As vice president of consumer insights and business strategy at BET, Carol Cunningham brings more than 20 years of research experience to the table. She joined the media giant BET in September 2007 and currently leads all aspects of consumer insights, trend-spotting, questionnaire design, and primary analysis for qualitative and quantitative research studies.
Carol is the architect behind a number of landmark studies, including “African Americans Revealed”, “Reel Facts—Everything You Wanted to Know about African American Movie-goers and Streaming Media”, “Inside the African American Millennial Mind”, and “Brand Love 2015”.
Before joining BET, Carol served as head of strategic research for Scripps Interactive (HGTV, Food Network, GAC, DIY, and Fine Living). Her responsibilities focused on brand and media engagement, emerging technologies, streaming media, and custom research special projects.
She also led all affiliate strategic initiatives for A&E Television Networks and ESPN, and served as head of research for Univision, Fox, and NBC Universal affiliate stations. In addition, she served as director of syndication research for MGM United Artists.
In 2013, Carol was honored with the MAAX Award for Research Executive of the Year and a 2015 Next Generation Market Research Disruptive Innovator Award (Individual Achievement).
In this week’s edition of Executive Insights, Rudly sat down with Carol Cunningham to understand her research journey – growing up as a kid in Miami, attending college (Syracuse University) in one of the coldest places in the country, and her continuous passion for consumer insights.
It’s 2015 and you have the superpower to predict what’s going to happen in 2022. What would you do differently, and what advice or recommendations would you share with others?
I would focus more on understanding consumer behaviors and consumption patterns, and really delve into the fandoms that exist in all aspects of content, digital, and social; those are the markers that are driving completing the user experiences in our multi-verse. The advice I would give to others is to really probe data science and make sure that those data points have dimensionality. Don’t just rule by data, but make sure that there’s depth where you’re understanding lifestyles, motivations, drivers, values, aspirations, and inspirations, and that you’re evaluating the intimacies of who these consumers are, why they matter, and the impact these BIPOC communities bring to rich, contextually relevant learnings.
How has your relationship with customers and employees changed in 2021 in comparison to past years?
The focus coming out of these social justice demonstrations and the pandemic that we’re currently in the midst of changed the dialogue on Black consumers – with regards to their impact, significance, and igniter/catalyst/trendsetter/advocate tendencies. I’ve elevated my vision, customer engagement, and innovative disruptive strategies for multicultural consumers (and created a brand bravery blueprint) that can help brands see these consumers and understand the construct of chase/value criteria that exists between brands and their engaged customers
What is the first thing you do before you start your workday routine?
I make sure that I have a moment of reflection that’s grounded in song, meditation, or prayer (whatever genre appeals to me at that moment). I do these things because I feel like it helps to ground me and prepare me for whatever the day will bring.
What do you like and dislike about working remotely or from home?
I love being able to work without constant interruptions, but, what I desperately can’t handle is the absolute isolation that this pandemic created during the shutdown.
What is your learning style and how does that impact your decision-making?
I consider myself someone who soaks up knowledge and intel. I’m an avid reader, and, to this day, I feel these aspects make me a strong data analyst, visual storyteller, insights strategist, and someone who places a premium on heightened experiences (experiential).
What was the most formative (life-changing) experience of your career?
Attending Syracuse University and being surrounded by so many opinions, mindsets, and thought processes at the Newhouse School shaped me in ways that I didn’t realize until a few years ago. That environment cultivated a richness of thoughts and allowed me to understand my role, contributions, and ability to really understand consumer
What hobbies and interests outside of work have indirectly benefited your career?
Tennis, music (I’m an avid listener that embraces practically every genre), and art and culture.
What is your definition of success?
Doing what you love doing so that it doesn’t even feel like work; I live for being stimulated and remaining highly curious about all aspects of consumer behaviors and insights. Success means being enamored with what I do every day and knowing that I can tell that story in a powerful and resonating manner. When I win in this realm, I count that as a ‘real success’.
Has there been a time where you trusted your instinct over data to make an important decision? If yes, why? If no, why not?
Yes, I believe in gut instinct allowing me to know what’s there – I’ve made some of my best decisions by swimming in the grey, because black and white data will always be there. I dive down to the bottom of the pool and let that instinct guide my travels.
How do you deal with failure?
I learn from failures and use them as lessons learned. I can’t beat myself over a failure or obsess about it because it robs me of being my authentic self – but, those failures sustain me and strengthen my resolve.
What kind of people are in your inner circle that propel you to succeed? What characteristics do they hold?
My sistah/brothah souljahs keep me going because they’re smart, interesting, culture-curious, and love to discuss anything and everything. They challenge me to be better and drive me to always be innately interested in every aspect of my life (good and bad.) These folks are supportive, love to laugh, and through the years we’ve become family to one another. If I need advice, they’re available to listen and really hear what’s happening. They’re in this industry in different aspects and because of that, I can see things from every vantage point.
What books would you recommend that shaped your outlook in your career and/or in your life in general?
The Like Switch by Jack Schaffer, PhD, Lead With a Story by Paul Smith, and Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Waynerchuk.
How did you get started in the industry?
My internships catapulted me into research and insights – Who knew that having this internship at WTVJ- Miami would launch me on my way to being insights-intuitive!
What is the biggest misconception about your industry?
That it’s absolutely fun 24/7 – It’s a business and sometimes the decisions that are being made center around those aspects that aren’t always fun.
What do you see yourself doing in the industry 10 years from now?
Running my own disruptive, innovative, and insights-driven consumer engagement company for BIPOC communities based on brand bravery.
How do you stay on top of the latest industry trends? What kind of media do you consume? Are there any media you try and avoid?
I’m invested in everything on any multi-platform; I stay focused and am willing to try anything and experience anything. Podcasts, books, TV, movies, writing practice surveys just for fun… If it’s entertainment, I’m down for it and ready to engage with it wholeheartedly. I don’t avoid too much but our last administration has turned me off to fanaticism/craziness/Karens & Kens That’s where my cancel culture kicks in strongly.
If you owned a house that needed a lot of updates, would you rather tear it down and build a brand-new house from scratch or remodel the existing house, preserving some of its original charm?
I’m into renovating and remodeling because that charm is what I fell in love with, but, I’m not against modernizing, refreshing, or reimagining the possibilities.
If you could step into my shoes, what would you have asked yourself that I didn’t?
I don’t know. These questions really stretched me and challenged me to think about outlook, my personal philosophy, and how I immerse myself in my insights, data, and research.
As our interview comes to a close with Carol, I come to realize the significant role that family and culture played in her life: Her mother is Cuban, her grandmother was Bajan, and her grandfather was Polynesian. However, her grandparents lived and met in Cuba. Carol’s father was from Honduras, but all of his family is from Jamaica. It is that blend of Caribbean and Latinx background that contributed to her success and her understanding of multicultural consumers. Growing up in a no-nonsense, direct communication, and tough love environment also prepared her to handle challenges in the boardroom.
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