Campus & Community

Business School marketing scholar Buzzell dies at 71

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Robert D. Buzzell, the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at Harvard Business School (HBS) and an influential expert in strategic marketing who was a pioneer in the application of statistical methods to marketing issues, died on Nov. 6 at a hospice near his home in Alexandria, Va., from complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was 71.


Buzzell was perhaps best known for his role in the design and analysis of a large-scale research program known as Profit Impact of Marketing Strategies (PIMS). Its goal was to identify and measure the determinants of profits in individual businesses.

Among many other findings, Buzzell noted that in mature markets, competitors with a large market share (especially leaders) tend to lose position gradually. As a result, he concluded, unless market leaders devote sufficient resources to continuous innovation and product development, even the most successful pioneers will eventually face the prospect of a long-term erosion in their market position.

The PIMS project eventually evolved into an independent research organization called the Strategic Planning Institute. In 1987, Buzzell published “The PIMS Principles: Linking Strategy to Performance” (The Free Press).

A prolific and wide-ranging scholar, Buzzell was also the author or co-author of 10 other books, including “Mathematical Methods and Models in Marketing” (Irwin), “Marketing Research and Information Systems” (McGraw-Hill), “Marketing: A Contemporary Analysis” (McGraw-Hill), “Strategic Marketing” (Little, Brown & Co.), and “Global Marketing Management: Cases and Readings” (Addison-Wesley).

His 1985 volume, “Marketing in an Electronic Age” (Harvard Business School Press), was on the leading edge in explaining to practitioners and observers alike new technologies such as retail point-of-sales systems that changed the marketing landscape forever. In 1990, he co-authored with HBS professor John A. Quelch “The Marketing Challenge of 1992” (Addison-Wesley), which examined the impact on marketers of the then-developing European Union.

Buzzell’s extensive work on marketing economics, the economic effects of advertising, retail and wholesale distribution, strategic planning, and the application of mathematical and statistical methods was also published in numerous publications and professional journals, including Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Advertising Research, Strategic Management Journal, and the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

“Bob Buzzell was an outstanding scholar and an accomplished teacher who combined scholarship with close attention to the demands of business practice. He was a great and beloved colleague for more than 40 years,” said Walter J. Salmon, the Stanley Roth Sr. Professor of Retailing Emeritus at Harvard Business School.

“Bob’s research, writing, and teaching influenced the scholarly community, the teaching community, and the business community in many ways,” added Stephen A. Greyser, the School’s Richard P. Chapman Professor (Marketing/Communications) Emeritus.

A member of the active HBS faculty from 1961 to 1993, Robert Dow Buzzell had an enormous impact on generations of M.B.A. and doctoral students as well as thousands of executive education participants. “He loved to be in the classroom, and many of his doctoral students went on to become prominent faculty members in their own right in universities in this country and abroad,” said Greyser.

Buzzell served as chairman of the School’s marketing faculty from 1972 to 1977 and headed HBS executive programs in strategic marketing management and multinational marketing management. From 1968 to 1972, he was executive director of the Marketing Science Institute, a nonprofit, industry-sponsored research organization associated with HBS.

Soon after his retirement from Harvard Business School, Buzzell moved from his long-time residence in Wellesley, Mass., to Alexandria, Va. He continued to teach for a number of years at George Mason University and Georgetown University.

Born in Lincoln, Neb., on April 18, 1933, Buzzell grew up in Arlington, Va., and received his bachelor’s degree in government in 1953 from George Washington University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He earned an M.S. in business from the University of Illinois in 1954 and a Ph.D. in business in 1957 from Ohio State University – at the age of only 24.

Beginning his academic career as an assistant professor at Ohio State, he first came to Harvard Business School in 1959 to attend the yearlong Institute of Basic Mathematics for Application to Business, a program offered by HBS faculty and sponsored by the Ford Foundation. After completing the program and spending another year at Ohio State, he accepted an offer to join the HBS faculty. He became an associate professor in 1963 and a full professor with tenure in 1968. He was named to the Kresge chair in 1980. Buzzell was a visiting professor at the European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD) in Fontainebleau, France, in 1967. He was a member of the American Marketing Association and served as national marketing education vice president in 1968-69. From 1969 to 1971, he was a member of the National Marketing Advisor Committee of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Buzzell was also active as a consultant, speaker, and seminar leader for business firms and trade associations, and served on the boards of many companies, including Friendly Ice Cream, Hills Department Stores, and Sherwin Williams.

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, the former Edith Moser; a brother, Donald A. Buzzell of Arlington, Va.; four children, Susan Browning and Barbara Schwartz, both of Alexandria, Robert Jr. of Fairfax, Va., and William H. of Perrysville, Ohio; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Friday (Nov. 12) at the Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Va.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the ALS Association, 615 South Frederick Ave., Suite 308, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, or to the Little River United Church of Christ, 8410 Little River Turnpike, Annandale, VA 22003.