Ep. 407 – Whitney Dunlap-Fowler, Founder of Insights in Color, on how to Navigate a Successful Career in Market Research

My guest today is Whitney Dunlap-Fowler, founder of Insights in Color. 

Insights in Color, a community for multicultural market research & insights professionals, was founded in 2020. 

Prior to starting Insights in Color, Whitney has held senior roles at Kelton as the Director of Cultural Insights and Added Value as Senior Brand & Cultural Insight Strategist. 

Find Whitney Online:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wmdunlapf/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ATouchofWhit 

Website: https://www.insightsincolor.com/ 

Website: https://www.touchofwhit.com/ 

Find Jamin Online:

Email: jamin@happymr.instawp.xyz 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jaminbrazil

Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaminbrazil 

Find Us Online: 

Twitter: www.twitter.com/happymrxp 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/happymarketresearch 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/happymrxp 

Website: www.happymr.com 


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Jamin: Hey everybody. This is Jamin. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. My guest today is Whitney Dunlap-Fowler, founder of Insights in Color. Insights in Color is a community of multicultural market research and insight professionals and was founded in 2020. Prior to starting Insights in Color Whitney has held senior roles at Kelton as the director of cultural insights and added value as senior brand and cultural insights strategist. Whitney, thanks for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.

Whitney: Thanks for having me Jamin.

Jamin: As always I like to start with a little bit of context about you. Will you please tell us a little bit about your parents and how they informed your current career?

Whitney: Yes, I’m really glad you asked this question. I had to think about this quite deeply. My parents were in the military. Born in Chicago, found each other in Germany while being stationed out there. And I’ve got to be honest, the reason it took me so long to answer this question is because there’s not always a direct link from the military into the corporate world. The military doesn’t really prepare you for that world to how to navigate those spaces but it does, it could prepare you for other things. So I had to move around a lot. Lived in Germany, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and I will say that that particular environment really allowed me to be able to acclimate to diverse office environments very quickly. I became a bit of a chameleon if you will and knowing how to do that in the corporate world is very essential. It does also give you a bit of a sense of urgency for forward movement. All of that moving around means that you’re already on to the next chapters of your life and so I have kind of learned how to push that into my career track. I’m very hungry and a little bit cutthroat when it comes to getting to the next level. And that’s just kind of something that’s been instilled in me because of how often we moved around and moved to the next space, moved to the next home. I move around a lot as an adult and if I can’t move then I’m moving my furniture around. And then finally it definitely gave me an idea of what I did not want to do. My mother used to get up at the crack of dawn and run PT on the hills of Fort Jackson Columbia, South Carolina. And I just thought, “What a horrible life to live in these uniforms and to come back home and put this ponytail on.” And there was just no creative self-expression. And while the military definitely helped to hone my parents and to give them the life that they wanted to give for their children it wasn’t something that I could see myself in. I don’t do well with rules. I don’t do well with behavior norms or things like that. So I essentially made sure to craft my career outside of that militarized space if you will.

Jamin: How did you and your parents navigate sort of this, the delta or the difference between those? Because obviously they were very comfortable with norm or rules, and you fitting outside of that. How did you guys navigate that?

Whitney: My parents didn’t really have an overview on my career. They actually could probably never really tell me anything on how to navigate that world. So I was a very astute, determined child and they pretty much just gave me the freedom to do whatever I needed to do. My twin brother was definitely on the military track and he became a police officer so they could speak a little bit more to what he would expect as far as commands are concerned. But I was a child of my own mind and I went to school, went to college, moved outside the house pretty much, not necessarily with their permission but they kind of knew that I was going to figure out how to live and be successful in this crazy world. So I’m not able to talk to my father for example about a lot of the stuff that I do because he doesn’t fully understand it. But he just loves and supports me so.

Jamin: I’ve been in market research for over 20 years and it wasn’t until recently, I think it was last year my dad finally came up to me and says, “You know I just got this survey. I think I understand what you do.”

Whitney: And to be fair many of my friends don’t understand what I do either. So it’s a weird, we’re in a weird space for sure.

Jamin: What is Insights in Color?

