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Encourage Customer-Centric Thinking, Starting with a Moment of Struggle

This professor leverages the tools of applied psychology to help his students understand the unconscious and often irrational behavior that drives business decisions.


Luca Cian, PhD

Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

PhD in Psychology, Postdoc in Marketing, and MS and BS in Business and Institutional Communications

Growing up in Italy exposed Luca Cian to many different people and situations, ultimately igniting an interest in how people think. “I was hanging out with everyone—all different types of races, religions, socioeconomic groups, and political views—and it helped me understand the complexity of the world we live in,” he says. This experience instilled in him the value of recognizing other people’s worldviews. “It’s good to break from your comfort level and be exposed to different people. Everyone builds a distinct vision of life, and it isn’t always rational.”

Today, as an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Cian—whose doctorate is in psychology—helps business-minded students widen their focus from math and statistics to include the less rational workings of the mind. For example, most of the students who take his Consumer Behavior for MBAs elective are seeking to start an internship or begin a consulting business. (The course also attracts finance majors looking to dabble in something different.) In all of these cases, he says, students arrive with an imbalance of knowledge.

“Most of them are excellent with quantitative information and with numbers. But if you want to go into marketing, consulting, or entrepreneurship, a big part of what you will be dealing with is understanding how people think,” says Cian. “Students come to my class hoping to learn how to predict consumer behavior, but they soon realize that the consumer is often irrational. It is not possible to solve consumer behavior with a simple formula, because people are more complicated than math problems. You need to understand their psychology first.”

Challenge: Data analysis paints an incomplete picture

Companies claim to be consumer-centric, but many focus more on numbers, not people. Cian explains that data can reveal only so much about consumers, and whatever can be gleaned from online sources or public records is inherently backward looking. Analytics (the systemic analysis of statistics and other data) generally works well for large companies in terms of predicting consumer behavior, he allows. To anticipate the preferences of online users, for instance, Amazon examines massive databases of past consumer behavior—databases that are continuously updated from thousands of sources every second.

However, that approach does not work so well when it comes to introducing a new product. “[In those cases], it’s difficult to understand what is in the mind of the consumer,” says Cian. “When you ask customers what they prefer, they don’t always tell you the truth.” The reason is simple: “They don’t always know the truth,” he explains.

“For two years, we fill students with numbers, and they start to think of consumers as rational entities,” he says. “My goal is to provide them with the notion that people’s buying decisions aren’t always rational. If human behavior were rational, then consumer marketing behavior would be a formula in a spreadsheet. But that’s never the case—and I try to teach them why.”

To illustrate the point, Cian offers the true story of a consultancy job he had with a company in Singapore that built prototypes of an automated vacuum cleaner (similar to the Roomba). “One worked perfectly, and the other didn’t,” he says. “And the company found that customers didn’t want the one that worked perfectly. They preferred the other one.”

He also offers a variety of techniques that students can use to help them understand the apparently irrational side of consumer behavior. Cian teaches the pros and cons of each and encourages students to apply the ones that make sense for a given situation. These are some of the methods and tools he uses:

  • Implicit bias and projective techniques
  • Focus groups (often useful to understand social dynamics)
  • Ethnographic research (with the focus on what people do, rather than what they say)
  • Laddering techniques (to understand the values associated with each choice)
  • Sensory marketing (automatic and unconscious sensory associations people have with products and services)
  • Eye trackers and biofeedback measurement
  • Experimental design (A/B testing)

Innovation: Providing tools to reveal motivations behind behavior

Cian points out that a full 80% of innovations in the market fail. “Why? Certainly, some are not good products, but some are good products that are not able to sell,” he says. “If the company can’t communicate the benefits, the product will fail.”

People do not always want the best product, Cian explains to students, but instead are enticed by what they feel is best for them. They may have a higher perception of quality from the sounds or the texture of a product; for example, research indicates that the sound coming from a car’s door closure is connected with the perception of the quality of the car. Understanding these influences that drive consumer behavior can help companies (and students, interns, employees, consultants, and entrepreneurs) anticipate the preferences of their customers.

The solution, says Cian, lies in teaching students a new way of thinking. “I’m interested in creating a mental skill [in MBAs]—the capacity to understand that the problem they are facing is not completely linear and has multiple nuances.”

He begins by presenting students with a case study that presents what he describes as a “moment of struggle.” As it turns out, the exercise is as much a struggle for him as for them—at least at first.


“Today’s students need to be able to deal well with ambiguity. The world outside is complex, and one cannot expect to apply the same solution to a multiplicity of problems. How you deal with complexity is key.”

