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K. Sudhir

James L. Frank ’32 Professor of Private Enterprise and Management and Professor of Marketing

When Professor K. Sudhir joined the Yale School of Management in 2001, the marketing department faculty numbered just four people. The digital revolution and the rise of big data had yet to transform the field, but change was brewing, and Sudhir felt a budding promise.

“It was something about the quality of everyone here, and more importantly a sense that there were good things to come,” says Sudhir, now the James L. Frank ’32 Professor of Private Enterprise and Management and a professor of Marketing. “I had a gut feeling of the tremendous likelihood of growth and opportunity.”

Yale SOM recruited Sudhir from New York University at a turning point in his life. “Yale called at exactly the right time because my wife was having a baby, and we were thinking of getting out of the city,” he recalls. Life in New Haven offered more space for his family; and at Yale SOM, Sudhir found an ethos that matched his own.

“Yale has this interdisciplinary streak that my training and my background really prepared me for,” he explains. “I decided to come aboard, and looking back I’ve never regretted it.”

Today Sudhir is part of a forward-looking marketing department, totaling 17 researchers with both quantitative and behavioral approaches. (Sudhir is in the former group.) He also helps steer quantitative research projects and engagements within the Yale Center for Customer Insights (YCCI), a research center that brings business organizations and academics together to study consumer behavior.

“I’m crazy about the quality of my colleagues, who are top people in the field and are really delightful to work with,” he says.

Among his peers, Sudhir has distinguished himself as an expert in data-driven consumer research and the dynamics of emerging markets. Last June, he was named the 2023 INFORMS Society for Marketing Science Fellow, an award that recognizes long-term contribution to the development and implementation of research that improves the practice of marketing. (INFORMS is the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.)

With an undergraduate degree in engineering, Sudhir originally set out to become a computer scientist. He was particularly interested in artificial intelligence. He began his PhD in information systems at the University of Rochester, but soon transferred to the information systems and operations research program at Cornell.

“At that time, I wasn’t sure that information systems was going to be exciting enough,” he says. “I felt research in the subject was too driven by current technologies, and this was before the internet revolution. And at the same time, I was getting exposed to issues around marketing. I kept going to my advisor with ideas that made connections to marketing, and he looked at me and said, ‘I think I can see how good you could be at marketing.’”

That was all the encouragement he needed. After another shift within Cornell, Sudhir completed a PhD in marketing. 

The doctoral program let Sudhir explore a diverse array of interests. “Cornell didn’t have a whole lot of requirements, and you could basically custom build your program.” He took courses in fields like operations, marketing, and organizational behavior—“like an MBA student,” he says. But it was marketing that captivated him most by merging his quantitative background and consumer interests.

“I liked the idea of thinking about how consumers and firms make decisions in a quantitative way,” he says. “It appealed to me a lot as an engineer to build models of markets and then understand how marketer decisions and market conditions will impact the market.” Without his realizing it at the time, Sudhir’s dissertation work was at the vanguard of what is now called the structural modeling revolution in marketing.

A structural model, he says, is simply a depiction of how a market works when participants—including consumers, firms, salespeople, and retailers—all act as rational agents, making optimal decision for themselves given the rules of the market, their own preferences and objectives, and the information available to them. Structural models help marketers and other decision-makers more easily evaluate the impact of their decisions.

Sudhir has built structural models for a range of different markets. Some of his award-winning papers include new models for distribution channels, organizational buying behavior, salesforce compensation, and organizational design. He is currently working on a structural model for virtual gaming,

Over the years, one of the main themes of Sudhir’s research has been the role of data in marketing. “This has been a golden period for data,” he says.

Long before AI became a buzzword, Sudhir and his colleagues were using machine learning to extract insights from large amounts of data. He recently wrote a paper on the privacy implications of data that caught the eye of Connecticut legislators drafting the state’s new consumer privacy protection act. Sudhir was invited to serve on the Connecticut Privacy Task Force, which helped shape the law; last year, he was invited to serve on the Connecticut AI Task Force.