Whitney: Sure, so Insights in Color today is kind of a second phase of something that I started during my time at Kantar Added Value when I led the multicultural practice there. Insights in Color was meant to be a community for market researchers of color and insights professionals of color as well. And it kind of started off in this space of us not having a home. Insights professionals we tend to be grouped into media spaces and media networks and we don’t really have friends in those spaces. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a networking event and they ask me “what do you do?” “I do insights.” “I’m an account planner.” And there’s this kind of backpedaling of trying to find the spaces that I fit in. And I kind of finally got fed up with that and said you know what, we need our own space. We need to be our own data geeks and Insights gurus and really celebrate the things that we do but specifically for people of color entering the space is just even less of a trend. Many of us don’t know about this space and I wanted to bring that to light. So Insights in Color is really meant to start cultivating that community, that network. I worked for a very long time without encountering any other insights professionals of color in my field. I’ve talked with many other researchers who have said the same and we’re really looking to change that phenomenon for future researchers in this space. We want to kind of bridge the gap of connectivity in our space. Often what happens is people like myself we leave the field and become freelancers or independent contractors which creates a void of great mental information that we don’t get to feed back into future generations. And so Insights in Color is meant to be a bridge for that information, but also to really challenge the industry as a whole. We know that the industry was never built for consumers of color or multicultural professionals in this space. Market research was built in the vein of white audiences and to serve white consumers. And unfortunately the research methods and tactics have not completely changed to accommodate the mainstream of today, the multicultural mainstream of today. And Insights in Color is hoping to bring to light some of the tensions that we face in that space and how to fix it.

Jamin: The interview I did with Aaron Burcell on diversity, the role of diversity and the consumer insights team was very enlightening for me because he, as a white male, I’ve basically operated my life blind to the fact that you just stated. And I just kind of assumed, I wouldn’t say that everything was catered to me but I just didn’t sort of question it if that makes any sense.

Whitney: Exactly.   

Jamin: And again, I don’t mean that as it’s a good thing. It’s a very bad thing. I just didn’t have the knowledge to know that I was, what I was seeing through my lens. And in my interview with him he’s a full blooded American Indian, he actually stated exactly what you did which is brands are after the white consumer and the industry is structured in that way. Now he didn’t mean it in the way of maybe some tactical plan but it just has materialized like that. And so in, now I think what you’re doing is, I don’t think, what you’re doing is actually vital because we have to, in, we have- In order to understand data we have to understand the, where the data is coming from and that requires context which I don’t have outside of my, who I represent. And so we just have to be a lot more- And inclusive is accepting in. But I think we have to be a little bit more forceful and seek out.

Whitney: Absolutely. I think it’s, there needs to be a deconstruction of how we work in this space. We are just essentially built to almost kind of reconstruct the same truth over and over again in our field and every now and then we’ll throw in a nuance. Like, “this audience is doing it slightly differently,” as opposed to coming into research completely new and ready to find new instances of insights and aha moments if you will. And a lot of that it’s a multilayers process from insuring that your sample is completely diverse ensuring that the respondents themselves are recruited without biases in mind, with ensuring that the surveys are built with biases, to ensuring that whoever analyzes that information doesn’t come in at it with their own biases. It’s a lot of layers and it’s a lot of unlearning that has to happen in our industry because essentially we’re just perpetuating the mainstream beliefs and things that kind of really appeal to white consumers and every now and then kind of throwing in the, “And black consumers need this as well.” It’s a very segregated approach. It’s how marketing was built and Insight in Color is saying that actually can no longer exist today and it needs to be redone.

Jamin: How are you expanding the knowledge about what market research or consumer insights is as a job function? Do you see us as an industry needing to reach out more downstream or rather, excuse me, upstream into colleges or maybe even into our local communities? Is that how you’re seeing it or is it a different sort of way?

