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Bringing About Better Behaviors
Smith Professor is a Natural at Marketing
Rebecca Ratner was wrapping up her first conversation with
the Social Venture Consulting team she was coaching in the
spring semester when she was asked an interesting question: just
how do you go about marketing an idea?
The team was working with the National Consumers League to
develop a marketing plan for its LifeSmarts program, which
teaches consumer literacy to high school-age youth. The
challenge they were facing is a common one in nonprofit
circles—the product is "not something you can sell for $10.99,"
Ratner said, as in a more traditional kind of exchange.
But if the team was looking for answers to this difficult
question, they came to the right place. Thinking about
marketing ideas comes naturally to Ratner. She was able to
guide the team throughout the semester—and she’ll be teaching an
entire course on the subject in the fall.
Ratner, who earned a Ph.D. in social psychology from
Princeton University, said she was always interested in using
psychology for social-related causes.
"As an undergraduate, I envisioned myself working for an
organization like the American Cancer Society," she said.
She was fascinated with the idea of using persuasive techniques
to help people make better decisions—for example, convincing
them not to smoke.
While conducting research with colleagues at the Wharton
School she discovered how much she enjoyed the more applied
contexts of the business school environment. She came to
the Smith School in 2005, after teaching at The Kenan-Flagler
Business School and serving as a visiting faculty fellow at the
University of Chicago.
Here at Smith, Ratner—now an associate professor in the
marketing department—has taught a number of marketing courses
for MBAs, undergraduates and executives, including marketing
management, marketing research and consumer behavior.
She likes to sneak her social marketing interests into her
teaching as much as possible, she said. Undergraduates in
her consumer behavior class in the spring, for example,
developed ideas for campaigns that would decrease texting while
"In my mind, these ideas are not confined to one course,"
she said. "But at the same time, it’s great to have the
opportunity to dive deeply into it."
This fall, she will do just that with the launch of her new
course, Marketing for Social Value. The course will
primarily examine the ways in which private and public sector
firms use marketing strategies to engage their stakeholders
around social impact. This includes both cause marketing,
used by so many companies today to link consumer behavior to the
support of a social cause, and social marketing.
Ratner finds cause marketing to be an exciting field, with
companies like Pepsi (with its ‘Pepsi Refresh’ campaign) raising
some very interesting issues.
"The central issue for a campaign like this is whether
consumers will embrace it or remain skeptical," she said.
It’s also interesting, she noted, to see how a company like
Pepsi opted to voluntarily lose some control of its brand with a
campaign like this, rather than stick with the more traditional,
fully-controllable vehicles like Super Bowl ads.
Ultimately, her course will emphasize the need to understand
what issues resonate with consumers, as well as the importance
of building evaluation into the plan from the very beginning.
Marketing an idea rather than a tangible product requires some
creative thinking about what the four P’s are, she said, but you
need to have just as thorough an understanding of who the target
is, what resonates with them, and how to measure your impact.
Ratner is currently working on several research threads that
have potentially important findings in the social marketing
arena. Together with a colleague from Harvard, she is
examining the current USDA food pyramid guidelines and testing
the responses of people to the current presentation of the
guidelines, versus a much simpler presentation. What
they’re finding is that people respond much better to a more
In a separate study with Rebecca Hamilton, a fellow associate
professor of marketing at the Smith School, she is looking
specifically at consumer motivation and how to best present
information to motivate a consumer to act in his or her own best
interests—for example, to exercise more—in the long term.
Whether it’s convincing people to eat better, to exercise
more, to smoke less, to stop texting while driving, or anything
else, Ratner is clearly at home in the realm of marketing ideas.
"I find it hugely satisfying to generate new knowledge—and
disseminate knowledge—about consumer psychology and human
decision making that can help people make better decisions," she