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Being Like Peter

Brand strategist Peter Sealey, co-creator of the Center for Marketing Technology at U.C. Berkeley, models his approach after business philosopher Peter Drucker.

By Kate Kaye, March 01, 2001

Peter wants to be like Peter. That is, Peter Sealey is propelled by a Peter Drucker dream. In fact, Sealey, an adjunct professor and consultant with an impressive history as a marketing executive, considers Drucker, an internationally renowned professor and author, to be his idol and mentor.

Although current dot-com hard times have instilled trepidation in many younger and less-experienced entrepreneurs, adversity has only served to invigorate the 60-year-old Sealey. Perhaps his years at Coca-Cola ( (KO), )-where his posts included senior vice-president of global marketing-particularly during the embarrassingly swift flop of New Coke, have contributed to his "been there, done that, own the T-shirt" mentality. He's still learning, though, and the vibrant life of Drucker, a noted authority on corporate management and author of over 30 business titles serves as a constant reminder of just how far Sealey can go.

A phone call from dreary Jersey City, N.J., finds Sealey at work in his Northern California office, boasting of voluptuous waves crashing on the beach outside his sun-flooded window. As the co-director and co-creator of the Center for Marketing Technology at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, the nation's oldest business school at a public university, he discusses his focus on how technology and marketing impact one another. Through his work at the center, a separate research arm of the school, as well as his teaching, Sealey aims to communicate his ideas to the entrepreneurs, businesses, and students who can most benefit from them.

"I see the enormous benefits that Stanford gets from being located in the epicenter of Silicon Valley. What I'm really trying to do with the center is help Berkeley bring some of those people across the bridge," he explains.

Since its inception in 1998, the center has managed to entice about 18 corporate members to make that leap from the valley to Berkeley's side of the bay, in order to engage in and influence center studies. Member companies pay yearly dues to directly determine the research unit's choice of study topics (last year's focus was the strategic use of database marketing), which are then dissected by doctoral and post-doctoral students and participants from around the U.S.

In addition, Sealey's teaching work at Haas directly impacts local business minds. "The last class I taught [Marketing in a Digital Age] had the largest waiting list at the school," he boasts. "There is an intense interest in the Internet and high-technology market."

The adjunct professor (non-tenured practicing professional) ensures, "We are not throwing out the rules of the great business education based on the Web, but we're certainly having to adapt to it." According to Sealey, a firm grounding in economics, finance, marketing, and statistics remains imperative. However, even though he is adamant about the importance of understanding these principles, he sees a change in the parameters of how business is structured.

"I think you're seeing the destruction of the normal boundaries of a firm," reasons Sealey. In essence, he believes that two things have changed since the Internet has taken hold: The Net has enabled all companies to "take on a more amorphous boundary." And secondly, the locus of power has moved from the manufacturer and retailer to the consumer.

Still, Sealey insists on always keeping the basics in mind. "Technology has had a profound effect on the structure of business, and the conduct of business," he admits, "but the tools with which you conduct that business are still very valid."

Alluding to the 2000 Super Bowl's brand building spots that were an "affront to anybody who understood how to build a brand," Sealey argues that much of 2000 represented a time when there "were no reasonable restraints on the conduct of business." Rather than lose themselves in overblown market valuations and capricious marketing decisions, students and universities must understand the realities of business 101, while adapting to the shift brought on by the new technologies of the digital era.

In order to ensure that his students are among the fittest to survive this transition, Sealey looks to those struggling out in the real world. His students focus on fundamentals like distribution, branding, and crisis management. War stories are told first-hand by innovative marketing executives from companies such as USWeb/CKS (now marchFIRST) ( (mrch), ), Visa, MyPoints.com, UPS (UPS) and Johnson & Johnson ( (JNJ), ). In addition to such personal appearances, Sealey also references other real-world corporations to shed light on winning (and losing) strategies. For instance, he has used Pets.com's distribution model to represent a failure, while Amazon.com's ( (amzn), ) symbolizes success.

Of course Sealey also shares a lesson or two from his own experience with students. The story behind Coca-Cola's introduction of New Coke in 1985 provides ample fodder for a full day's class. Sealey uses this failed launch of a brand extension to exemplify why simplification of brands is key. In fact, Sealey just co-authored a book on the topic.

Entitled Simplicity Marketing: End Brand Complexity, Clutter, and Confusion, (Free Press, October 2000) Sealey says the overarching theme of his new book is the danger of confusing consumers by offering them too much choice.

Sealey encapsulates the overall theme of "Simplicity Marketing":

"In the second half of the 20th century, we made so many options available to consumers that I believe we have reached a saturation point. I believe the marketing successes of this decade are going to be those marketers who simplify the lives of their consumers and reduce stress in the lives of [those people]. That takes a whole different approach than what marketing used to take."

He should know. When he left Coca-Cola, there were 27 different permutations of the product, as opposed to the lone option of a 6.5 ounce bottle in 1956. "You don't need 27 different variations of Coca-Cola," quips Sealey. "Most importantly," he adds, "it confuses people."

Sealey's clarity has not only influenced his readers and students, but fellow business people. Currently serving on eleven boards of public and pre-public companies, mainly Silicon Valley Web firms, he enjoys working with Internet start-ups because of the ability to truly impact basic business models. Compare this to what Sealey considers the "modest" contributions he's made through his work with long-established bricks and mortar firms such as UPS and Procter & Gamble ( (PG), ), and the reason for his fervor is apparent.

Despite his experience and drive to share his wealth of knowledge, Sealey relishes the work he has yet to accomplish. With a power-house like Peter Drucker as an inspiration, it's no wonder Sealey plans to continue on this path for years to come. "The better days are ahead," he predicts. "The impact [is] yet to be felt. It's just a time of enormous transition and I'm just delighted to be involved in it.