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Professor Theodore Levitt, legendary marketing scholar and former Harvard Business Review editor, dead at 81

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Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Theodore (Ted) Levitt, a monumental and iconoclastic figure in the field of marketing and former editor of Harvard Business Review, who influenced generations of both scholars and practitioners with his groundbreaking, always provocative, and often controversial books and articles, died June 28 at his home in Belmont, Mass., after a long illness. He was 81 years old.

Levitt joined the Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty in 1959 and quickly gained an international reputation as a scholar, writer, and teacher. His article “Marketing Myopia,” which was first published in Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 1960 and which argued that companies and entire industries declined because management defined their businesses too narrowly, immediately became a huge success, with requests for 35,000 reprints from 1,000 different companies soon after its publication. More than 40 years later, more than 850,000 reprints had been sold, making the article one of the best-selling HBR articles of all time.

The key question that all managers must be able to answer, he advised, is “What business are you in?” The railroads, for example, “let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business instead of the transportation business,” he wrote.

Nearly a quarter century later, Levitt created a still-raging controversy in the worldwide business community with his 1983 HBR article “The Globalization of Markets.” Besides popularizing the word “globalization,” he asserted that new technologies had “proletarianized” communication, transportation, and travel, creating a new commercial reality – the emergence of global markets for standardized consumer products at lower prices, thanks to economies of scale – a sea change that was especially evident in companies such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, and McDonald’s. He insisted that the future belonged not to the multinational corporation, but to the “global corporation” that did not cater to local differences in taste.

The ongoing impact of and debate about Levitt’s ideas were evident at the “Globalization of Markets” colloquium, a two-day event held “in appreciation of his scholarship” at Harvard Business School in May 2003.

Unable to attend because of poor health, Levitt engaged in a videotaped discussion with longtime friend and marketing colleague Stephen Greyser, the School’s Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration Emeritus. “That article did succeed in stimulating a great deal of comment,” said Levitt, adding that he was “not at all surprised” that it still gets attention today. “I admit it’s written in a provocative way,” he said, “and that’s one reason it gets assigned all the time.”

Commenting on the status of globalization in 2003, Levitt said that he viewed overseas reaction against some American products as validating the notion of globalized markets. “To some people, it looks like a foreign intrusion on domestic industry and a violation of culture, habits, and ways of doing business,” he said. “The octave level of the reaction shows very clearly that there’s a lot at stake.” Asked by Greyser whether international companies should therefore rethink the way they do business, Levitt replied, “A global company should always go about its business in a way that’s responsive to the major differences from one country to another,” in terms of, for example, how retailing or distribution or payment systems work. But the core product or service should remain unchanged, he added, since that is what is “globalized.”

In addition to “The Globalization of Markets,” the year 1983 also saw the publication of “The Marketing Imagination,” a collection of articles by Levitt that addressed a number of topics of interest to him, including the industrialization of service (“The large, rationally managed service corporation is the new colossus that affects us all – and all for the better,” he wrote) and differentiation (“Differentiation is the essence of everything; everything can be and is differentiable, even such ‘commodities’ as steel, cement, money, chemicals, and grain.”) In the essay that gives the book its title, Levitt asserts that “The marketing imagination is the starting point of success in marketing. It is distinguished from other forms of imagination by the unique insights it brings to understanding customers, their problems, and the means to capture their attention and their custom.”

Levitt was also the author or coauthor of seven other books, “Marketing for Business Growth” (1974), “The Third Sector: New Tactics for a Responsive Society” (1973), “Marketing: A Contemporary Analysis” (1972), “The Marketing Mode” (1969), “Marketing” (1964), “Industrial Purchasing Behavior: A Study of Communication Effects” (1964), and “Innovation in Marketing” (1962).

The 25 articles he wrote for Harvard Business Review (four of which won McKinsey Awards, presented annually to the best and second-best articles of the year) made him and the late Peter Drucker the most published authors in the history of the magazine.

In 1983, Levitt told an interviewer that “In the last 20 years, I’ve never published anything without at least five serious rewrites. I used to keep a record of it. I’ve got deep rewrites up to 12. It’s not to change the substance so much; it’s to change the pace, the sound, the sense of making progress – even the physical appearance of it. Why should you make customers go through the torture chamber? I want them to say, ‘Aha!’”

Levitt brought his legendary scholarship, vision, intensity, and dedication to good writing to his appointment by former HBS Dean John McArthur as editor of Harvard Business Review, a position he held from 1985 to 1989. He is credited with transforming the magazine from an academic periodical into a more accessible publication that focused on important ideas and practices that influenced a readership composed of top business leaders.

Among his innovations were shorter articles covering a broader range of topics, a more reader-friendly design, and the introduction of New Yorker-style cartoons to provide an amusing perspective on the world of business. As an accomplished author, he was especially eager to attract more readers. “If people don’t read what you write,” he often said, “then what you write is a museum piece.” Under Levitt’s leadership, HBR solidified its position as the preeminent publication of its kind in the world. “He was arguably the best editor in HBR’s history,” said current editor Thomas Stewart. “He helped bring the magazine to a new standard of readability while ensuring that its quality was never higher.”

