Whitney Dunlap-Fowler shares her expertise in integrating cultural insights into consumer research. She discusses working with brands as a freelance strategist at Touch of Whit Creative, emphasizing the significance of understanding broad cultural forces and specific multicultural nuances influencing consumer behaviors and preferences. We also discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by AI and the importance of gaining broad skillsets in the market research industry.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: As a researcher, I am able to encounter things on a daily basis and these little thought bubbles come into my head of “Oh, maybe this is the future of this idea,” “Maybe this is the future of this topic,” or “I wonder if this is a trend,” but it takes time to see where it might be going.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Market research is a tool brands can use to understand the size and potential of consumer categories, buyer preferences, and behaviors, directly informing their marketing and advertising strategies. Research involves collecting and analyzing data about target markets and competitors. Introducing cultural insights into this process can significantly enhance research design, leading to more nuanced consumer responses. Well, our guest today is an expert in applying mixed research methods to ensure that marketing strategies are culturally relevant and resonate with target audiences. Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a brand strategist specializing in cultural insights, semiotics, and strategic foresight. During her 15-year career, she’s worked with leading consumer brands, including Target, Sephora, Cartier, and ESPN, among many others. Whitney previously co-led the cultural insights practice at Kelton Global and played a pivotal role in brand strategy and cultural insights at Kantar Added Value. She holds a Master’s in Media, Culture, and Communications from NYU and founded Insights in Color, a network for multicultural market research professionals. To discuss her work as a freelance strategist and market researcher, I’m delighted that Whitney is joining us today from New York City. Whitney, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
Adrian Tennant: Well, as I mentioned in the intro, you’ve worked in market research and brand strategy for quite a while. How did you enter the consumer insights industry?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Yeah, so like many people, I think, who are in this field, I fell into it. I started off wanting to make commercials out of high school after a short-lived art career, if you will. I really got into commercials and jingles and had a background in administrative work. And I found myself after some years, moving to Chicago – because I Googled where advertising firms were – I moved to Chicago, hoping to get into advertising. I did not. I had a really strong administrative background, however. So, after Chicago, I moved to New York, seeking the next chapter for myself. And I started as a qualitative field coordinator, which used a lot of my administrative experience, planning, organizing, project management to cost for qual costs, both domestically and internationally.
Adrian Tennant: Well, you were at Kantar Added Value for six years, progressing from Project Coordinator to Senior Brand and Cultural Insights Strategist. Whitney, can you share some of the projects you worked on that you feel advanced your career as a cultural strategist?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Sure. Well, in our field, it’s not necessarily typical for someone to move from the operations side to the client side. So I had to prove myself a bit at Kantar to say that, “Yes, I know I started in the background and doing a lot of these costs. But I can also do client work.” And so when they custom-made a position for me as a senior strategist and a cultural insight strategist, I was able to touch a lot of projects with the goal of kind of accelerating really quickly. And one project that had just about everything you could think of in it, was a project for Bush Brothers. Kantar Added Value had a very longstanding account with that client, and they were undergoing a repositioning project. We had every methodology in the book for that particular project. And so what we did was, Qual, Quant, Brand Identity, Character Lab, which was how we found the character tone of voice for the brand. We also did, semiotics, which was my first time touching semiotics and we also did a bit of a brand strategy backend work. So it had everything in it. I was a junior strategist alongside a very senior VP who made sure to bring me in on every aspect of that project and we kind of worked side by side and that’s what really got my learning chops into the space.
Adrian Tennant: Could you just tell us a little bit more about what a character lab is?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Yeah, sure. So back in the day, Kantar Added Value had a character lab offering, which was based on Carl Jung’s 12 character archetypes. So essentially we had clients do a bit of an internal survey, kind of a picture activity, and we also had consumers do the same thing. And the goal here was to see where the archetypes matched up, who the clients thought they were versus who consumers thought they were. And we used that kind of character lab activity to really isolate tone of voice, visual imagery, and create the brand identity to some extent.
