Professor Kay Lemon

If there’s a theme that threads through all of Professor Kay Lemon’s work—her research, her teaching, even her service to the marketing profession—it’s the quest, she says, “to make marketers better marketers.”

That theme surfaces frequently in her research, where she strives to highlight the practical implications of her findings. And it recently reached a kind of culmination in the two years she spent as the executive director of the Marketing Science Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MSI is a marketing think tank that bridges academia and practice, bringing together scholars from top schools and marketers from leading companies to share ideas, identify best practices, and support research.

Lemon, who holds the Accenture Professorship in Marketing, finishes up at MSI at the end of this month. She has worked half time there while continuing her affiliation with the Carroll School.

As MSI’s executive director, she has served as something like the organization’s chief academic officer, pondering which research questions should matter most to its corporate members and academic affiliates. She was thus the lead author of the organization’s research priorities, setting forth its research agenda for the next several years. MSI, founded by marketing scholars at the University of Pennsylvania in 1961, funds research, holds conferences and workshops, connects member companies with academics, stages research competitions, and publishes white papers, books, and reports.

“Kay has more energy than anyone I’ve worked with—she’s been a shot of adrenaline for MSI,” said Marni Clippinger, the organization’s president and CEO. “She has us experimenting with things we haven’t done before to make academic scholarship more accessible to our members.”

As an example, Clippinger cited academic “quick talks” in which rising-star academics share their research in a 10-12 minute format at MSI meetings, as well as brief PowerPoint presentations that accompany research working papers “to make the complex simple.” She said Lemon has also “brought findings from academic research back to MSI and helped us apply lessons from marketing science to our own organization.”

While serving there, Lemon has continued to work on her own research and produce findings for top marketing journals, including one recently highlighted in an article in the Harvard Business Review. That study, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, found that starting a customer survey with an open-ended question asking people to recall a positive aspect of their purchase led folks to buy more in the future—even if they’d had an overall experience they’d rated negatively.

Lemon explains the result using the example of a photo portrait studio. “Say your child screams most of the time you’re there, but somehow the photographer gets great photographs anyway. If you recall the experience, you’ll mostly remember your child being upset. But when asked to focus on the positive, you think about the wonderful photos. So asking the question increases your focus on the positive piece.”

She and her co-authors acknowledge in the paper that their findings have ethical implications. After all, the result suggests that companies might be able to manipulate customers’ recollections rather than solicit genuine feedback. But Lemon said she expected that wouldn’t happen because many companies really do value feedback. If firms earned a reputation for trying to manipulate it, customers might become reluctant to give it.

“People might just say, ‘I’m not going to complete surveys anymore,’” Lemon said. “And customer feedback is an important channel for companies to gain insights about what’s working and what’s not.”

Lemon calls research questions like this one “problem based”—that is, they address likely problems marketers might have. Another problem-based paper she recently published examines how companies should deal with another sort of feedback—customer suggestions.

Some companies, such as Dell, Starbucks, and LEGO, make acting on customer suggestions to create new offerings a core part of their strategies. LEGO, for example, releases new toy sets based on customer suggestions through its LEGO Ideas program. Many businesses at least solicit suggestions, implying, in doing so, that they care about them. Trouble is, most businesses receive far more suggestions than they can (or would even want to) act on. The result is a lot of rejected, and potentially dejected, customers. These people may stop making suggestions—and if you value suggestions, that’s a problem.


Lemon and her co-authors, in an article published last year in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, found that, in accepting suggestions, companies should follow the advice nearly everyone’s parents gave them during childhood: say thank you. Put differently, they should gratefully acknowledge suggestions without committing to do anything with them. Too many companies, Lemon said, are “black holes,” failing to even recognize they received a suggestion. “Non-committal responses are very low cost and high return” inasmuch as they keep people engaged, she said.

While Lemon likes problem-solving projects, she also does research that delves into conceptual questions like the meaning and implications of the idea of “customer experience.” She and Peter Verhoef of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands published a paper on that topic last year in the Journal of Marketing. They recapped their findings in a webinar for MSI.

Customer experience, which encompasses the journey from searching for a product or service through the post-purchase use of it, has lately come to the fore in marketing, complementing predecessor concepts like customer satisfaction or customer engagement.

“The idea of consumer experience is gaining traction because we now have enough data to understand how customers go through their entire journey,” Lemon explains. Her current research investigates critical touchpoints in the customer journey through a Big Data lens, examining customer data from a multichannel retailer and a global B2B firm to identify which combinations of those touchpoints have the most influence. 

Lemon’s interest in marketing has both professional and personal roots. She was a marketing executive before earning her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. In healthcare, she developed marketing plans for new regional psychiatric and addiction recovery hospitals. In Silicon Valley, she oversaw marketing for a high-tech startup.

And long before that, she heard about marketing from her father, Fred Newell, an executive in department stores and pioneer consultant in customer relationship management. Lemon and her dad even wrote a marketing book together—Wireless Rules: New Marketing Strategies for Customer Relationship Management Anytime, Anywhere—published in 2001, way before most people were thinking about mobile CRM. Keeping the project all in the family, her husband was the head researcher for the book.

This past May, Lemon received the Ray Keyes Faculty Forum Distinguished Service Award, recognizing her service to the Carroll School. In her teaching, she said she focuses on making marketers better marketers too—staying connected to her students long after they begin their marketing careers. Just recently, one of her prior students reached out to her for insight and background on customer experience. As Lemon says, “There are so many exciting things happening in marketing, so many problems yet to solve and so many opportunities.”

Lemon has family ties to BC, too. Her son, Tom Lemon ’08, graduated from the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program with a double major in philosophy and theology, and sang in the Bostonians a cappella group. He now practices law in Boston.

 Tim Gray is a freelance writer and writing instructor at the Carroll School.