Esther "E.T." Franklin

EVP, Managing Director Strategy and Cultural Fluency at Spark Foundry

By encouraging marketers to embrace an "inside-out" perspective, Esther "E.T." Franklin has helped iconic brands – and the advertising industry at large – understand the cultural identities and media consumption habits of local and global audiences. Drawing on extensive industry experience across a range of agencies, audiences, and geographies, Esther offers a unique perspective in any situation. Through her spirit of decisive collaboration, future-focused orientation, and innately creative, curious, open-minded, strategic nature, Esther has led several successful corporate "start-up" initiatives. Today, she develops and drives the strategic vision for Spark Foundry and its clients as EVP, Managing Director Strategy and Cultural Fluency. Esther leads her team in the design of the strategic underpinning of growth-delivering, forward-leaning communications approaches that deepen the relationships between people and brands.

As People Change, So Will Our Methods

What is the role of cultural fluency in marketing today? How can marketers become ambassadors and integrate cultural fluency into their daily work? How is this a challenge in the workplace?

The role of cultural fluency is central. We live in a very modern world, where people embrace their culture, heritage, and identity – all of which shape the way people see the world. It is important to understand that each of us comes to consumerism with a lens shaped by our experiences, so in a world where culture is fusing, people are weaving in and out of their own culture, sampling other cultures, and claiming bits and pieces of them as their own. Cultural fluency is a very important tenant in marketing that acknowledges this dynamic and leverages it to design experiences and messaging that is particularly relevant.

At Spark Foundry we have a vast number of Millennials who work for us. Millennials are very diverse and inclusive by today’s definition. They live a life where they enjoy seeing and interacting with other cultures, which is why the concept of cultural fluency resonates so strongly. But when it comes to corporate investment in messaging and advertising, we are seeing a little bit of a lag in efforts that actually reflect and acknowledge a changing constituency. We are pushing our organization to be proactive and bring the conversation of cultural fluency and relevant messaging to the table because we know that it can be hugely impactful in driving growth.

How has your current role evolved since you started? How long have you been doing multicultural marketing?

I have been in marketing for 30-plus years, and the emphasis on multicultural marketing and general marketing has been two separate but complimentary concepts. Over the years, these two concepts have begun to come together, and people have wondered how and why they should be thinking about multiculturalism – is it still relevant in a more diverse world? Our society is more inclusive than ever before, and as a result there could be the thought that we don’t need culturally focused initiatives. In response to that thinking, the industry pivoted from multiculturalism being a separate initiative to a total market strategy. However, many total market efforts missed the nuance and the relevancy that culture brings. Understand, it is not that culture is irrelevant but that the way culture has been incorporated into our unique identities has changed. People don’t want to be defined by race or ethnicity, but they do want to take bits of their heritage, traditions, and customs to represent who they are as individuals, and that is the nuanced difference. We must pay close attention to this concept as advertisers.

How has cultural fluency in marketing evolved in the new era of technology and globalization?

We have evolved from this idea of multicultural marketing to cultural fluency. In recognition of the fact that there are a lot of changes happening globally in the realm of population shifts and because Spark Foundry is increasingly a global organization, international divisions of our company feel multiculturalism is a “US concept” that doesn’t apply to them. We are broadening the conversation when we speak of cultural fluency as inclusive – covering race, ethnicity, religion, age, ability, and gender. In doing so we are then able to recognize communities of people across the globe that come to the table with a different lens and perspective. Understanding these alternative views often illuminates a fresh way to look at voids in people’s lives that brands can fill.

That’s why we have pivoted from multiculturalism to cultural fluency, which allows us to address the needs of our clients no matter where they are. And you can transfer principles grounded in US multicultural marketing to situations anywhere in the world. For example, Sweden is grappling with a large influx of immigrants coming into the country where previously it was very homogeneous. If we understand that as population shifts and people come into new environments they bring divergent influences – their own preferences for goods and services – it’s easier to see how concepts honed in the US with multicultural audiences can be applied more broadly.

Technology allows us to both understand and deliver against audience needs in ever more individual, personalized, specific, and responsive ways. Being a data-led organization, we optimize and model against behaviors that drive impact and growth, while strengthening connections between people and brands.