Adrian Tennant: After Kantar, you were the director of cultural insights for Kelton Global. Were there some standout projects you undertook during that period?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Absolutely. So my transition to Kelton Global was me trying to be an expert in one space versus the three spaces that I took on while at Kantar Added Value because there I was a brand strategist, a cultural strategist, and a multicultural strategist. At Kelton, I was able to hone in on my cultural insights expertise, and really, lean into semiotics in a very strategic way. I was able to expand my expertise there and have the teams really think of semiotics and cultural insights as a strategic play versus as an insights play. And in that realm, we were able to get some really great meaty brand strategy projects. And one of the ones that I will probably forever love would be the work that I did for Cartier. I did Cartier’s North American brand strategy project, and it was the first time they had ever done anything like that. And I was able to hold their hand and kind of walk them through the process. And in the end, just became really great friends with the lead client VP on that project. Now, I worked with the team, of course, but I ended up leading that project a bit more than I thought that I would. And I think that that project just told me or showed me given the client hadn’t done this work before I find that I have a sweet spot of speaking the client language and making sure that they understand that I am there for them to accelerate at their jobs and to make an impact within their own organizations.
Adrian Tennant: Today, you freelance under the banner Touch of Whit Creative. Now, do you work mostly with brands or with agencies?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: So I work with both. Sometimes agencies hire me as a kind of white label – I work under their name, if you will, or sometimes they will spotlight me and call me the strategist or the specialist, depending on how they’ve hired me. And that is both research agencies. and creative agencies who need the strategist on hand, for their creative outputs. But I also work directly with clients, and they contact me as they find out about me as well.
Adrian Tennant: What kinds of services do you offer clients?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: I have continued in the vein of doing a little too much and offering things within the three verticals that I was working in at my original job with Kantar Added Value! So that’s going to be: brand strategy, brand positioning, brand architecture, brand identity, brand voice work. It’s going to be cultural strategy and that is a little bit more semiotics-focused. That is also quite trends-focused and also a focus on cultural shifts and how the culture is shifting here and there, if you will, so that clients can understand what consumers are doing. And then there’s multicultural strategy, and multicultural strategy is specifically different because it focuses on ethnic, identities and multicultural groups within that realm.
Adrian Tennant: Could you explain a little bit more about what cultural strategy is?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Everything I do is grounded in culture. And I think what I find is that a lot of insights that’s given feels a little bit removed from the larger cultural conversation. So, clients that only focus on consumer insights or consumer surveys or qualitative responses, they don’t always take in the full picture of the invisible forces that are impacting consumers on a day to day. A consumer can say, “Well, I bought this shirt because I liked it,” but he or she may not be able to articulate the larger forces that impacted the fact that what they purchased was actually sustainable or the color green or whatever that might be. So when we think of cultural strategy, it is bringing in the larger cultural conversation or the larger cultural forces that are also at play that are impacting and shaping the perceptions, behaviors, and decision-making habits of the consumers we so desperately want to connect with.
Adrian Tennant: And that is quite different from multicultural strategy, which is often a term we get maybe mixed up with cultural strategy, right?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Yes. And I think in America specifically, the reason is because for whatever reason, if we looked at the semantics of the word “culture” over time, the word culture has come to signify non-white But the truth is there is an overall American culture, just as if you were to go to the UK and say, “Well, what’s the UK culture,” you know? And in the United States, culture has become synonymous with ethnic identity, but in research, it can be two different things. Culture is a bit of the larger bubble that we are all exist in, and which we collaborate to make American culture what it is, and to have those things that America stands for, you know, pride and individualism and self-expression and identity. Whereas multicultural strategy is more specific to ethnic groups and the things that they, do that might be a little bit different or more culturally nuanced, that sets them apart from the larger American culture. So multicultural strategy is definitely going to be focusing on the consumer habits and behaviors of Black consumers, Hispanic or Latinx consumers, Asian consumers, and so on.
Adrian Tennant: As you’ve mentioned, you include semiotics in your research offerings. Whitney, I’m curious: How do you integrate semiotics with other types of research in your work?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Well, first of all, I love semiotics I call it decoding – that’s kind of what it’s known in our industry of a particular term, concept, idea, image, visual, whatever you want to call that, that needs to be fully understood in various ways, right? And so we use semiotics, in innovation work, to inspire thinking, to understand emergent trends or to, see where the saturation in a marketplace may be. In my projects, if a brand is hoping to, let’s say, refresh this brand positioning, and they’ve settled on the idea of happiness. They might say, “Well, our positioning is happiness, but the truth is we don’t know what happiness means today. And we don’t want to have our messaging be filled with smiley faces or emojis,” if you will. They might come to me and say, “Whitney, can you decode happiness?” And maybe they want to do it across the world, right? So what does happiness mean in the United States versus what it might mean in Brazil? It’s my job to extract and extrapolate all of the meanings that can be associated with that idea. And more specifically to point the client to emergent expressions of that idea. And I can say, “Hey, this is the happiness of the future. If we’re going to do some brand marketing or messaging, we might want to look at these more emergent expressions or ideas of this phrase so that we can make sure that our messaging stays culturally relevant beyond today.” We also do semiotics for packaging. So what does the shape of a bottle mean? What does the color of the packaging mean? How has it shifted or changed? What are newer, more emergent, examples of that shape or color? And so on. So it can be used in various different ways.
