Hooked on Soda

Sarang Sunder’s eyes light up when he talks about soda, but his excitement has nothing to do with the age-old Coke vs. Pepsi debate. As part of his doctoral dissertation, Sunder has developed a formula to measure the customer lifetime value (CLV) of carbonated beverage consumers. While most companies already evaluate sales and market share, they don’t quantify what Sunder considers the most meaningful data of all: profitability at the individual customer level. Sunder’s findings empower companies not only to identify high-profit customers but also to communicate to them on a much more micro level than a wide-sweeping network television commercial. “Our recommendation is to attract the high-value segment when you can, and to move the lower CLV customers up the ladder,” Sunder explains. “Within my dissertation, that’s what we’re trying to figure out how to do.”

Sarang Sunder Photo

Sarang Sunder

If Sunder’s research sounds complicated, that’s because it builds on five years of scholarship. Put simply, Sunder’s methodology will enable companies to market to individuals instead of the masses – and be more profitable than ever before. Plus, Sunder’s model can be applied to any consumer packaged goods (CPG) category: paper products, cleaning supplies, and coffee, to name a few.

Sunder earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Anna University in India and relocated to the University of Connecticut to earn a master’s in the same discipline – a far cry from the field of marketing. After a year of unfulfilling coursework, Sunder became a graduate research assistant for world-renowned marketing scholar V. Kumar (VK). “Fortunately he felt it was worth spending some time with me,” Sunder recalls. “I really wanted to join the marketing program, and he was moving [to the Robinson College of Business] the next year. I applied and the rest is history, I guess.”

In addition to the allure of studying under marketing legend VK, the empirical nature of Robinson’s doctoral program as well as the college’s relationship with Atlanta businesses influenced Sunder’s decision to continue his education at Georgia State. “[Robinson’s connections to area corporations] open up a lot of avenues,” Sunder says. “Marketing is a heavily applied field, so being able to apply what we do as researchers is very important.”

While Robinson’s local ties have enhanced Sunder’s research, he takes a special interest in emerging markets as well. For another major project co-authored with VK, Sunder and a classmate gathered data about a CPG company based in India and studied the international distribution of its products across various stores. Retailer competition in emerging economies is a lot different from the main players in established countries such as the United States; while big box companies like Wal-Mart, Target, and Kroger comprise the majority of the shopping options in the U.S., the opposite is true in a place like India, where anyone can sell goods on the side of the road. This becomes problematic for managers and company bottom lines, when stocking merchandise in a supermarket might be a lot more lucrative than a street vendor. “That’s what we’re solving in this paper,” Sunder says. “How can you optimize product placement in an emerging market?”

Sunder delivers an intro-level marketing course and recently received Robinson’s GTA Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes graduate teaching assistants for outstanding performance. He credits VK along with assistant professors Denish Shah and Yi Zhao with influencing his style of instruction. Sunder plans to defend his dissertation in the spring and then secure a teaching position, which he considers a great gig. “Where else will I get to talk about something I am really passionate about to people who are willing to listen?” he laughs.

Sunder is equipped to offer his students a Coke and a smile – but not in the traditional sense of the classic slogan. He just loves his line of work that much.

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