Whitney: So we have three pillars and five initiatives within Insights in Color. Education and buildings those pipelines is one of those task forces. It’s one of the key integral task forces that needs to happen. So definitely speaking with colleges, getting on the radars of even high school students. Thinking about your career path and making a lot more intentional. I tend to find that we just fall into these spaces as researchers because we didn’t know about it before. I, myself wanted to make commercials. That was how I kind of got my exposure to advertising. But if someone had come to me and said actually there’s this whole big brain that happens behind the ads that you see and love and it has to do with insights and research and all of these things and behavioral nuance and science I think I would’ve probably gone through this a little bit more on a direct path and not just accidentally fallen into it because it’s definitely become a passion area of mine. So building those pipelines for sure are necessary. Creating the necessary client connections or sorry, career connections in the field with different agencies and businesses. I’ve had a lot of conversations with businesses looking to recruit from a more diverse sample base. And also just partner with Insights in Color to really understand what they’re doing wrong. We’ve created a diverse sense check tool because of that pipeline gap. I think a lot of people want to solve the solution today but if there’s no one to recruit from we can’t all have bi POC researchers in our back of house, if you will. So creating the tools that can serve in the interim while also bridging the gap to experts in that space to help agencies and brands kind of solve those problems in the interim for sure.

Jamin: So is Insights in Color, it sounds to me like it’s really a network or a location where if you need some cultural expertise and you don’t have it inside of your existing team then this gives you the access to the consultants that can help you understand the data. Is that the gist of it?

Whitney: That’s one leg of it, yes. There’s lots of legs.

Jamin: I did review the Web site by the way.

Whitney: Everything has a role there. There are a lot of freelancers who like myself when after the death of George Floyd we were all getting contacted for work and almost to the point where we couldn’t really take it on. But we had no one to refer the research too so a lot of us also aren’t connected within each other so ideally it creates that kind of interconnected network as well of other black and brown professionals in the space too.

Jamin: Do you see what you started as really mirrored like women in research to some degree?

Whitney: I feel like I can’t speak to that adequately. I tend to work with blinders on if I’m being perfectly honest with you. I’m aware that other companies and agencies are doing things and ideally what will happen is we’ll find a way to all work with each other. I don’t see this as a competition. I see this as a slow change of a very old industry. But I will say that we are a bit more of the middle finger in this space. We don’t really care about the niceties that people are trying to purport to keep up. We want to just, we want to change things from the inside out and that is the angle that we’re coming from.

Jamin: Thank you for the clarity there. Really appreciate it. So when you think about, and this is how I- I’m a sales engineer human being. I don’t know why I’m like that. So I apologize. But whenever I view content I’m always thinking about how the, what is, what do the terms of trade look like. So if you frame that out and you have these various pillars to employ in companies how do you engage with companies? Or maybe another way of saying it is can you give me an example of, obviously not naming clients but a type of client that is, type of client and or job that is ideal for Insights in Color.

Whitney: Sure, so we’ve been having lots of conversations with employer brands looking to get in on this space and to be honest because Insights in Color is still so new the ways in which we can be engaged are kind of endless at this point. The ways that we’ve been kind of building a foundation on right now is just because of the greatest need is with the job board function. We’re putting the job openings on our page and more importantly partnering with brands like Mimconnect who are really built on job board functioning for black and brown people and having them kind of take that, the onus of that work off of our hands in the long-term. I’ve had a conversation with a very well known client the other day who’s looking to post more roles on Insights in Color but who also is really moved by our mission and wants to get involved in different ways so there are going to be programming conversations for our community, talks about what it looks like to be a researcher in this space and what it entails to do that at that company. So it really, the sky is the limit on how these partnerships will evolve. I think that what we’re finding is that everyone wants to be helpful and get in on the ground floor somehow. The easiest way of course would be the job board function but ideally we’re hoping to build those partnerships out to provide some type of programming insights and to help bridge that gap of education and awareness to the future generation who don’t know that this space exists quite yet.

Jamin: That’s awesome so, an immediate way would be if a company was hoping to hire a staff with a diverse angle then they would be able to leverage, they’d be able to connect with you there. And then similarly if people are looking for a job then again, they’d be able to connect. Is that-

Whitney: Absolutely.

Jamin: Thank you. Sometimes you have to draw for, in crayon for me.

Whitney: Sorry.

Jamin: No it’s just how I’m wired. Anyway, so Covid-19’s a real thing. We aren’t going to restaurants, my kids are home all the time, I’m a digital nomad in my own home because I don’t have a home office which is really funny. So how have you been impacted?

Whitney: My goodness.

Jamin: Because you started the business almost the same time?

Whitney: I started Insights in Color at that time, so I actually-

Jamin: That’s what I meant.