Adrian Tennant: All brands are interested in keeping up with ever-evolving consumer trends and identifying opportunities in their markets. What’s your advice or approach here?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: A lot of times, clients will come to us and say, “Well, we need to understand what’s happening in our category” or “We need to understand maybe what’s happening in adjacent categories.” So maybe we can pull from that as an inspiration. I did a project once about decoding trucks where a client really wanted to see, “Well, what do trucks mean today? How are consumers perceiving them? What are all of the meanings that can be associated with trucks?” And in the United States, right, going back to that idea of American culture, trucks are really embedded in the foundation of what America is and what America stands for. And this client was trying to connect with younger consumers that may not see the things that we attribute to American or patriotism the same way. So they wanted to understand the landscape of trucks, and that included the shapes of trucks, the messaging that they produce, their slogans, their logos, and things like that. I also suggested that we bring in adjacent categories that kind of sit in the same space as trucks, because from that, we can learn where other spaces are moving towards. We can see the larger messaging landscape. Too often clients think, “Well, my consumer wants a truck. And so that’s all they’re looking at.” But the truth is they’re bombarded with messaging from cars and motorcycles and anything else that travels, right? And even though a truck may not operate in the same way, those messaging ideas are appealing, right? And so maybe they’re doing something really interesting in the world of motorcycles that they might be looking for in the world of trucks. You never know. Because as consumers, our landscape is quite crowded, and quite involved, and we’re never only looking at one category or topic at a time. A semiotic landscape analysis of competitive spaces can help us identify where those saturation points are, and specifically where the white space opportunities are.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
Each month in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, the Bigeye Book Club features books by industry thought leaders. Our featured book for February is “Sustainable Marketing: The industry’s role in a sustainable future,” by Paul Randall and Alexis Eyre.
Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Whitney Dunlap-Fowler, a freelance brand strategist specializing in cultural insights and semiotics. Of course, a common challenge for researchers is engaging quantitative survey respondents and qualitative focus group participants in ways that deliver truly insightful and creative feedback. Whitney, how can cultural insights inform research design?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: So, within my practice, I offer a bit of a sandwich approach. Sometimes, clients come to me for semiotics or just insights in general. And I will encourage them to take a step back because often we think we know. everything about a topic that we’re investigating, but sometimes we don’t. So, in those instances, I will suggest a cultural context analysis. And we use those really to ask better questions with our consumers. Many times, clients have come to me and said, “We need consumers to tell us the history of this topic,” or where they think it’s going or the future of it. And I’ll say, “Unless you’re recruiting lead gen consumers, they’re never going to be able to tell us that, you know?” And I suggest that maybe I do the work beforehand so we can understand a category, its evolution, where it’s going, and where it’s headed. And then we can use that information from this cultural context report to really think through questions for our consumers, and more specifically, not waste our time, right? We really want to get what we need to get out of those sessions, which are going to be the more personal encounters with the idea that we’re examining. But if it’s about history, if it’s about understanding the evolution of a thing, then I can do that work for you. And I can even propose different questions and ways to ask consumers when it comes to the consumer engagement piece. An example of cultural context analysis that I’ve done in the past is for a brand that was really keen on keeping its legacy in the hip-hop space. It had a long legacy in that space, but as with most brands, people change ships, right? The original strategists for that brand were no longer there and that brand had a relationship with hip-hop going, you know, decades before. And so this client really needed to understand, “Well, why are they in hip-hop space? And why is hip-hop so important, and how has it changed over time?” And what does that mean for the future of their brand? So I did have a bit of a history in the evolution of hip-hop for this particular product. And what we did was we use that information to understand authenticity for consumers with regard to how they can connect with them in a way that doesn’t feel trite or, inauthentic.
