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Debra J. Ringold: Marketing Guru

Debra J. Ringold has come a long way since her college days in Texas, when she helped organize fine arts programs on her campus. At that time, she thought she wanted to be a doctor -- like her father and grandfather before her -- but the job of deciding which arts programs might be popular in the community and working to bring them to campus was appealing. "I really liked it," she says, "so at the end of my senior year, I asked someone, 'What is this we're doing?' They said, 'It's marketing.'"

An MBA and PhD later, Ringold now teaches marketing at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. This summer she was named chairperson of the board of directors for the American Marketing Association, the nation's powerhouse organization for marketing professionals. She's been a board member since 2000.

The 38,000-member organization includes academics, researchers, marketing managers and students. "We like to think of ourselves as the home for marketing professionals, regardless of the domain in which they work," Ringold says.

That industry-wide connectivity is something Ringold wants to emphasize during her time as chairperson. An AMA conference this fall in Orlando, called Mplanet, will be a good start. This conference is unprecedented, Ringold says, in that it will bring all different types of marketing professionals together to share ideas, learn from each other and network. "If we work together, marketers can better serve their organizations' customers," she says.

Dedication to Research
Much of Ringold's next year as chairperson will be spent on the road, flying to AMA meetings and events and talking with organization members to hear their ideas. "I'm really a marketer -- I believe you listen to your consumers and you do what they want," she says.

Balancing her AMA duties with her teaching responsibilities will be tough, but Ringold says she is ready for the challenge. After a yearlong sabbatical, she returned to Atkinson this fall to teach four classes. Being away from campus for the last year doesn't mean Ringold was idle -- she spent much of the time writing papers, redesigning her classes and working for some of her clients.

Research is important to Ringold, who methodically laid out a 10-year research plan for her main interest, public policy and marketing. Ringold particularly focuses on how commercial activity is regulated and how that affects consumer behavior. She has worked for the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, evaluating the impact their regulations have on consumers. "American consumers are very knowledgeable about the way markets work, and they also understand their own preferences," she says. "For the most part, they know how to get what they want from markets."

Policy makers and business people often underestimate the intelligence of consumers, Ringold says, something she discovered in a study she conducted on how people use the nutrition facts panel on the back of food items. Her findings showed that even people without a high school education could work well with the nutrition facts panel and were good at using that panel to judge claims made by the product's manufacturer.

For example, if a company claimed its food product was good for the heart, consumers might turn to the product's panel and note that it was low in salt (supporting the claim) but high in saturated fat (contrary to the claim). "They were very discerning," Ringold says. "That surprised some people. We have a tendency to underrate what consumers are capable of doing."

Looking to the Future
Consumers' increased attention to the products they purchase is driving one of the major changes Ringold sees happening in the marketing industry: higher customer expectations. "Consumers are never satisfied, and I think that's a good thing," she says. "Consumers want more satisfaction for less money, and that really pushes organizations to improve their performance."

To react to the higher demands, businesses are asking for more accountability from their own employees and from the marketers they hire to help them, Ringold says. "Organizations are holding marketing to higher and higher standards in terms of return on their investment. Every facet of the organization is being asked, 'How can you contribute to customer satisfaction?'"

Ringold's passion for her field comes through in the firm yet thoughtful way she discusses it -- and in the way she leans forward during conversations to fully engage the listener. Ringold's path from college event planner to top marketing leader was obviously well chosen. "My father still wishes I had become a doctor, but I think even he appreciates how delighted I am with what I'm doing," she says. "And that is my definition of success: doing something I like doing, and working hard at it. You just can't beat that."