No matter how you slice it, Pizza Hut puts global marketing into perspective.
Ask Annie Cui.
In her early days as an academic, Cui, originally from China, was astonished by the stark differences between the mega pizza chain’s stores in her native country and the United States.
For one, Pizza Hut is considered a luxury, upscale restaurant in China.
“When I first heard about Pizza Hut in the U.S., I was so shocked,” said Cui, now marketing chair at the Chambers College. “I remember exchange students from the U.S. visiting China saying that Pizza Hut was just pizza, nothing fancy. But in China, they serve an afternoon tea, and you can wait 30 minutes or longer to be seated. Everything about it is high-end from the environment to the lighting to the background music.”
In other words, if you want to “wow” a date in China, you take them to a Pizza Hut.
Ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs has a similar reputation. In the U.S., it’s a product that can be picked up in nearly any supermarket or convenience store. But in China, it’s an expensive dessert, reserved for the most special occasions.
“In China, you can only get it in a few big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai at its high-end Häagen-Dazs Boutique & Café,” Cui said. “There was a mainstream promotion for Häagen-Dazs, as a cultural symbol, with a slogan, ‘If you love her, treat her to Häagen-Dazs.’ That elevates it to an emotional aspect – another fascinating story about branding.”
And it’s not as if the quality or taste of Pizza Hut pizza or Häagen-Dazs ice cream are vastly distinct between the countries.
Cui asserts it’s all about the marketing, which emerged as her area of expertise.
“I found it fascinating how brands can position themselves so differently across cultures and be successful,” Cui said. “That’s what interests me – the international marketing aspect.”
In the early 2000s, Cui’s quest for education took her abroad to the U.S. in pursuit of a graduate degree at Kent State. She first wanted to major in mass media management. But after spending some time in this country, marketing lured her in.
You can testify to the truly nice people who are here. Everyone makes you feel at home, and that’s the whole concept of being a Mountaineer to me.- Annie Cui
“The core of the magic formula of producing all those global branding and global marketing strategies directed me to pursue a Ph.D. in marketing,” she said. “Marketing is the key to success in any business. If you have a wonderful product, you cannot just put it on the shelf or online and assume people will be drawn to it naturally. You have to get the word out and let people know the benefits and value your product can provide.”
After earning her doctorate at Kent State, Cui began her job search. There was interest from WVU, and coincidentally, West Virginia had already carved out a special place in her heart.
Country roads took her home – even though she’d never set foot in the Mountain State.
“’Country Roads is one of the most recognized American songs in China,” Cui said. “Everyone knows it – my parents’ generation, my generation, even the younger generation. The song always had a special place in my heart because it’s so beautiful, and it makes you feel homesick.”
Cui visited the WVU campus and was instantly sold, joining the faculty in 2008. She credits everyone in the College and her department for helping her adjust in those first few years on campus, particularly her mentor, Paula Fitzgerald, marketing professor.
“You can testify to the truly nice people who are here,” she said. “Everyone makes you feel at home, and that’s the whole concept of being a Mountaineer to me.”
Since her arrival to WVU, Cui has made an impact in the research areas of brand management and international marketing. But her work has transcended research and into teaching and service.
Look no further than her export management class. In this experiential learning course, Cui and her students – a mix of graduate and undergraduate -- work with West Virginia businesses in hopes of expanding their footprint into the international market.
One success is the Fiesta Tableware Company. The family-owned business located to Newell (Hancock County) in the early 1900s and had always had a presence in the U.S. market, particularly in the region. Ask anyone in West Virginia about Fiestaware, and they know exactly what you’re talking about. However, up until recent years, the company recognized its domestic-only approach limited its reach and potential.
That realization came to fruition after Cui and her students visited the factory and saw firsthand how Fiesta operated. Through the class, students helped launch Fiesta products in Mexico.
Worldwide expansion doesn’t stop with Fiesta.
“All in all, we have helped more than 70 West Virginia companies go global,” Cui said. “It’s amazing to see these companies become first-time exporters. They’re realizing there’s a vast market elsewhere, not only in the U.S., and it’s nothing to be intimidated about. We help ease any fears or perceived risks they have of going global.”