Adrian Tennant: Thinking about the future of cultural strategy and semiotics, do you foresee artificial intelligence impacting how you conduct research or deliver the insights?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: So I will say this: I actually do not like AI, but we are on an inevitable journey to interact with that. And I’ve started to wade my feet in the water. And so, you know, I think we’re already seeing how AI is helping us get consumer insights a little bit faster than before. Within my work, I use it to help me do scoping. A lot of what I do is taking in a lot of information, and I mean a lot of information. To be a cultural strategist, you have to be aware of the news, the politics, the economy, the trends, what brands are doing, what they’re not doing, and the innovations happening in other spaces and other marketplaces. So you’re kind of constantly reading. I think AI is going to be a great tool to pull all of that stuff together for you. So instead of Googling many things over time, it’ll create a faster way to grab that information in one place, and then we can use our human brains, if you will, to decipher what that means and what applications that information will have for sure.
Adrian Tennant: Are you using AI as a research assistant at this point?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: I am, and let’s be clear – I still like my old ways, but sometimes clients want things faster than my research hands can provide them. And so I use AI. There are different AI trend reports, outlets, or different AI search tools, and by coding in the right things, it can point me in the direction of things that maybe I hadn’t thought of a little bit faster, versus me finding it on my own time. So that’s how I’ve used AI so far, and I’m pretty sure that will continue to evolve, but I doubt I’ll ever get to the point where AI is writing my reports for me. It’s more so that it presents the information to me, I guess, like a research assistant. And I use my brain to decide what that information is going to do for me or for my client.
Adrian Tennant: Of course, traditionally, being a research assistant was a way into the industry. So, with that in mind, if anyone listening is considering a career in market research, or just entering the industry themselves, what advice would you give them?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Yeah, our industry suffers from not being well known but also being quite familiar when you tell someone about our space. And so I’ve found that once individuals have touched this space at least one time, they really love it. And I would say the advice is to start as broadly as possible. Traditionally, our industry has built people up in silos. You either do qual, or you do quant, or you do brand strategy. And I think, there’s no room for silos anymore. There is a desire for people to be able to do both or multiple things at one time. And more than anything, our industry is definitely a “figure it out to find out what you love” kind of space. And if you pigeonhole yourself a little too early in your career, you’ll never be able to expand to other aspects of what we do – and we have an entire world of things to do in market research – and so you may never find exactly what you love. So, I’d say start broad before becoming niche and deciding what you really want to focus on.
Adrian Tennant: Excellent advice. Well, in fact, to assist in spreading awareness of the market research industry, in 2020 – that was an interesting year! – you founded a network for multicultural market research professionals called Insights in Color. What prompted you to create the network?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: 2020 was an interesting year! In fact, Touch of Whit had only been in business, at that point, for six months. But we were facing a pandemic and business had come to a drastically slow pace. But what happened was with the death of George Floyd, I was increasingly contacted by brands and research companies seeking to hire Black or Brown researchers. And more specifically, they were asking me if I knew any. And the truth was I didn’t. I had worked in the research industry for, I think, at that point, ten years. And just like everyone else, I had worked with mostly white colleagues. I had no opportunities to really meet or connect with other Black or Brown researchers, or at least not that many. And so I got that question so often that finally I said, “You know what, what if I kind of brought Insights In Color to the public?” Now, the background on that is insights and color had already been developed. It was a recruiting initiative for Kantar Added Value while I was working there. This was when I got the title of North American Multicultural Strategist for Kantar Added Value, and I was taking the place of my mentor, Stephen Palacios at the time. I had a different point of view on how we should conduct that space where Stephen was specifically tasked with earning and winning projects, I was still quite junior. And I was thinking like a younger person where we needed to get more people at a lower level interested in this space so they could actually do the work. And I wasn’t tasked with getting clients like Stephen was because he was a VP. I was a project manager at that point. So when I started it at Kantar Added Value, it was more of an awareness initiative saying, “Hey, did you know about this space? Did you know about Kantar Added Value? We actually do multicultural work every now and then. Consider this as a place of interest.” When I left Kantar Added Value, those initiatives kind of died or went away. But, in the summer of 2020, when I started getting all of these questions, I said, “Why don’t I just bring this back and we can figure out a way for these companies and brands to get in contact with Black and Brown researchers who are not all just me?” And I say that because the requests were overwhelming and I was more than willing to share the contact experience, you know? And so we started by building what I call a researcher gallery wall of just submitting pictures to say, “This is what researchers look like. This is how you can contact them.” And it exploded into a larger initiative of multicultural and inclusive needs within the marketplace, within the landscape, if you will.