How do you stay up to date with the ever-evolving changes in marketing and cultural fluency?

We have a process called Heat Wave Mapping. We look at four areas to stay on top of how people are evolving and changing: needs, pop culture, moments, and cultural connectivity. This approach enables us to understand how people’s needs, lifestyle, and relationship with brands are shifting in dynamic times. We also look at pop culture to keep abreast of what’s happening right now that we should be paying attention to and leveraging to keep our brands relevant. Tracking meaningful moments makes it possible for us to best understand what the right time, place, and the right situation is to connect with people authentically. Our vigilance concerning cultural connectivity ensures we incorporate aspects of experiences that shaped people’s lives and their identity into our strategies and approaches. To do so we take a deep dive into the heritage, traditions, and customs that people grew up with and how they shape their view of the world and their relationship with brands. Ultimately, we use that process to track how people’s needs are evolving and changing over time. We are able to input primary, secondary, big, and soft data sets as well as incorporate research studies or include proprietary data tools that illuminate various aspects of what’s going on. We are able to drop that information into this framework that is consistent, and with time it will be easier for us to see how things are shifting in the marketplace.

You mentioned that Heat Wave Mapping is one element of Spark Foundry’s work process. Can you explain more about your overarching process?

Our go-to-market development process is called HEAT; a flexible, dynamic, outcome-based, end-to-end solution development process that guides the way we work and solve for the complexities brands face in a modern world.

We created this approach about two years ago. It is rooted in design thinking, enabling us to address the numerous disruptions we see in the world. Though simple at its core, it allows us to address complex competitive pressures and destabilized environments with new approaches and uncommon solutions to deliver growth. The four stages of HEAT include fuel (context, modern audience definition, and critical KPIs), spark (inspiration and strategy), ignite (design, build, and activate), and flame (validate, learn, and iterate). With HEAT, Spark Foundry can more consistently deliver elevated and effective solutions addressing the geographic and client span we encompass. Additionally, the agency is better able to leverage its breadth of assets and resources to deliver winning solutions seamlessly. HEAT has been rolled out globally across our organization.

Consumers are becoming increasingly cautious of messaging-delivered advertising and marketing efforts. Over the past couple of years, distrust is at an all-time high. How can brands show more authenticity and cultural sensitivity to their target audiences?

Brands recognize that consumers are extremely savvy when it comes to marketing and advertising. Long gone are the days where brands could determine product production, message, and how it would be pushed out to the world. People want to know that the brands they bring into their world have a point of view. Additionally, they want brands to not only acknowledge their contributions, but to reflect who they are authentically and to “get” what matters and is meaningful to them and their communities. Beyond that, I think the most successful brands now have realized and facilitated consumer participation in the process through many creative forms. Brands do such things as making their content more “snackable” so that it is more easily shareable; they embrace consumer feedback and response to efforts that are advertised; they often invite consumers into the co-creation process, so they feel that they have a better pulse on what consumers want and are going to be willing to embrace.

I think brands are doing a better job at understanding and building with currency in mind; value for both sides, consumers and brands. When I talk about currency, I mean that if a brand is going to put forth a proposition – whether it is a product, service, or experience – what is the value exchange? What am I providing? What value is it providing to consumers – reciprocity is key. These questions must be resolved so that marketers have a healthy two-way exchange for the best results.

What is one key takeaway that you would want future IMC professionals to know as we move forward in our profession?

One key takeaway that I would have for future IMCers is to stay “woke” and to stay curious. It is about having an insatiable amount of curiosity because the world is evolving and so is the industry. You have to be comfortable with knowing that you will never know all the answers to everything, but you also have to be curious enough to want to pursue the answers to many things.

How do you aspire to continue to make a change?

My vision still is not realized: that when you look at a campaign, partake of a service, or participate in a brand experience regardless of industry or sector, what you see is what is truly represented in the world. We haven’t gotten there yet. We are seeing more and more of the world as it truly is reflected in marketing and advertising communication, but there is still a distance to go. So, until that gets done, and I don’t think that will be done in my lifetime, I know that there is always more exciting work to do while having fun at the same time.

Interview by Brittany Landry, Medill IMC Class Of 2018

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