Cui works closely with the District Export Council of West Virginia, small business groups and government entities throughout the state in identifying companies she and her students can assist with their international strategy.
Many small businesses are “resource constrained,” she said; therefore they cannot implement the same strategies as larger companies.
“I’ve studied small- and mid-sized enterprises and found it’s effective to find countries that are culturally similar to their home base,” Cui said. “They often find a niche in those markets and are guaranteed more success.
“So this class really is a demonstration of the meaningful impact students can make when given the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with businesses. It inspires me, and other marketing faculty, to incorporate these unique, experiential learning opportunities into our classes.”
Faux is no foe to many consumers
The COVID-19 pandemic altered life as we know it in countless ways. That even includes the market for luxury brands and counterfeit items, as Cui’s recent research indicates.
With the economy and consumers’ wallets taking a hit during the pandemic, the need to buy luxury products dwindled, she stated. People simply did not have the disposable income to splurge on upscale brands of prestige.
Marketing is the key to success in any business.- Annie Cui
Cui found that more and more consumers started purchasing copycat brands – and they did so fully aware that what they were buying was fake.
Everything from phony, knockoff Rolexes to Louis Vuitton bags are increasingly being swooped up as people think, “'Well, I cannot afford the real thing but it’s OK if I buy a fake that looks like it for a fraction of the cost,'” Cui said. “It’s amazing. The last time I looked at the data, the counterfeit luxury business was a $98 billion industry. It’s quite interesting that people knowingly purchase these fake products.
“Combating the manufacture and supply of counterfeits has not been effective,” Cui said. “My research suggests that anti-counterfeiting efforts should aim to reduce consumers' demand for counterfeit luxury products. Brand managers can design ads that highlight the psychological and social risks associated with luxury counterfeit shopping, and trigger counterfeit shoppers’ shame and guilt to discourage their counterfeit consumption.”
Cui’s research and contribution to the marketing academic profession have earned her recognitions within and beyond WVU. In 2019, Cui was named the Kmart Chair in Marketing, and in 2022, she was named the managing editor of the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, the first high-quality general marketing journal to require the pairing of academic research contributions with high potential for application of findings by marketing practitioners.
Leading into the future
In 2022, Cui embarked on a new endeavor within the College as the Marketing chair, replacing Michael Walsh, who is now associate dean for assessment and assurance learning and chair of the new General Business department. Luckily for Cui, the role is not too intimidating as she believes the College has retained its collegial charm since she arrived here in 2008.
“Marketing has grown to be one of the largest majors in the Chambers College, thanks to Michael Walsh’s leadership and our faculty’s efforts,” Cui said. “I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else because of how supportive and collegial our marketing department is.”
One new initiative is the marketing DBA program, spearheaded by Cui and three other marketing faculty, Jody Crosno, Xinchun Wang and Julian Givi, which is expected to roll out in Fall 2023.
“We see that there's a potential market for the DBA program because of our interaction with businesses,” Cui said. “We have a professional sales program, led by David Brauer, that has been successful nationally and there's always inquiries from business executives asking, ‘Do you have a DBA program?’”
Cui also aims for the department to continue delivering quality education to its students and affording them the tools to gain meaningful employment after graduation.
“Our faculty is invested in students’ success,” she said. “One of our newer faculty, Julian Givi, for instance, has led the American Marketing Association student chapter and has brought so many creative ideas. As we are coming out of COVID, it has been challenging to enhance student engagement. He had students set up a table in front of the pedestrian bridge to the PRT to get people involved in the AMA chapter. They got over 120 signups in one day.”
Cui also noted that faculty are now actively engaged on LinkedIn where they connect with students to assist with career opportunities.
Despite her successes and accolades in the higher education and marketing fields, she remains humble and remembers those times she was a student herself.
“Not long ago, it was the 20th anniversary of me entering the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree,” Cui said. “It took a lot of guts for me to come to the U.S. with only two suitcases and everything in the rearview mirror. I’ve had students, including immigrant students, stop me and thank me for sharing my story. Those moments really warm my heart and make me feel thankful that I even get to do this job.”