Adrian Tennant: When discussing potential topics for this interview, you mentioned that being a researcher who identifies as Black can present some challenges. Can you explain?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Yeah. So, like I said, I worked on the agency side for 10 years and I’d say within that 10 years, I only really touched multicultural work the last two. And so that means that I have a wide depth of information in me that can be utilized for all types of work. However, because I am a Black researcher, and possibly because I started Insights in Color, people assume that the only work I do is multicultural work. And I’m very much a person who is passionate about my field and I would say, a bit of a creative. And if I’m working in a space for too long, I get quite bored with it. And being asked for one thing over and over again, it’s really just not my cup of tea. Now, that could be brand strategy. It could be semiotics. And in this case, it’s multicultural work and multicultural strategy. I think what makes multicultural work specifically different is there is a large amount of emotional labor that has to go along with it. We’re not just delivering insights. A lot of times there is a bunch of handholding and a bunch of tone police happening – making sure that the receivers of this information are not offended by what they learn about the consumers they’re trying to connect with. And that can be quite mentally and emotionally draining. And so I like to call multicultural projects and even semiotic projects, my desserts. When you’re eating a meal, and you’re supposed to be eating that nice savory meal, the vegetables and the meat and everything like that. I have a sweet tooth. I’m always looking for the cake – and I love cake! So when those products come along, I like to call them my dessert, but too much dessert can give you a tummy ache, So I just say, I like to switch it up and unfortunately for some clients, they’ve only put me in their mind for Black or Brown research projects or requests. And I have to work really hard to get out of that niche for them.
Adrian Tennant: How do you keep your clients engaged?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: So, one thing I love about working for myself is that I have a little bit more me time and I found that working on the agency side, I wasn’t always able to have time for thought leadership. I realized that I had thoughts or not in my head is I literally had no time to write anything to explore any concepts that might’ve come through. And, I don’t know about you, but as a researcher, I am able to encounter things on a daily basis and different people. And these little thought bubbles come into my head of “Oh, maybe this is the future of this idea, that maybe this is the future of this topic,” or “I wonder if any other consumers are experiencing this,” or “I wonder if this is a trend.” I’m always on the lookout for trends, but it takes time to be able to look into those concepts, to write some thought leadership up for them, and to see where it might be going. So, the most fun that I get to have is with my thought leadership pieces that, if I’m being honest, I publish for myself. There’s usually a topic that I’m interested in or category that I’m interested in. I like to explore it on my own, and I’ll put together a cute packaged PowerPoint or deck, if you will, and then I’ll circulate it. So a great example of that is I decoded the use of hands, maybe around 2021, 2022. And what I noticed was that there were a lot of diversity initiatives coming through because that was the time to do that. And for everyone, it was that signature, you know, the multiple colored hands put on top of each other as a symbol of unity and togetherness. And I was like, “Why do we keep using hands? What is it with hands?” And so I did this semiotic analysis, actually, of the use of hands in marketing and what they mean, what they could represent, and how they’ve been overused. And it wasn’t really to come to a particular conclusion. It was more so just to say, “This is the landscape of hands and brand messaging.” But my underlying motivation was, “Can we please stop doing the multicolored hand thing for anything that has to do with multicultural diversity or unity, you know?” So, I really get a kick out of what I’m able to write. And what I’m able to think through when I have the downtime to do it. And I promise you there is always a thought bubble circulating in my head. And I really enjoy the fact that I get to share that with my clients. I tend to get a little bit of feedback saying, “Hey, we’ve been reading your newsletters – this is great,” and things like that. That’s really another part of my enjoyment as well.
Adrian Tennant: Whitney, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about Touch of Whit Creative, or Insights In Color, what’s the best way to do so?
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: So, I have multiple websites; if you just want to know about me, you can go to WhitneyDunlapFowler.com. Touch of Whit and Insights in Color, they have their own websites, so it’s literally what it sounds like, touchofwhit.com or insightsincolor.com. Everything is linked to each other, but, just as a reminder, Touch of Whit Creative is the consulting firm. That is where I do actual brand strategy projects, research projects and things like that. Insights in Color is quite simply a diversity initiative and the only thing I can be hired for through Insights in Color is to come talk to your organization about inclusive research standards for your marketers and internal researchers as well.
Adrian Tennant: Whitney, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Whitney Dunlap-Fowler: Thank you so much for having me.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, freelance brand strategist Whitney Dunlap-Fowler of Touch of Whit Creative. You’ll find a complete transcript of our conversation with links to the resources we discussed on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com. Just select ‘Insights’ from the menu. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.