to bat’ for said student. I should be able to speak in detail for 20 minutes about any such student, and write a persuasive recommendation letter about him or her.”
Balakrishnan had completed writing one of those letters just the night before being interviewed.
According to Balakrishnan, “With some students, my job is to get out of the way and let their bright and focused minds find their places in the world. With other students, the job is more about lighting a fire. How do I get that light bulb to go off?”
Nathan Smith, a recent MBA graduate claims that, “Sundar’s course was a driving factor in my personal decision to change careers from an electrical engineer to a business development manager in the aerospace industry, an arena aching for knowledgeable marketing professionals.”
Another UW Bothell MBA alumnus, who is now a senior marketing executive, says of his experience with Balakrishnan, “After11 years as a scientist, the uncertainty of finding a career that I could be passionate about ended with his new product marketing course. I left the course exhausted, but forever changed. He inspired in me a passion for lifelong learning, and I will always be grateful for that.”
Balakrishnan believes it would be a failure for a student to get perfect grades, only to move on without having assembled a network of lifelong friends and mentors. Parallel to his rule about creating a special bond with at least two teachers, Balakrishnan expects students to emerge from his program with at least six special peers. “I’m talking about the type of peer who would hire you, or who would quit his or her job to work for you,” he says.
Balakrishnan served as acting director of the then-emerging business administration program from 1998 to 2000. He has also published and reviewed a wealth of research. Yet he has retained his focus upon teaching. He has taught over a dozen different courses in marketing and operations management in his 17 years at UW Bothell.
“I can’t wait to see what develops over the next 20 years here,” says Balakrishnan. “It is my hope that our campus becomes to the University of Washington what Trinity College is to Cambridge University: a prestigious academic center within the UW’s world-class realm.”
Although, given the proximity to Seattle, the faculty and students are likely to be drinking more coffee and less tea than in Cambridge … and certainly less lukewarm tea.