“Similar to those days studying Shakespeare”: Virginia Russell (T'06) Tackles Consumer Behavior

Friday, April 28, 2017
by Sarah Darwiche, Digital Media Intern

Virginia Russell (T’06) earned a bachelor’s from the Duke Department of English in 2006, and a master’s from the Northwestern School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications in 2007. Russell has worked on the marketing teams of such major corporations as Pizza Hut, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, and Southwest Airlines. Below, she speaks about the literary and psychological analysis that underlies her work, and the multifaceted ways her Duke English degree has stayed with her over time.

What has your work path looked like?

I focused my studies at Northwestern on consumer insights (or market research), which blends big analytics and psychology, and from there was recruited to work in the marketing department of Pizza Hut corporate in Dallas. After Pizza Hut, I spent 6 years at Dr Pepper Snapple Group, a company with over fifty brands, working on the juice and tea sides of the business on brands like Mott’s, Hawaiian Punch, Nantucket Nectars, and Snapple. I left Dr Pepper Snapple for a promotion opportunity at Southwest Airlines, where I’ve been now for 2 years.

In my field, I conduct qualitative and quantitative analysis to uncover spaces of consumer demand in order to help businesses create new streams of revenue or to mitigate risk. This field within business supports business strategy in every aspect including consumer targeting and positioning, new product innovation, loyalty strategy, customer experience initiatives, as well as advertising and communication. Take a product launch as an example: the idea of the new product may have been developed out of insights gleaned from a focus group and then all aspects of that product (concept positioning, packaging, product experience, and product communication) would be thoroughly tested with consumers in order to optimize demand. In some cases in my career, that same type of research has led me to influence teams not to launch a product if we learn that the anticipated demand does not meet our thresholds.

Gaining traditional consumer packaged goods experience at Dr Pepper Snapple was invaluable to me as a marketer. At Southwest Airlines, my career has evolved to focus on loyalty strategy and customer experience strategy. How do we optimize our loyalty program for our top customers? How do we effectively optimize the total customer experience with Southwest while maintaining our lower costs?

How does your Duke English degree relate to your work now?

A large part of my success in business is contingent on my ability to communicate a large, complex amount of information in a concise, simple way. With this in mind, I leverage my English degree every day.

I focused my time at Duke studying Shakespeare, and it actually goes pretty hand-in-hand with what I’m doing now, because Shakespeare didn’t have a lot of stage direction in his play; one always had to interpret the intent of the characters, as well as the play as a whole. That’s similar to how I sometimes interpret focus groups. In addition to listening to consumers, I’m watching for tone and body languageat what those actions really mean and what consumers say versus what they mean. In my work with statistics, I’m looking for stories in data that may reveal unmet needs.

Just as I sought to understand the psychological narrative of a Shakespearean tragedy, I am seeking to understand large-scale psychological narratives that influence consumer trends and behaviors.

What was your favorite course at Duke?

As I mentioned, I ended up focusing much of my time in my English major on Shakespeare. I initially took a course on Shakespeare just to fulfill a requirement for my major and even delayed taking the course until my junior year. That required coursework revealed a new world to me, and I proceeded to take as many Shakespeare classes as I could before I graduated.

I became fascinated by not only the language or historical context in which he wrote, but especially by the characters and analysis of character motivation or identification of stock characters and their purpose in the play being studied. My favorite Shakespeare class was taught by Professor Laurie Shannon, who has since left Duke to chair the English Department at Northwestern. Professor Shannon taught me how to write for impact. We were analyzing complex texts and yet some of our assignments were limited to a paragraph. These were the hardest assignments.

I learned under her guidance to make every word count and this is skill that is asked of me every day in business. In my work, similar to those days studying Shakespeare, I am analyzing and synthesizing complex information and packaging that information into concise and hopefully impactful presentations in order to achieve alignment from executives on recommendations that affect business strategy. While the connections between market research and business strategy to Shakespeare aren’t intuitive, I leverage my Duke degree each day by analyzing what motivates consumer behavior and then communicating that analysis through storytelling that influences strategy.

What advice you would give to Duke students considering or currently pursuing a Duke English degree?

I think given that I landed in my career in a nonlinear way, I would say: do not be afraid to study the texts that interest you the most. Don’t worry about the fact that there’s no obvious correlation between diving into Joyce and ending up in business or in law. Study what you’re passionate about and the rest will fall into place. It’s the skill sets you get when studying something that excites you that will stay with you the longest.