Other areas of Sudhir’s research include business-to-business markets and trade among channel suppliers and distributors—which typically constitutes 50% of a market, he points out. “Yet there is very little work on this because it’s easier to observe what consumers do,” he says. “Within organizations, it’s much more complicated because there are people internally making decisions and outcomes, but you don’t have visibility into everything that goes on.”

Sudhir’s research on modeling decisions between distributors and manufacturers—begun during his dissertation work—created a foundational model that has been used by people in economics as well as in marketing. “It took on a life of its own,” he says. “And it has become the foundational model for modeling distribution channels.”

Another major area of research, which he has pursued through projects at the YCCI, is the relationship between hospitals and healthcare product suppliers. “Is it the doctors who drive the decision?” he says. “How exactly do these decisions come about?” Sudhir and his students have explored these questions using a data-driven approach. “We built a model for business-to-business buying, which had been a huge challenge for many years simply because data had not been available,” he says.

While Sudhir says it is gratifying to have his work recognized—many of his modeling papers have won research awards—his main motivation has been helping business leaders improve their decision-making.

“Working with companies using their rich and detailed data has helped me build much richer and more general models than might otherwise have been feasible,” he says. “While my interest was in producing foundational work that other scholars could build on, many of my papers were able to provide research-based managerial guidance to companies such as Medtronic, Xerox, American Express and smaller microfinance and gaming companies.”

Recent advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence inspired Sudhir to help create a machine learning track in SOM’s PhD marketing program. With his colleagues, he has expanded his econometrics work to incorporate machine learning methods. Sudhir also partnered with Kyle Jensen, the Shanna and Eric Bass ’05 Director of Entrepreneurial Programs, to design a new course on large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-4; the course debuted in the fall 2023 semester.

Sudhir’s research has always shaped his teaching. When he was new to Yale SOM, he specialized in data-oriented courses, such as Strategic Market Measurement. But when the school began drafting its integrated MBA core curriculum in 2006, former Dean Joel Podolny tapped Sudhir to create Customer, the core’s multidisciplinary marketing course, which he ultimately taught for almost two decades.

The experience brought Sudhir full circle and tied together threads in his own understanding of how businesses function.

“You had to think more holistically about how marketing fit within an organization,” he says. “It was great personally for me because I could leverage my PhD training where I took doctoral courses across diverse management functions. I was uniquely advantaged, as well as blessed.”

Concepts from disciplines like accounting and organizational design were not new to Sudhir. “Those kinds of issues had been just under the surface for me all along,” he says. “But the integrated core showed me how to better connect them.”

Sudhir taught the Customer course to full-time MBA students for more than a decade and continues to teach the course to executive MBA students. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” he says.

Yale SOM students, he says, “are very smart and curious, just like at all the top schools,” he says. But in addition, he adds, “they come with a sense of purpose, wanting to do good in the world.” And that ethos isn’t reserved for students planning to join the social sector, he says. “It applies whether they’re working in finance or consulting,” or in marketing—which, he notes, can be a force for good.

“People come in thinking that marketing is about selling and making people buy things that they don’t need,” Sudhir says. “But marketing, if done well, makes things more efficient. If you really understand your customer, you design and produce things that they actually need.”

Over the years, Sudhir has seen SOM transform, from its early home on Hillhouse Avenue to the state-of-the-art Edward P. Evans Hall campus. The school’s increasingly diverse, global student body has also become a major asset. 

“Students bring their own experiences into the classroom and into discussions,” Sudhir says. “In one Global Network course I taught on mobile payment systems, I had students from Africa, East Asia, Latin America, the U.S., North America, and Europe. The diversity of student perspectives from these different countries helped them learn how consumer needs, competition, and regulations varied across countries, requiring custom solutions and explaining why solutions differ across different parts of the world. Everyone learned from the knowledge of the other students in the class.”

Sudhir says that being at Yale, teaching in the integrated core curriculum, and working with the YCCI have all helped him a better and broader scholar. He notes, “I often say, only half jokingly, that if I had stayed at NYU, I would have become a good marketing professor. Coming to Yale made me a more complete management professor.”