Insights at UBC Sauder

Dr. Lisa Cavanaugh named Academic Director of the Robert H. Lee Graduate School

Photo of Lisa Cavanaugh
Posted 2020-07-22
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Dr. Lisa Cavanaugh, an internationally-recognized expert in marketing and consumer psychology, has been named the Academic Director of the Robert H. Lee Graduate School (RHL) at the UBC Sauder School of Business. We recently sat down with Dr. Cavanaugh to learn a bit more about her career journey, her research, and her plans for the new role.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to where you are today?

I earned both my PhD and BA with Honors and Highest Distinction from Duke University. My academic concentrations in Markets & Management Studies and Public Policy later led me to work in marketing, brand management, and new business development in Washington, DC. I also had the opportunity to work with and serve on the board of directors for a fair trade organization in New Mexico dedicated to helping artisan and farmer cooperatives in developing communities market and receive fair prices for their goods.

Those experiences fueled a deep desire to better understand how and why consumers behave in all the curious ways that we do. As a PhD student, I immersed myself in the exciting world of consumer psychology and marketing. With my PhD degree in hand, I headed west to join the distinguished marketing faculty at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. After several productive years in Los Angeles, UBC offered me my dream job. I still pinch myself some days—working with remarkable people and living in such a beautiful place. I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of the faculty at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

Since joining UBC Sauder, I’ve had the privilege of teaching the entire spectrum of students: undergrads, MBAs, PhDs and executives. My work with the RHL and our Masters students began early in my tenure through UBC Sauder’s signature Global Immersion Experience (GIE). In the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as the faculty lead for three exciting and unique destinations: Tokyo, Japan; Santiago, Chile; and Berlin, Germany.

What has been your favourite research project so far?

My favourite research projects are those that not only fill an important gap in theory but also correct common misconceptions or mistaken assumptions in business practice.

In the time of a global pandemic, most of us are especially conscious about our social surroundings and sensitive about the people around us. One of my projects that seems particularly relevant right now has to do with what I termed relationship reminders in marketing. These include images and mentions of happy togetherness: friends, families, and romantic couples, which tend to be omnipresent. We encounter them in social media, movies, television programming, conversations with colleagues, in stores, and of course, in advertising. Marketers have often presumed that using relationship reminders is generally good for business.

However, my research shows that isn’t true. Businesses need to be very careful with that assumption. I find that this common practice of marketers using relationship reminders to promote consumption can actually backfire, hurting brands and sales. I find that simply reminding consumers of relationships they don't have reduces their indulgence across a range of product categories. That means consumers spend less money, choose lower-end brands of products, and opt for less indulgent foods. 

It is also a common assumption that consumers regularly indulge to help themselves feel better.  However, when faced with relationship reminders, that is not what consumers actually do. Why? It turns out that reminding consumers of a valued social relationship they lack will make them perceive themselves as less deserving. They restrict their indulgence because they feel unable to justify rewarding and treating themselves. My research further highlights the importance of distinguishing between how people feel (i.e., emotional reactions) and how they feel about themselves (deservingness).

Why do you feel it is important to teach responsible leadership to our students?

What a great question for the times we are living in. 

Responsible leadership and leadership development have been recurrent themes for me since my days as an undergraduate student—leadership development was the focus of my honors thesis. My chosen path at Duke was motivated by a strong desire to positively impact people’s lives on a larger scale. Working with mentors helped me realize that being a professor would offer me an opportunity to amplify that desired impact by influencing thoughts of both current leaders with my research, future leaders (our students) with my teaching, and society. 

Modern society has placed increasing importance on business not simply as an economic engine but as an agent of social change. Business leaders hold substantial power to influence not only the value they create through products and services but also in their ability to influence society and create positive social change across industries and continents. 

Responsible leaders must be able to work in challenging situations with people from all over the world, in a respectful, mindful, and constructive way. It comes back to UBC Sauder’s “three Rs”—rigor, respect, and responsibility—those are key qualities that we are helping to develop in our future leaders and our students here at UBC Sauder.  

What excites you about your new role as Academic Director of the Robert H. Lee Graduate School and what is your vision for the role?

So much! I value teamwork and believe in building a strong culture. I chose to come to UBC because of the culture. In my field of marketing and behavioural science, the scholars at UBC Sauder are world renowned for their research accomplishments. However, what I think is more special is that the people at UBC Sauder are not only remarkable scholars but also equally remarkable people. We care. We care about each other, our students and their success, and we care about the world we are living in and shaping. 

Compared to other graduate business schools, the RHL stands out for its unique emphasis on entrepreneurship, social impact, and sincere commitment to global business education. “Global” and “entrepreneurial” are not aspirational labels placed in course titles like you often see in other places. At the RHL, they are built into graduate student curriculum through programs like GIE and the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL).  We walk the talk, and our team works through the labyrinthine logistics of taking every full-time MBA student to a unique global destination through GIE. For us, team and culture are not simply business buzzwords but evident in the relationships forged between our students and with our faculty.

As the Academic Director, I am excited to help the RHL continue its work recruiting diverse student cohorts and leading change to help positively impact our world—that is what I see as our responsibility.