Remembering Sidney J. Levy

“Marketing Mensch” - A Portrait Collage of Sidney J. Levy (Markus Giesler)

“Marketing Mensch” - A Portrait Collage of Sidney J. Levy (Markus Giesler)

Next week, many of us consumer researchers will come together for the Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) Conference 2019 in Montreal. At CCT, the Sidney J. Levy Award will be given again in honor of Sidney Levy, one of CCT’s founding fathers.

This is a good time to remember Sidney.

I recently had the opportunity to talk about Sidney’s life at a memorial organized by his daughter Joyce, Brian Sternthal, and Alice Tybout at the Kellogg School of Management in Evanston. This is what I said:

Remarks as prepared
A Celebration of Life
Sidney J. Levy (1921-2018)
September 15, 2018
White Auditorium
Kellogg - Northwestern University

Dear Joyce,
Dear Family, Friends, and Students of Sidney’s,

I am Markus Giesler, I first met Sidney 17 years ago in Chicago during my first week as a visiting student here at Kellogg. I heard him speak at a University-of-Chicago sponsored conference about the history and contemporary impact of Social Research Incorporated, or SRI for short.

Joyce, you asked me to talk a bit about Sidney’s time with SRI, and about some of his contributions from this era. This I will gladly do.

Sidney joined SRI in 1948, when he was only 27. SRI was a marketing consulting firm and think tank, founded by a group of young people who had veered off from the University when a series of coincidences and opportunities made a venture into the commercial world seem like a very good idea indeed.

Over the next decade, Sidney and his colleagues would revolutionize market research, transforming its assumptions, methods, goals, and consequences in ways that quickly redirected the world of advertising and marketing and slowly made consumption a focus of purely academic inquiry.

Sidney referred to his time with SRI as “the most exciting and intensely absorbing in my life. We lived SRI from breakfast until bedtime, brooding over methods and data gathering and seeking penetrating insights.”

This obsession was probably in parts owing to Burleigh Gardner’s client acquisition strategy. Gardner, a social anthropologist, had the tendency to accept assignments without knowing whether SRI could actually perform them, forcing Sidney and the rest of the team to be particularly creative.

Through the years, SRI did a series of ground-breaking work for AT&T, Coca-Cola, the Wrigley Company, FTD, and many other organizations – always combining commercial with academic pursuits. Sidney eventually migrated to the academic camp and joined Northwestern's marketing department in 1961, becoming its chair in 1980.

It is often argued that, while the influences of SRI’s work are still felt today in things like “brand image,” “focus groups,” and the academic study of the meanings of consumption, SRI was short-lived. 

To challenge this point, I would like you to have a look at this slide.

Past Winners and Honorable Mentions of the Sidney J. Levy Award

Past Winners and Honorable Mentions of the Sidney J. Levy Award

Joyce, you recently said, “I remember when we were kids and all these SRI people were around the house:” Harriet Moore, Lee Rainwater, Burleigh Gardner, Ira Glick, Richard Coleman. Look at how much the family has grown since then.

The names that you see here are all winners, co-winners, and honorable mentions of the Sidney J. Levy Award that was created in 2007 to honor Sidney’s life and contributions.

Sidney’s time with SRI lives on in these and many other scholars who greatly benefited from Sidney’s wonderful mentorship, and who could be seen as SRI’s current research staff. I’m proud to see how female, ethnically diverse, and international this roster of scholars is. And I’m glad that we had ten precious award ceremonies where Sidney was with us in the room so that we could celebrate his legacy and his deep connection with today’s marketing scholarship.

At SRI, for instance, Sidney imported crucial insights from anthropology to study consumers, providing the very basis for Michelle Weinberger to study ritual consumption and gift giving here at Northwestern.

At SRI, Sidney pioneered the idea of looking at consumption through the lens of families, offering a platform for Amber Epp to study family consumption at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

At SRI, Sidney focused on the relationship between consumption and social class, offering a platform for Zeynep Arsel to investigate taste and social class in her work at Concordia University.

