Punam Keller: Social Marketing, With a Focus on Well-Being

Photo by Rob Strong ’04


By Dana Cook Grossman

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is one in a ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

Punam Anand Keller is the Charles Henry Jones Third Century Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business. She grew up in India and earned an MBA there before coming to the U.S. for a doctorate in marketing at Northwestern University. Professor Keller, who has been at Dartmouth since 1998, recently spoke with Dartmouth Now about her work in social marketing, her family, which TV series she watches when she’s working out, and the best piece of advice she’s ever heard.

Your field is social marketing. Can you describe what that means?

It’s the application of commercial marketing precepts to a different purpose—instead of to market performance or profitability, to individual and collective well-being.

You focus on people’s choices about health and money. Can you give an example of a project in each area?

Most of my interventions are communication-based. For example, Dartmouth wanted to increase employee participation in a wellness assessment; employees were offered a $100 incentive to participate, but only 30 percent did so. I designed communications to address the barriers keeping people from signing up; for example, some worried about confidentiality, so we said, “This is done via third party; Dartmouth doesn’t see any information you provide.” After the intervention, 58 percent of employees participated.

What about a financial project?

I worked with the Department of Treasury to help Americans understand the core capabilities of personal financial well-being, identify what they needed to do to improve their capabilities, and then take action to do so. If you go to mymoney.gov, you’ll see the result.

How did you get into social marketing and these specialties?

I started off in commercial marketing. Then my first doctoral student, when I was teaching at Columbia, was doing her dissertation on fear-based appeals for vigilance about skin cancer. I realized that a lot of assumptions in commercial marketing applied to her topic, but in a more a challenging way. I was hooked. Later, I realized how much overlap there is between health choices and financial choices.

Is that because both have to do with personal well-being?

Yes. In addition, in both areas we put more value on present costs and benefits than on future costs and benefits. Both also require complicated trade-offs—for example, do I want to keep working so I can save more for retirement, or play with my grandchildren now?

You’ve found that people often don’t recognize the cost of the status quo.

People associate costs with actions and are afraid to take a wrong action. Inaction seems to people not to involve costs. They don’t realize—actually, I shouldn’t say “they,” because I’m included—we don’t realize that inaction has costs. That if I don’t start a retirement account now, I’ll lose compounded interest.

How do you address that mindset?

There are lots of ways. For example, if someone says, “I don’t have time to sign up now,” we may say, “It’ll take you less time to move toward a secure retirement than it will to unload your dishwasher.” Or we’ll remind people that they can change their minds, that their choice isn’t set in stone.

How did you end up at Dartmouth?

My husband and I were both at Duke and loved it there. Then we had an offer from Dartmouth we couldn’t refuse. I give [Tuck’s] Dean Danos full credit. During my interview, he said, “Tell me what gets in the way of your research.” In my offer letter, the opening sentence of each paragraph was, “You said this gets in the way, and here’s how we’re going to overcome that barrier.” It was very persuasive.

He used social marketing to recruit you.

He totally did. It was definitely marketing, and I hope it was social, because I hope I’ve increased the well-being of the school and the community.

What’s kept you here for 16 years?

I travel a lot, but when I’m here the whole campus is one big lab for me. I’ve done several employee initiatives. I’ve worked with economists. I’ve taken sociology classes. I took an ethnography class from Hoyt Alverson. I go to interdisciplinary seminars. I do projects with Dartmouth-Hitchcock. I’ve stayed here because people are so open to doing research across campus. Some people think being small is a disadvantage, but I see it as a big advantage because everybody knows each other and trusts each other.

You teach an elective on social marketing. Is there a particular kind of student who takes it?

I get students from all over campus, even though it’s an M.B.A. class: Tuck students, of course, but also people who work at Dartmouth, students from TDI [The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice], engineering students, undergraduates. I love that people who work here and people who are students here come together to discuss their goals and use what they learn to further them.

What other courses do you teach?

I also teach undergraduates in the Rockefeller Center Leadership Fellows program, masters of public health students, students in health care delivery science. This spreads the role of social marketing and helps people not in business see that businesses can do well while doing good.

What keeps you busy outside of work?

I have two kids, one in college and one in high school, and I spend a lot of time with them. I was at a swim meet yesterday. I also work out for an hour every day. I make it fun by watching a TV series on Netflix—I allow myself to watch only while I’m working out.

What series are you watching now?

I just began Boston Legal. I like programs where I learn something—say, about the law.

Anything else?

I love cooking—all kinds of cuisines. I pick up cookbooks when I travel. I just got one, The Food of Myanmar. I also try to pick up fresh spices wherever I am. I think of it like my research—throwing things together, not following all the rules but some of the rules. It’s the most creative part of my day outside work. I never used to think my work was creative, until I read the biography of Steve Jobs. He defined creativity as connecting things that other people don’t connect. That made me decide that maybe I am creative after all.

What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?

My dad asked me after school every day not whether I knew the answers, but whether I’d asked good questions. It was a great way of making me think, keeping me from accepting things just because they were written or because someone said so.

Any concluding thoughts?

I believe it’s important to be mindful, not to think that activity equals accomplishment. That means being disciplined, sometimes saying no to things that would be interesting but would make you lose your focus. I love the arts, and I care about sustainability; I’ve had lots of opportunities to work in those areas, but you have to pick your focus. Our dean talks about thought leadership. He says, “I don’t care what you’re working on, as long as it’s relevant and you’re the go-to person.” I think those are really good guidelines, but they mean you have to make choices.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



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