Whitney: I started my own company in September of last year. I became my own independent strategist and I was kind of trucking along with Touch of Whit Creative just fine and then we hit COVID and didn’t work for about nine weeks which I don’t know. I was fine. I kind of questioned if I even liked working at some point because I was just kind of watching TV. What happened was as we kind of got used to this life and the pandemic after George Floyd got murdered was again I was getting hit up, asked and being asked left and right for researchers of color and I just didn’t have that at the tips of my fingertips. So I kind of said you know what, this would actually would be a great time to restart this initiative that I’d started a long time ago and do it within the basis of my own company as opposed to a different agency. So on one hand it kind of stopped work for a moment and gave me probably the world a bit of time to breathe but as a black consumer going through this space and witnessing racial trauma it actually created new space and opportunity for Insights in Color to exist with a bit more urgency then if I think I brought it back in any other time period. So it was one of those kind of rollercoaster moments of we’re not working and now we’re actually building an entire new business off the back of it.

Jamin: That’s a lot to chew on isn’t it.

Whitney: I know. It’s a lot.

Jamin: So as you think about this post pandemic or, I don’t even know if you can say post pandemic but kind of the current go forward, what tools, techniques, or methodologies do you think researchers should be cultivating in order to maintain an edge in consumer insights?

Whitney: Here’s the thing. The United States, the population is changing. Everyone knows this. I don’t know why people like to conveniently forget this when we’re doing research. I am a semiotician and cultural strategist and my big push is always to understand the context behind the data. The United States is such a data driven country as opposed to other countries. It’s kind of mind-blowing that we really move in evidentiary measures as opposed to understanding that there’s an art with, that can be grounded with the science. So understanding the context of an idea, a situation, or of a community is really necessary to action, to create action behind the data that we are asking consumers for. I believe that a lot of researchers and marketers believe a little too much about what consumers have to say or they kind of put a little too much emphasis on that and they aren’t willing to step back and contact experts like myself to say, actually what’s the larger cultural situation here. What are the macro forces that are really impacting the consumers of today? What does this look like for my future and what are the things I need to keep in mind? So I just encourage marketers, industry experts to step outside the data that they’re used to getting and step outside their own assumptions and really look for the contextual clues that will help that information live a lot longer on your shelf life.

Jamin: That is so powerful. It’s hard for me to, that’s such a big thing. It’s not like I’m adding another segment with 30 people in it for my studies. It’s a head shift. It’s, we have to think about the way that we’re- The work process of analyzing and delivering insights.

Whitney: Exactly.

Jamin: Do you, why don’t you guys do a podcast?

Whitney: Because I’m one person Jamin. I have two businesses, three pillars, and five initiatives. I can only do something so much.

Jamin: I don’t know. Maybe there’s partnership opportunities for us but anyways. It’s a- It just feels like such a great way to help companies like insight professionals inside of brands understand the real value that can be unlocked.

Whitney: So we offer consultative services in that realm. So I’ve been talking with agencies about how to rethink their research processes for sure. And we have other companies in the network that can do that as well that I made sure to contact just in case I became inundated with requests. So we have that set up on the back end as well for people who are just like, “Where do I start and what do I do?” We have those services for you for sure.

Jamin: That’s awesome. See that’s a really, that would be a really interesting blog post. I know you’re one person but maybe I, maybe we can connect with some of your board members and figure out how to get that sort of thing out there because I would love to read that as a career market researcher. So shifting gears a little bit. The, this particular segment is being, or interview is being, is part of our how to manage a career in consumer insights and so I’ve got to ask this question. What are three tips in managing a successful career in market research and consumer insights?

