By Annette Finley-Croswhite

Yuping Liu-Thompkins is an acclaimed marketing expert who founded ODU’s Loyalty Science Lab in 2020 as a way of using scientific research to better understand brand and customer loyalty and to increase the connections between the University and local businesses. The project worked so well that the Loyalty Lab has become a global phenomenon with 1,200 followers on all six continents. 

Some of the original inspiration for her interest in customer loyalty came from being an immigrant to the United States as a graduate student and finding she missed brands she enjoyed in China but couldn’t find here. This experience led her to reflect on loyalty, and a research trajectory was the result.    

Liu-Thompkins, a professor of marketing at Old Dominion, will be the guest of honor at the fall 2023 Provost’s Spotlight. The event will be held from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Oct. 26 at the University Theatre.  

Liu-Thompkins has received numerous accolades, including the Strome College of Business Research Award and Doctoral Mentoring Award. She also earned the Journal of Marketing’s Outstanding Reviewer Award and is an E.V. Williams Faculty Fellow, to name only a few of her many honors. She was also recently named one of the top 2% of scientists in the world by Stanford University.

Ahead of the Provost’s Spotlight, Liu-Thompkins answered some questions from the Center for Faculty Development.

1. You began your studies at Renmin University in China. Can you briefly discuss your career trajectory from Renmin to Rutgers and eventually to Old Dominion University?

Renmin University was where I "fell into" marketing. I entered the university as a pricing major when an academic marketing major did not yet exist. However, within my first year there, the university decided to switch the entire major over to marketing due to evolving demands. As I studied different marketing subjects, I became interested in how business giants like Lee Iacocca and Bill Gates built or revived their businesses. Their stories inspired me and were a key reason for my pursuing graduate education in the United States.

I joined ODU right after graduating from my Ph.D. program at Rutgers. I remember how nice and welcoming my two interviewers, John Ford and Anusorn Singhapakdi, were. It is hard to believe that was more than 20 years ago. I attribute a big part of what I have accomplished in my career to the support of a wonderful group of colleagues here at ODU.

2. What do you like best about the academic discipline of marketing?

I like how diverse and relatable the marketing discipline is. People with very different talents and interests can find commonalities within marketing. Our field has scholars with excellent math skills using sophisticated quantitative models to analyze large quantities of consumer transaction data; we have consumer psychologists who run lab experiments or conduct qualitative interviews to figure out why or how people make purchase decisions; we even have scholars creating poems and films as products of their research. It's such an exciting field with a fascinating group of people. I have diverse interests, and marketing allows me to touch them all. As a bonus, many students find marketing fun and relatable to their lives, making them an engaged audience. I mean, who wouldn't love to talk about entertaining Super Bowl commercials or viral videos?

3. How did you become fascinated by the topic of customer loyalty?

My initial interest in customer loyalty came from my experience as a new immigrant having to learn brands all over again. I felt nostalgic toward the brands and products I used to buy all the time but were no longer available in America. For the first time, I recognized my attachment to those products. That was the seed of my interest in the topic of loyalty.

Shortly after I joined ODU, a local entrepreneur, Anton Bakker, contacted me wanting to collaborate on research. Anton founded Outsite Networks, which supplied loyalty program systems to gas stations and convenience stores. He saw my research interest in personalized marketing and wanted to know if I could do some research on the data they captured through their system. That research on the long-term impact of loyalty programs was my first full-fledged project on loyalty and became my first top journal hit, a pretty exciting moment for me as a junior faculty.

From that point on, it sort of just snowballed. I ended up studying the difference between true loyalty and habit with a former colleague at ODU. Then, through other opportunities that came along the way, I explored various topics on building and leveraging customer loyalty. I came to the conclusion that today's brands need to build customer loyalty systematically if they want to create valuable assets and gain long-term competitive advantages.

4. Please tell us about your personal passion for technology and your interest in digital marketing.

I have always been a geek. I love computers and anything high-tech. The intersection between my love of technology and marketing happened during my dissertation research. Knowing that I would be working on the dissertation topic for two years, I needed something I was genuinely interested in. As I thought about where technology met marketing at the time, digital marketing immediately came to mind. This was back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Facebook was not here yet, and even Google was still starting up. But the possibility of engaging with consumers interactively, not to mention all the space companies now have to share information with their customers (instead of 30-second commercials or one-page print ads), was tremendously exciting for marketers. I ended up researching the interactive nature of websites and how that affects consumer attitudes and purchase behaviors. I even got to geek out by learning HTML and designing my first-ever website used in the empirical studies.

5. Can you explain to readers the story behind the Loyalty Science Lab and how it came to be?  

The Loyalty Science Lab was born from an initial desire to engage more with our business community. With business education changing significantly over the last few decades, business schools are expected to develop closer relationships with the business community and make an impact on society. My experience has shown me how much of a win-win that engagement can be, starting with my entry into the loyalty area through collaboration.

With that in mind, in the fall of 2019, I went searching for the possibility of scaling up that engagement from an individual one-off thing to a broader effort involving more faculty and students. After a comprehensive analysis of university marketing centers around the country, I realized there was a vacuum around loyalty. I saw plenty of university centers dedicated to retailing or sales, but none was dedicated to enriching our understanding of brand and customer loyalty, despite the importance of the topic. This was an area that we could really make an impact and enhance the reputation for ODU at the same time. So, in the spring of 2020, after a few months of planning, we officially launched the Loyalty Science Lab.

6. What is the mission of the lab?

The Loyalty Science Lab's mission is to create and promote cutting-edge scientific research on brand and customer loyalty. The overall idea is to build on the scientific tools we have to advance our understanding in the loyalty area. Marketing scholars have done a lot of outstanding research on brand and customer loyalty. Yet that research is often stuck in hard-to-understand academic jargon that fails to reach the practitioners who could really use the insight. At the same time, being on the front line enables loyalty practitioners to observe consumers in high fidelity and recognize issues before academics pick them up. An exchange between the two worlds would create a win-win for everyone involved.

Over the last few years, we have done precisely that – building a bridge between academic research and loyalty practice. We identify high-priority research questions with input from both academics and practitioners and engage in research projects to answer those questions. At the same time, we bring to the business community scientifically sound research findings in an accessible language, complete with how-to-implement recommendations, so that academic research can make a broader impact. This model has worked well so far, and we have been able to touch loyalty marketers and researchers around the world.

7. I note you’ve had a number of visiting professorships around the world, including ones in China and France. How have these experiences enriched your understanding of the discipline of marketing?

These visiting professorships have been an absolute joy for me. There is a famous Chinese saying, "Read 10,000 books, travel 10,000 miles." Different people interpret the saying differently. To me, it means that learning through books and learning through travel go hand in hand. As we travel and see things with our own eyes, what we read in the books comes alive and takes on brand-new meanings. Through these visiting professorships, not only did I have the opportunity to engage in intellectual exchange with colleagues from other cultures, but I also got to see consumption and marketing firsthand.