Interview with Professor Yuxin Chen

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Could you please go over your background and why you decided to come to NYU Shanghai?

Yes. Actually I grew up in Shanghai, so Shanghai is my hometown. My mom is a Shanghainese, and I also went to college in Shanghai, Fudan University, then I went to the US and studied marketing. After I got my PhDs my first job was at NYU stern, so I stayed at Stern for ten years. I got tenure there, and I left New York for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Now I’ve returned to China, because I really like it here, and it’s my hometown. I came back in 2012 when I was on leave from Kellogg and visiting CEIBS – China Europe International Business School. So therefore I spent one year there, and by the end of my visit I learned that NYU was going to set up NYU Shanghai, and I thought it was a really wonderful opportunity. The Stern people contacted me, and basically for me it was like twofold homecoming – returning to NYU and returning to Shanghai.

Shanghai must have changed a lot since you left.

I grew up in the Puxi area, but now I’m living in Pudong. I think Shanghai has been preserved quite well. If you go to Puxi you can still see a lot of places with historical elements.

I was looking at your background, and found that you originally majored in physics. How did you decide to make that transition?

For me it wasn’t really a very difficult transition. My undergraduate was in physics and then I went to graduate school majored in Computer Science. I didn’t finish my graduate school in China before I went to the US. During my graduate studies, I focused on computer science. The transition wasn’t so difficult because nowadays there are many business areas like finance, marketing, and operations, which are pretty much data-driven; they require a lot of quantitative skills. At the time, I wanted to do some applied work after I studied physics. I went into computer science, but I also wanted to do something more related to China’s development. I knew I would have a lot more opportunities if I studied business, so I went to the US in the mid-90s and applied for business school. To my surprise, it wasn’t difficult to get into a business school PHD program because they really liked my quantitative background. My background in physics and computer science really helped me. Even now I think my background in physics and computer science has helped me a lot in my research.

What area of research are you interested in?

I’m doing quantitative marketing, or to put it other way I’m working with data-driven marketing applications. It involves using data to understand consumer behavior, using data to understand marketing decisions, and optimizing decisions with data, and also touching on subjects like e-commerce, internet marketing, and social network.

Has your research shown differences in marketing strategies in China versus the US?

Not much actually. If you look at the marketing, especially in the most advanced areas of practical marketing, the gap between China and the US is actually very small, or even non-existent. The famous Chinese companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and so on, which rely heavily on e-commerce and Internet or “internet plus” business, are actually very sophisticated. As I see it, new technology is easy to catch up to. You don’t need to go through the whole process of developing a new framework, you just add new technology to the existing framework.

So what areas do you find China is perhaps lagging behind in?

I think the area where China is a bit behind in is something related to “soft power”, which basically revolves around how to build a brand image, how to enhance the consumer’s experience with a product. Soft areas such as these.

Is this an area you suggest your students look into for their careers?

Yes, it’s a very important area to investigate. When a country develops middle income and high income demographics from a low income population, usually the consumers will look for utilitarian benefits from products; they don’t care about brand, it’s all about price and function. But eventually they gain more experience and want more utility from the emotional aspects of a product. The branding becomes more and more important when income grows and economy develops. Now we’re in a stage where branding and these soft aspects of marketing are becoming more and more important in China. I think our students may have a distinctive advantage working in this area, because this type of thing requires a lot of innovative thinking, and for people to be very open-minded, creative, and possessing global perspectives. Those are the traits which I think can be very useful in this area. A liberal arts education really helps here.

What do you think of our students and what are the unique aspects of their generation? How do NYU Shanghai students compare to students in China or other students you’ve taught?

Honestly speaking, before I came back to China and started at NYU Shanghai, I only taught MBA students and doctoral students. Since I have no reference to compare undergraduate students of the same generation between China and the US, I will speak on how the students of today compare to my generation. I feel like they’re more creative, and take more initiative than students during my college years. They’re especially good at seeking out interesting opportunities – startup competitions, and business plan competitions for example. They’re very active in seeking outside opportunities and finding out about interesting ideas. It’s a very positive trait.

What do you think marketing teaches you about people in general?

The most important lesson I’ve learned from marketing is that you should always try to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes. You should not just form a perception of others based on preconceptions. In marketing, we always think about and talk about listening to the consumers – what they will think of the product you’re selling or making, but this also applies to other situations in real life. We should not form beliefs based solely on our own experiences. People are very different, so you should try to think from their perspective, their likes and dislikes. That’s the key of marketing, taking in the consumer’s perspective.

What are other foundational principles of marketing you teach to NYU Shanghai students?

I’m teaching Introduction to Marketing, and I taught a similar course to MBA students in the past. The major difference is, MBA students tend to have rich working experience to draw upon. That’s why the course I taught them was basically oriented towards case studies, and every session would include a case discussion. Here, however, the challenge for the instructor with regards to the students is the lack of work experience. This makes discussion of case studies more difficult, and makes it difficult to draw upon examples. I also think teaching here is uniquely challenging because we have an equal number of Chinese and international students, which is very different from the US and China. I’ve taught in both American and Chinese international business schools. In the US, the international students are the minority, and international students in the US tend to actively make an effort to absorb American culture. They’ll watch sitcoms and read the news. When you teach in the US, you use examples based in the US that everyone knows about. The opposite applies in China, if you’re teaching mostly Chinese students, you talk about Chinese case studies like Wanglaoji. Here, I face a new challenge. Half the class has no idea about the culture in the US, but our textbook is written in the US, it talks about US companies, and gives examples based on American case studies. A lot of Chinese students have no context for these case studies, because they have no work experience, have not worked in the US. Then if you give Chinese examples, the other half of the class has no idea what I’m talking about. This is the challenge, and it’s also why I tend to focus my case studies on very well-known brands like Apple, Coca-cola, and McDonald’s. I think this is a marketing specific challenge. It’s easier for other business professors, because marketing is really context-dependent. It’s about branding and consumer behavior, shopping habits, etc. Those things are very culture and context dependent.

Why do you enjoy teaching marketing?

I enjoy it because marketing itself is kind of fun. Also, teaching helps keep me up to date. If you teach marketing, you have to follow the latest developments in the fields. In business schools in the US and China, you have to keep reading, talking to people, talking to companies. It’s fun, and it’s social.

If your students want to pursue career in marketing, what kind of advice would you give them?

Marketing nowadays is both a science and an art. If they want to pursue this field, they have to be aware of three things. The first is that nowadays, and even more so in the future, marketing is becoming more and more quantitative, more data-driven. They need to learn about business statistics and big data. These things will become very useful. The second thing to remember is that despite its data-driven characteristics, marketing is and always will be an art. So they should have some knowledge in the humanities, and areas like anthropology, history, culture. These will come in very useful. If you really want to understand consumers and branding, that kind of training is essential. Finally, I think if you really want to be good at marketing, you have to be very humble, because at the end of the day, your opinion comes secondary to the consumer’s. So it’s very important. In marketing, the consumer is never right or wrong, when they make a choice, you follow them.

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