While Levitt’s many magazine articles and numerous books gained him a worldwide following outside of Harvard, within HBS he earned a reputation as a popular and demanding teacher and effective administrator, serving as head of the School’s marketing unit from 1977 to 1983. He was appointed the Edward W. Carter Professor of Business Administration in 1979. He favored a theatrical style in class, striding up and down the aisles and tossing chalk toward both blackboards and students. By the time he retired from the active faculty in 1990, Levitt was considered one of the School’s living legends, a seminal scholar who had radically altered marketing both as a practice within corporations and industries and as a field of academic inquiry.

“Ted Levitt taught the first class I took as a student at Harvard Business School,” said HBS Dean Jay Light. “He had an enormous influence and presence on this campus and was an immense figure in the field of marketing. He represented the extraordinary qualities we seek in an HBS faculty member – world-class leadership and research, an ability to generate ideas with impact and then to apply them to practical issues and problems, and a remarkable talent for teaching them in an exciting way in the classroom. Ted’s work set the highest standards for all of us who worked with him and learned from him. He is a giant in the history of Harvard Business School.”

Added John Quelch, Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration and a senior associate dean at the School, “Ted Levitt was the most influential and imaginative professor in marketing history. He was an intellectual provocateur but one whose insights were grounded in a profound understanding of practice.”

Robert Dolan, a former HBS marketing professor and now dean of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, recalled Levitt’s important role as a mentor of younger faculty members: “I never sat in his classroom, but the best thing that has ever happened to me professionally was to be a ‘student’ of Ted Levitt’s as a professor in his marketing group. His direct influence on the field of marketing and on HBS is dramatic and well understood. Equally important, however, was the training he provided to so many disciples who wanted to follow his lead in terms of intellectual rigor, commanding relevance, and artful exposition. All of us who have studied with him as students or colleagues are in great debt to him. There is no replicating Ted Levitt.”

Harvard Business School’s Stephen Greyser explained the pattern of Levitt’s influence: “His primary goal was to influence practice via powerful ideas, typically articles. His success in affecting ‘important people in important companies’ (his own phrase) in turn drove academics to bring Levitt’s ideas to their classrooms. Marketing students and executive program participants even today have a ‘high Levitt quotient’ in their readings.”

Levitt was born on March 1, 1925, in Vollmerz, Germany, a small town near Frankfurt, and moved with his family to Dayton, Ohio, a decade later to escape the encroaching Nazi threat. In Dayton, the four Levitt children and their parents lived in “a rough, colorful neighborhood,” he later told the Dayton Daily News. “It was a strange, alien world. As kids, we were independent and streetwise, except our parents paid considerable attention to what we did in school.”

Levitt’s first stint as an editor came in the fifth grade. He and the late Erma Bombeck, who went on to become a nationally syndicated columnist, started a newspaper in their elementary school. A few years later, when he was working as a reporter for the Dayton Journal Herald while still in high school, he helped Bombeck get her start at the paper.

Drafted into the U.S. Army before he finished high school, Levitt served in Europe during World War II. At the end of the war, he returned to Dayton and a job as a sports writer at the Dayton Journal Herald. He earned his high school diploma through a correspondence course and enrolled at Antioch College, receiving his A.B. in 1949. Two years later, he earned a doctorate in economics from Ohio State University and began teaching at the University of North Dakota.

Levitt wrote his first article for the Harvard Business Review in 1956. Titled “The Changing Character of Capitalism,” it caught the attention of executives at the Standard Oil Company and led to the next phase of his career – as a Chicago-based consultant to the oil industry. Several years and an additional Harvard Business Review article later, he was recruited to join the HBS faculty.

One night during his first year at the School, while sitting at the kitchen table at his home, Levitt started to write the article that would become “Marketing Myopia.” “Four or five hours later, the first draft was done,” he recalled in an interview with the HBS Bulletin, the School’s alumni magazine. “After several more drafts, checking some facts, and adding some odds and ends to make it more readable, I shipped it over to the Review.”

The original title was “Marketing Myopia and Growth Companies,” said Levitt. “With his enormous insight and wisdom, Ed Bursk, the then-editor of HBR, kept the first two words of the title and dropped the rest. Beyond that, he hardly changed a word of what I had written.”

In “Marketing Myopia,” Levitt made his now famous statement that “Marketing is a stepchild” in most corporations because of an overemphasis on creating and selling products. “But selling is not marketing,” he wrote. “[Selling] is not concerned with the values that the exchange is all about. And it does not, as marketing invariably does, view the entire business process as consisting of a tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse, and satisfy customer needs.” “Before Levitt,” one admirer said, “marketing was a poor relation in the world of senior management.” After Levitt, that was no longer the case.

In addition to his McKinsey Awards, Levitt received the Academy of Management Award for the outstanding business book of 1962 for “Innovation in Marketing,” the John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 1969, the Charles Coolidge Parlin Award as Marketing Man of the Year in 1970, the George Gallup Award for Marketing Excellence in 1976, the 1978 Paul D. Converse Award of the American Marketing Association for major contributions to marketing, and the 1989 William M. McFeely Award of the International Management Council for major contributions to management.

Levitt is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Joan Levy; four children, John of Sarasota, Fla., Kathryn Wells of Lexington, Mass., Laura Levitt Beaudry of Belmont, and Peter of Boston; six grandchildren; and two sisters, Ann Brenner of Winston-Salem, N. C., and Dorothy Engelhardt of Dayton. A daughter, Frances Levitt Byington, and a brother, Albert, predeceased him.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in his memory to the Joan and Theodore Levitt Family Fund at the Boston Foundation, 75 Arlington St., Boston, MA 02116.