The Wroe Alderson Distinguished Lecturer Series

Written by Paul Green and Charles Goodman

For the few of us still left to remember the extensive and seminal contributions of Wroe Alderson, we are gratified that the Wroe Alderson Distinguished Lecturer Series was established. Its awardees exemplify the dedication and insights being brought to marketing by its current crop of scholars. Wroe would have liked the idea of an annual presentation of research perspectives by present day researchers. However, true to his innate modesty and Quaker roots, he would probably have preferred that the series be named for someone else. Or, better yet, for no one at all.

Past Lecturers:

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Wroe Alderson

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About Wroe Alderson

Throughout his long and distinguished career in marketing and marketing research, Wroe Alderson never wavered from his belief that theory and practice go hand in hand. At the time of his death in 1965, Alderson was still active as professor of marketing at Wharton. His fertile mind generated many ideas that in various guises are still part of our discipline.

Wroe’s academic training was spread over three universities: George Washington, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include Marketing Behavior and Executive Action, Theory in Marketing, (with Reavis Cox), and Planning and Problem Solving in Marketing (with Paul Green). He served as past president of the American Marketing Association and was highly active in The Institute of Management Sciences.

From the inception of his business career with the U.S. department of Commerce, Wroe Alderson was deeply involved in the advancement of marketing science both in the business and academic communities. An eminent educator and consultant with truly interdisciplinary scope, he frequently contributed to the thought and literature of other fields. His wise counsel was sought by university presidents, corporate chief executives, and government leaders alike.

Among Wroe Alderson’s many pursuits was heading the internationally prominent marketing consulting firm of Alderson Associates, the establishment of the Annual Marketing Theory seminars, Trustee of the Marketing Institute, founding the Management Science Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and engineering the migration of the famed Operations Research group at Case Institute to Wharton in 1963. Alderson also received the prestigious Parlin Award in 1954.

Some Key Aldersonian Ideas

Heterogeneity of both supply and demand: this notion was a precursor to the subsequent ideas of market segmentation and niche marketing. Increased product variety provides consumers with offerings nearer their ideal points. Firms can strive for differential advantage through product variety.

Organized behavior systems: firms are perceived as ecological systems that grow and adapt to change; each seeks its own niche (Alderson’s functionalism).

Sorting functions: the important role of providing marketing economies through intermediate sortings of goods; the associated principle of postponement was a precursor to the current use of just-in-time inventory control.

An approach that emphasized inductive theorizing from market place events, as a complementary viewpoint to neo-classical theories of firm behavior.

Selected Publications

  • Excerpts from Marketing Behavior and Executive Action, 1957
  • Problem Solving and Marketing Science” – The Charles Coolidge Parlin Memorial Lecture, 1954
  • Alderson and Sessions, Inc. – Description of Alderson’s firm, a “consulting organization with comprehensive research facilities”
  • Golden October Days” – Haverford Meeting, 1960


In order for the reader to get some measure of the man and his thoughts, three excerpts from his 1957 Marketing Behavior and Executive Action book are reproduced here. Each excerpt introduced one of the book’s three parts.

Part 1: Marketing And The Behavioral Sciences
The conception of an organized behavior system is the starting point for the present approach to marketing theory. Given only the elements of power and communication which characterize every group, the system may discharge certain primitive functions and exhibit survival value. All marketing activity is an aspect of the interaction among organized behavior systems related to each other in what may be described as an ecological network. Operating systems are a subclass of behavior systems, distinguished by inputs and outputs and the structuring of processes to achieve efficiency.

The functionalist approach is concerned with the functioning of systems, and the study of structure is essential to the analysis and interpretations of functions. Every phase of marketing can be understood as human behavior within the framework of some operating system. Survival and growth are implicit goals of every behavior system, including most particularly those that operate in the market place.

Part 2: The Theory of Market Behavior
The functionalist approach to competition emphasizes rivalry within and among behavior systems in the search for differential advantage. Negotiation is a major topic in the present view, accounting for what may be called the vertical relationships of behavior systems as compared to the horizontal relationships constituting competition. The treatment of consumer motivation takes the household as the fundamental unit and considers aspects of its structure and functions which determine the course of consumer buying. The discussion of exchange describes four aspects of sorting which produce economies in matching supply and demand. Price is discussed in terms of the uses and limitations of marginal analysis. The possibilities of creative marketing in stimulating demand are considered with respect to such processes as product innovation and advertising. The market transaction is analyzed to show how it has been modified to increase marketing efficiency.

Two general comments may be useful to the student in relating marketing theory to economic theory. Economics starts with certain assumptions as to market organization, while marketing starts further back with attempts to organize the market and to establish the processes of orderly marketing which economics takes for granted. Marketing as well as economics is concerned about efficiency.

Part 3: Executive Action in Marketing
The culmination of marketing theory is in demonstrating its value as a perspective for marketing practice. The management of a marketing operation is first considered in terms of positive control over resources to meet predetermined goals. The principles of management take account of the fact that every operating system is necessarily a structure of power and communication. Next, the element of uncertainty is introduced, together with various approaches to problem solving in reducing uncertainty. Problem solving as an operation employs insight, systematic calculation, and selective exploration. The discussion of market planning shows how planning can become a technical and scientific procedure which can be delegated to staff specialists. Finally, the marketing viewpoint is shown to offer a constructive approach to management policy as a whole and to the reconciliation of management goals and public policy.