Whitney: It took me a while to kind of figure this out but I think I have some good ones. I would say get to know the ops side of the business. So the costing, the kind of nitty gritty admin work. I actually started on that side of the business. I was a qualitative field coordinator. I know the cost of everything. I know how things are going to work. I know what recruitment looks like. I know how to think about incentives, etc. And it actually makes me a smarter strategist in the long run so that I’m not suggesting lofty goals and ideas with my clients that actually are not affordable. That’s also really important as we start talking to more multicultural audiences. Listen, multicultural work, work that’s done correctly it costs money and I’m tired of us using these antiquated cost pricing tools based on mainstream, IE predominantly white audiences and what we’re hoping to get from them. If we want to talk about representative sample, representative consumer groups we have to pay for them and that’s just what it is. So the more you understand the ops side of the business, how things work, the admin and how long it’s going to take to do things the better strategist you become. The second thing would be admit what you don’t know. I believe that many researchers tend to start from a space of assumptions. We’re going to come do this project, we’re going, these are the things we know based on previous work that we’ve done with probably predominantly white audiences and this is how we’re going to start the work. Every time I get a research brief especially for semiotics or cultural insights everyone asks me “how are you going to do this project.” And I have to be honest Jamin I never really know because I never know what the results are going to be and I can admit that as a researcher. I’m fine with saying I don’t know what the answers to this are. That’s why you’ve hired me and we’re going to find some really cool solutions at the end of this because I never fail. But coming into a project with assumptions, coming into a project thinking that you know where the work is going to go and the solutions that are going to be created off the backend, that already starts the process of bias in the research. So you have to give yourself space and time to figure out the more nuanced things. And if you find that you aren’t getting them then something is wrong in the way that you’ve crafted that research in the first place. Lastly, I would say speak up and have some cojones. I find that this goes for both internal interactions and external interactions. I used to be in a space where I thought all of the researchers in the room came at a problem with the same assumptions or the same mindset. And it wasn’t until I realized that not saying something actually put us in a detriment that I realized my voice actually adds to this work and I can’t assume that people are coming at this knowing what I know. There are a lot of things that could’ve been prevented had I just spoken up about an idea or something that I knew was inherently wrong despite my seemingly junior presence in that room. So speak up if you have something to say. Don’t, it doesn’t matter if it’s, if you think it’s something that’s not additive, I promise you it’s added to someone’s reality and then more than that with your clients I just have my own type of pet peeves of people who kind of roll over for their clients. At the end of the day our clients are hiring us to be experts and they need to see us as such. Letting your clients kind of jump and move all around you doesn’t make you look like the most capable strategist. It makes you look like someone who’s just willing to do work in the way that your client want you to and that’s just what it is. So I find that the clients who love me love me because I have a particular brand of saying what the case is, what it needs to be. I’m always willing to do the work in the way that they want me to but I’m also going to present the other side of the argument and say this is why it’s wrong but we’ll do it. We’ll do it the way you want to but I’m going to let you know why this is probably not the best way to do it. So-

Jamin: I love all three of those things. I think piggybacking on the last point that you made. The client is coming to us because they don’t know. They can’t do it. And it isn’t just a function of time. It’s the expertise as well and so they want you to assert yourself as an expert. But as soon you start, as you said, waffling or showing weakness then they’re going to get scared and they’re going to start asserting themselves over you and then, and that’s- But what’s interesting is so often I hear well that’s what the client wants or I can’t control this. They want a 50-minute survey, whatever. They’re- The reason that they’re able to pull that off is because it’s not that they want to. It’s just they feel like they have to and it’s up to us to be able to create the data framework for them to illustrate why that’s bad. It can’t just be like I think or whatever. There actually had to be some foundational knowledge on why that behavior is bad. And then if you can approach it that way I think you just did a perfect job, I’m sorry I’m beating the horse here but I see this nine times out of 10 in our space where we’re just trying to quote unquote make the customer happy but we’re actually accomplishing the opposite outcome.

Whitney: Exactly. And I just, I don’t believe in that at all.

Jamin: Last question, what is your personal motto?

Whitney: This was so hard for me to think of. And it’s going to sound really pessimistic and cynical but I think a lot of this is to, it was enhanced as I moved to the op side of the business and did costing facts and figures. But I definitely believe in this idea that believing the worst to be true so that you can be shocked and surprised and pleased when the opposite is actually true. It’s probably a weird way of thinking of life but I like to think about all the ways things can go wrong or the ways that someone can disappoint me so that when the opposite becomes true it’s actually a really nice surprise kind of a thing. That’s just probably my own archaic nature.

Jamin: My guest today has been Whitney Dunlap-Fowler. Founder of Insights in Color. Thank you, Whitney for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.

Whitney: Thank you for having me Jamin.

Jamin: Everyone else please take time, screen capture, share this episode on social media. This is an important topic not just in the way of helping understand how to navigate a career but also to help us understand our own innate biases and ways that we can combat those. I hope you have a fantastic rest of your day.