— Luca Cian, PhD

Course: GBUS 8304 Consumer Behavior

Frequency: 80-minute classes twice a week, for eight weeks

Class size: 68

Course description: Business success begins with understanding what consumers want and need and ends with consumer engagement; therefore, a clear understanding of consumer behavior is crucial. If explaining consumer behavior were easy, products would sell as well as anticipated, advertising would always be successful, and marketing would simply be a prospect. In reality, as consumers, we are all very human, sometimes irrational, and often difficult to predict. This course offers methodological and conceptual tools to better understand consumers from a psychological point of view. We will use cutting-edge frameworks and methodologies to get a deeper understanding of consumers’ hearts, minds, and actions. Most companies insist they focus on the customers, yet reality often contradicts that assertion. Do companies really understand what customers want and why they want it? Academic objectives of the course: Provide an overview of the newest and cutting-edge theories in consumer behavior and consumer psychology; increase skills in testing for hypotheses with the right tools and methodologies; increase familiarity with consumer assessment tools (e.g., surveys, A/B testing, eye-tracking, and unconscious techniques).

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Lesson: Put students through a “moment of struggle”

For a student body that is accustomed to being supplied with answers, consumer behavior can appear something of an unsolvable puzzle. And that’s precisely the point. Cian wants his students to go through a period of uncertainty while they try to figure out what is going on.

Lead students into uncharted waters

“Every year, I teach a case called Uncharted Waters at Ventoso Ship Supply: A Sensory Marketing Dilemma. This is a case I wrote on unconscious associations,” Cian says. He uses the case to illustrate how unconscious and conscious meanings and experiences come together to influence a given consumer’s decision. “Every time I teach it, I think I should take it out for next year, because the students are so quiet. I’m used to students chiming in and talking all the time. With this case, that is not the situation. But at the end of the semester, when I ask about their favorite cases, this case is always #1 or #2. It’s very different—it allows them to see consumer behavior from a completely new point of view.”

In this case, purchase behavior is examined on a deep level. It resolves a real problem a company had in understanding its customer base. Specifically, the sales rates for two boat models of an Italian sailboat manufacturer were especially odd. Despite one’s superior technical specifications, speed, amenities, and overall value for money, these higher-end models were hard to sell. However, a lower-quality boat was sold at an astonishing rate, even though the price was similar. This was a problem that could not be solved by running a regression or using a generic questionnaire.

Provide plenty of options

Cian believes that every problem requires a unique approach, so he makes sure to offer plenty of options—the more, the better. “If you have a toolbox and you need to put a nail in a wall, you use a hammer, not a screwdriver,” says Cian. “I want my students to be aware of all the techniques—pros and cons—and know which to use at a given moment.”

Some of the “tools” in Cian’s “toolkit” include research on the unconscious mind, sensory marketing, focus groups, ethnographic research, laddering, neuromarketing, experiments, and survey design.

“I don’t provide [students with] a solution,” he adds. “I provide some tools that help them to find a solution. If I had the key to every consumer’s mind, I would be a god, and that clearly is not the case.”

Give students time—and tools

Cian says that students’ confusion over the first case study is always partly resolved a third of the way through the semester, and fully resolved by the end of the semester.

Not only does Cian provide techniques and frameworks to help students understand (some of) the complexity of consumer behavior, he also exposes them to multiple problems—seven case studies in all—and he teaches them how to think about each particular one.

“I give them the ability and the skills to think that each problem requires adopting different solutions and different tools. The rest is up to them. It’s good to have a moment of disruption before building everything up again,” he says.

By the end, they will have acquired the mental skill to deal with ambiguity—and instead of throwing their hands in the air and giving up, they have some ideas of tools and solutions to try.


Cian hears from many former students who use the techniques in their internships and in their careers after earning their degree.

“More than any class I have taught in my life, this is the one [that results in] the most emails from students who say that they are going back to their notes and using what they learned,” he says. “I receive a lot of emails from people in the field, saying, ‘Now I fully understand.’”

Student feedback

Student evaluations of the class are always quite high. “I have a full class of 65, plus 45 people on the waiting list,” says Cian. “The only complaint is that there is too much work. But I will take that.”

“Last year, I had comments from students saying that this is one of the hardest classes at Darden,” he says. “These people are good with numbers. But this class exercises a [different] set of mental skills. A student has to understand the social complexities and the psychological complexities and nuances at the moment when a person makes a decision.”

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