Marketing Professor Brings Passionate, ‘Unfiltered’ Approach to UVA Darden — and Students Love It

By Dave Hendrick

University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Luca Cian said he remembers teachers from his youth who showed little interest in the material, the students and the act of instruction.

If the teacher doesn’t care, Cian said he remembers thinking, why should I?

Cian, an energetic instructor who often leaves his marketing classes drenched in sweat, has kept that memory close as he made his unlikely journey from the 6,000-person alpine village of Cortina, Italy, to the upper rungs of the graduate business education faculty world.

“My thing is, no matter how tired I am, no matter what I think about the case, I want to give every molecule of energy I have,” said Cian, who teaches both the core “First Year Marketing” course and the “Consumer Behavior” elective. “I want to convey passion and enthusiasm, and I really want students to understand what I find beautiful in the case.”

Cian’s own professional journey was repeatedly spurred on by a love of learning and wanting to know more.

He studied marketing and communications in his undergraduate and master’s programs in Trieste, Italy, where he was able to get an early taste of teaching social psychology. A Ph.D. was an obvious next step for someone who wanted to keep researching and teaching, and Cian pursued a doctorate at the University of Verona, where he began to hone his research interest at the nexus of marketing and social psychology.

Mining relatively new academic territory at the time, Cian said his psychology Ph.D. committee did not quite know what to make of his dissertation, “Multisensory Sort: A New Method to Explore Organizational and Brand Image.”

“My committee told me, ‘Hey, Luca, we understand the psychological side of it, but we have no idea about the marketing side of it, so you need to find someone who understands what you are doing,’” Cian said.

What could have been a dead-end instead led Cian to Professor Richard Bagozzi at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, who invited the Italian scholar with novel ideas to Ann Arbor, where he worked to successfully finish his Ph.D. The dissertation that was initially hard to parse eventually won the Italian Association of Psychology’s Best Doctoral Dissertation Award.

With a desire to pursue an academic career in marketing but a Ph.D. in psychology, his adviser — Ross Professor Aradhna Krishna — intervened, helping craft a three-year postdoctoral program in marketing in which Cian took classes with Ross Ph.D. students — likely shaving multiple years of additional study off his academic life.

Cian Is a Case Study in Connecting With Students

Teaching and an authentic connection with students is how Cian has built a strong reputation in short order. Repeatedly recognized for being in the top percentile for student evaluations, Cian was voted a faculty marshal by the Class of 2017 — the class that arrived on Grounds the same time he did — and was recently named one of Poets & Quants’ Best 40 Under 40 MBA Professors.

Cian said he knows most of his students won’t have a pure marketing role in their future but tries to convey that marketing is fundamentally an exercise in strategic decision-making with applicability to a host of functions. In class, he makes that point the only way he says he knows how — with energy.

“Every teacher at Darden is fantastic, and I’m not saying that giving energy is the best way to teach, but this is who I am,” said Cian. “It’s great that I can be who I am at Darden — unfiltered.”

Cian also hopes his willingness to be himself subtly encourages international students to be confident sharing their opinions in class.

“Some international students worry about speaking and think their grammar may not be perfect,” said Cian. “I say look at me, I make some mistakes when I talk and I have an accent, but I’m here to teach!”

It’s a style that clearly resonates with students.

“If there is any word that describes Luca, it’s passion. He’s so energetic and enthusiastic every day in class,” said Emily Hecker (Class of 2020), who took Cian’s “Consumer Behavior” course. “And he’s not just really passionate about the subject matter, he’s also really passionate about students and their success.”

Hecker, who recently received the G. Robert Strauss Marketing Award for exemplary contributions to the School, said Cian put “time, energy and probably some of his research budget” into helping lead a consumer behavior discussion series for students who had been waitlisted for the popular “Consumer Behavior” course.

“He’s just incredibly kind and incredibly generous with his time,” said Hecker.

Katie Behrman (Class of 2020) experienced Cian’s above-and-beyond commitment to students during one of the most distressing periods of her life.

The Atlanta native was finishing up the fourth quarter of her First Year when she started to experience strange lower back pains and odd tingling sensations but thought little of it. Visiting her mother in the Washington, D.C., area on Easter weekend,

Behrman’s health deteriorated rapidly. In the span of a day, she became paralyzed from the chest down.

Eventually diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or ADEM, a rare autoimmune disorder causing inflammation in the brain and spinal cord, Behrman’s outlook went from exams and a planned summer internship at Hershey to learning how to walk and function as she had before.

“Luca was incredible from the start,” Behrman said.

The Darden professor sent Behrman a video of the class doing a get-well cheer and began to correspond with her mother for updates, Behrman said.

When classes ended, Behrman said Cian drove to her hospital in Washington, D.C., to check on her and bring her a book — My Brilliant Friend, a novel by Italian author Elena Ferrante — he believed the former English major would like. He then turned around and drove home to Charlottesville.

“I was incredibly touched that a professor would go so out of his way to check in on me and continue to check in on me,” said Behrman.

Now back at Darden and rehabbing in Charlottesville, Behrman, who eventually expects to make a full recovery, said she and her mother recently hosted a dinner party with everyone who had visited her during her months of hospitalization.

Cian came to celebrate, toting a nice bottle of Italian wine and a card.

“I’ve just honestly been stunned,” said Behrman. “It’s meant the world to me.”

Bringing Experiments and Energy to Darden

For someone who immediately earned a reputation among students as a standout teacher, Cian said it was the research capabilities that helped make an eventual offer to teach at the Darden School so compelling.

Cian wanted to continue to explore the nascent field of sensory marketing — essentially how senses like vision, hearing and touch can affect the way consumers’ think and behave — and he knew that would require the time and freedom to study and conduct experiments.

Cian’s hire ahead of the 2015–16 academic year came as the School was seeking to grow its ability to run experiments and studies, and Cian saw a willing group of collaborators at Darden both within the Marketing area and beyond.

“I have all the resources and time to do the research as I would at any top school in the country,” Cian said. “That was really appealing.”

Cian was hired the same time as his friend, Professor Lalin Anik, both of whom brought experience and interest in consumer behavioral marketing, diverging from Darden’s traditional strengths in quantitative and strategic marketing.

At many schools, the areas are highly siloed within departments. At Darden, Cian said he has found a spirit of collaboration, noting the “day and night” support and mentorship he has received from Professor Tom Steenburgh and current research he is conducting with Professor Raj Venkatesan, marrying Venkatesan’s interest in big data with Cian’s consumer experiments.

“At other schools, it is surprisingly uncommon to work with people within your department,” Cian said.

Cian is increasingly running experiments incorporating eye tracking, using a machine that measures where subjects are looking. What the eyes are drawn to can be a powerful indication of what a consumer plans to buy, Cian said.

When he’s not teaching or diving deep into research, Cian said he likes time away from a screen, driving fast — “within reason” — on mountain roads, watching science fiction movies or working in his yard.

“I find working in the yard very relaxing,” said Cian. “When I do research, there are months that I don’t see humans and it is just me and my computer running statistics. I miss doing something with my hands — something very corporeal.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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