At SRI, Sidney emphasized the importance of market institutions and systems-level sociology, allowing Ashlee Humphreys at Medill or myself at Schulich to study legitimation and how markets are created and changed.

Sidney with past Levy Award winners and their supervisors

Sidney with past Levy Award winners and their supervisors

Today is our chance to say thank you for brightening our lives, Sidney, for pioneering all these consumer research domains and conversations that we could join. It is our chance to thank you for your wonderful stories, your funny jokes, your incredible modesty, and your powerful charm.

But your greatest quality was your empathy. This is what underpinned all your other wonderful attributes. When I was a first-year doctoral student, talking to you was like talking to another first-year doctoral student. When I got tenure, you had just gotten tenure too. Even when I had that breakup situation with my girlfriend, you were right there having just gone through the exact same thing.

Without your empathy and compassion, we wouldn’t be in a colder or less caring field. We would likely not have a field at all.

Sidney explained to me once that it was his innermost fear of rejection that made him become a consumer researcher. And here we come to perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Sidney’s years with SRI.

For all the glamour and awards, and for all his strength, Sidney remained a very vulnerable person. What is often sadly missing from the official SRI account is that the Sidney Levy who walked through the doors of the Hyde Park bank building on 53rd Street some seventy years ago wasn’t a maverick researcher ripe with confidence.

Sidney was born in 1921, grew up in a poor Chicago neighborhood and never even thought he could afford a university degree. At the age of 20, World War Two was just beginning. He joined the army airforce, and after two years in the service, a college education became reality.

The person who set out to do all this pioneering work at SRI was a 27-year old boy from a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, a child of the great depression, a broke grad student, a war veteran, and someone who simply wanted a piece of the American Dream and a little bit of recognition and love. Those were Sidney's own words.

Sidney Levy as a USAF air cadet (left), with his mother and sister (middle), and as a young man

Sidney Levy as a USAF air cadet (left), with his mother and sister (middle), and as a young man

When I first met Sidney in 2001, he still was all of these things. Sidney was so prolific during SRI and after precisely because he had never ceased to be vulnerable. In fact, it was this side of him in particular that made him so loved among members of my cohort and that makes carrying on without Sidney so extremely difficult for all of us. 

When you enter into a field as a newbie, and you are surrounded by so many giants, is it easy to feel crushed. Knowing that the biggest giant of all also had the biggest heart and sometimes even the biggest tears was extremely comforting. Sidney’s years with SRI send the very encouraging message to all of us, and especially to our younger marketing scholars, that who you are and where you come from is always an asset and never a liability.

Before I end, I would like to do two things. First, I would like to thank you, Joyce and Brian and Alice, for gathering us here today. Joyce, your dad told me so many times how much he loved you and Bruce and your mom, and how deeply proud he was of you and your brother.

And second, I would like to respond to one of Sidney’s wishes. The last two words from his last poem he gave at the Consumer Culture Theory Conference in 2017 were “Remember Me.” 

Remember me. 

I understand Sidney’s call as an important reminder to all of us that we should reciprocate to this great gift called being a "consumer culture researcher," a gift that we received from him, with respect and compassion for each other. 

According to Leo Rosten, a "mensch" is "someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being "a real mensch" is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous." 

In Sidney's life, the pioneer, the listener, the scientist, the giver, the story teller, the mentor, the father, and the friend, all brought to fruition for the first time during his years with SRI, culminated to form what we might call "Sidney Levy, the Marketing Mensch."

Let us remember Sidney by being respectful, compassionate, and caring, like the Mensch he was,

- especially towards colleagues from other paradigms,

- especially towards people in less privileged positions,

- and especially towards our marketing practitioners,

with a sense of humor, and with the ability to listen to and learn from our own feelings and fears and those of our fellow human beings.

When we do this, we will live long and beautifully and in deep gratitude for the legendary, the fragile, and the amazing Sidney Levy whose ground-breaking contributions, larger-than-life personality, and humble smile will never be extinguished from our minds.

Markus Giesler

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.