| 12.12.2019

Grönroos Award 2019 winners Suvi Nenonen and Kaj Storbacka: “Companies will play a key role in solving our current crises”

Professors Kaj Storbacka and Suvi Nenonen standing in front of a building
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of CERS, Centre for Relationship Marketing and Service Management at Hanken, the Grönroos Prize 2019 was awarded to prominent service researchers, Professor Suvi Nenonen and Professor Kaj Storbacka.

You both have had a long career in the field of marketing and service management. What made you become interested in this particular area?

Kaj: I studied simultaneously for a master’s degree both in marketing (at Hanken) and in naval architecture (at Aalto University). During my studies, the subject that I connected to the most was service management and especially Christian Grönroos’ way to describe this. It felt relevant and also important for the economy. After a year as a doctoral student, Christian introduced me to a consulting company formed by Richard Normann, whom he had worked with in a project before, and working with Richard opened my eyes to all the opportunities that firms can have by re-defining themselves as service providers. And I have never looked back 😊.

Suvi: My journey to marketing and service management got under way from practical experiences. In 2003, I started working as a management consultant. Many of my initial customer projects related to customer management and service development – and while working on these projects I realized that I want to learn more. Both to help our clients but also to satisfy my own curiosity about customer-oriented strategy and innovation.


You have been working at Hanken before your careers abroad. What is your background with CERS and its researchers?

Suvi: I finished my PhD at Hanken ten years ago, in 2009. Even though I haven’t had the privilege of spending a lot of time at CERS (I worked full-time during my PhD studies), I have been teaching in Hanken’s marketing courses since 2007: first as a guest lecturer and later as the main teacher. Through these courses and other CERS engagements I have been fortunate enough to forge lasting friendships and research collaborations.

Kaj: I had just finished my PhD at Hanken when CERS was founded, and in my role as research director for CERS worked closely with especially Christian Grönroos and Tore Strandvik at this time. We published an article in 1994 in what today is called Journal of Service Management, which is still my 2nd most cited article.

Over the years we have continuously kept in contact with a number of the researchers at CERS also during the time when we were running our consulting firm, Vectia.


Suvi, you have written several books aiming to increase understanding between the business and the academia. What is the most important message that you would like to send to business practitioners? And to academic researchers?

Suvi: To business practitioners my main message is: “steal with pride”. It is quite likely that the problem that you are struggling with today has been faced – and possibly solved – by other organizations already. You are likely to save a lot of time by reaching out to the research community to find out what kind of knowledge and solutions already exist. And if your dilemma is a genuinely new one, engaging a team of researchers to solve it may be much faster and cheaper than you think.

To academic researchers I would like to emphasize that our main audience is not the other scholars – even though we tend to spend a quite a lot of time with them – but the society. Thus, we must serve the society by producing useful knowledge and high-quality education. And it is much easier to achieve these objectives, at least when working in fields related to business, if we collaborate with industry practitioners. They know the trickiest business problems and hence are our conduit to the coolest research questions – and to the data that we need to answer them!

Professors Suvi Nenonen and Kaj Storbacka sitting and smiling

Kaj, in your opinion, what are the most topical lessons that marketers should globally learn?

Kaj: Some things don’t change. Wroe Alderson already in 1965 asserted that “a theory of marketing explains how markets work”, and still we have not solved this. It is surprising the foundation for mainstream marketing, i.e., the market, is not even defined in the American Marketing Association’s dictionary.

Therefore, much of marketing research is based on flawed assumptions about the market. This has led most marketing research to focus too much on seller-buyer dyads and value chains, instead of value creating systems, and to be less interested in the total societal impact that firm operations have.

Today it is quite clear that markets cannot be understood only as a context for production and consumption, but rather as a context for value co-creation, involving a multitude of actors.

It is also clear that we need to spend more time on understanding how to not increase consumption, which is a bit of a conundrum for marketers!


The world is struggling with both environmental and democratic crises, and our future looks quite worrying. How could better understanding of markets and customers help us to solve our problems?

Suvi and Kaj: The key to this is to “internalize the externalities”. We need to understand that questions related to sustainability and social justice affect most areas of human activity and become key consideration for everyone. And we believe that companies will play a key role in solving our current crises.

Interestingly, the US Business Roundtable, representing 181 of the world’s largest companies, recently abandoned their view that corporations exist principally to serve their shareholders, and now argue that while each company serves its own corporate purpose, they share a fundamental commitment to all stakeholders.

Hence, firms are already taking a system-based and value-creation-centric view of strategy and, in the process, adapt a much wider view of the market. Looking at markets not only from a shareholder value perspective, but from a total stakeholder value perspective could be a foundation for researchers, as they create new tools and frameworks to help firms.


What advice would you give to younger scholars today, starting their career in the field of marketing?

Suvi and Kaj: We think that marketing as an academic discipline needs to re-invent itself. In 2020 and beyond, it is not really necessary – or ethical – for us to come up with tricks that encourage consumers to consumer more and more. However, the world desperately needs solutions that are able to create value for all stakeholders in a sustainable way. Marketing is, or at least should be, the science of value creation.

Furthermore, the technological advances related to big data, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence give us completely new tools to investigate and experiment. So, we would warmly recommend emerging marketing scholars to maintain a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to historical mainstream marketing and to boldly embrace the big challenges of the 21st century.


You work as professors in the University of Auckland. Is academic life different in New Zealand, compared to Finland?

Suvi and Kaj: The great thing with academic work is that you can do this work anywhere because the basic setup is very similar in all universities. Looking for differences between New Zealand and Finland, we would argue that Finnish academics are better connected to industry, which should create a platform for more managerially relevant research.


Other than work, what is important in your lives right now?

Suvi and Kaj: We suspect that many of our academic colleagues would agree that this line of work can be all-consuming. And being an academic couple, with several joint research projects always ongoing, means that we do “talk shop” over dinner 😊. That being said, we strive to have a life outside work as well. For example, we are currently renovating an old farmhouse in Finland. In New Zealand, we enjoy the great outdoors: our hiking boots have seen many trails and covered many, many miles.


The Grönroos Service Research Award

The Grönroos Service Research Award was established in 2010 by the Centre for Relationship Marketing and Service Management to recognized pioneering and innovative research in the spirit of the Nordic school of thought and non-traditional contributions made to service management theory. More about The Grönroos  Service Research Award.